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August 9, 2023

Why is NCC fretting over MAFAB? By Okoh Aihe

Okoh Aihe

Okoh Aihe

IT is not impossible for a regulator to be worried about the health of one of its licensees. There are several reasons for this to happen. It’s either the operator is not performing well in the market place or there could be some backend happenings impairing its operations. For an operator worth its salt, whose activities still wear the badge of some human feelings, there is always every reason to worry about a licensee or even the health of the market generally.

There are no indications that MAFAB Communications is having any such operational challenges or thrust in any situation that should compel the regulator of the telecommunications industry, the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, to begin to make statements on behalf of the operator. Twice in less than two years, the regulator has made statements in support of the operator even if the operator should actually be speaking for itself, just like the other operators. 

MAFAB is an elite licensee of the NCC. You don’t want to agree with me? When the regulator decided to launch the country into the new world of 5G, through the auctioning of 3.5GHz spectrum in 2021, MAFAB was one of the three bidders to dare the field which requires so much investment to operationalise. The other two were Airtel and MTN but based on the bare facts that only MAFAB was coming in fresh, we dubbed the contest a David and Goliath fight, that is, if you have a little Bible history of a rookie fighter, David, who triumphed over a boisterous Goliath of the Philistines. Just like David, MAFAB won at the auction of December 13, 2021, and duly paid the license fee of $273.6m, according to the NCC.

Really, I was happy for MAFAB but waited for the rollout surprises that would come, with the two operators, MTN and MAFAB,  given August 24, 2022 deadline for rollout. Things were working according to plan. The NCC had made money for government and also for itself. But with a little known MAFAB able to shell out that hefty amount for a licence, there was swirling rumour of some money bags who may have a hand in it. Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu was listed as one of them. Remember, he wasn’t President of Nigeria in 2021 and 2022. The rumour had gained traction and was assuming the shape of truth. NCC took preemptive measures.

Two days after the auction, on December 15, 2021, the Commission denied that it had any knowledge that the former Lagos State governor had interest in MAFAB, adding that the auction process was transparent and internationally acclaimed. The statement signed by its then Public Affairs Director, Dr. Ikechukwu Adinde, read in part: “In the course of its routine media review, today, December 15, 2021, the NCC became aware of publications in some online media channels alleging the involvement of Senator Bola Tinubu, former Governor of Lagos State, in MAFAB Communications Limited, one of the winners of the 5G spectrum sold by the Commission in a public auction conducted on Monday, December 13, 2021, at the Transcorp Hilton, Abuja.”

That tendentious statement was overlooked by many, including this writer. After all, so much money had just been made for an economy that needed serious help. The statement really didn’t give me so much worry until another one that was released last week. In the statement titled, MAFAB has launched 5G services in Nigeria, the NCC said: “The attention of the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, has been drawn to some misleading comments on social media which falsely claimed that MAFAB Communications, one of the companies granted Fifth Generation, 5G, licences by the Commission is yet to roll out the service, nearly two years after obtaining a license, and one year after the roll out date. Consequent upon the issuance of the 5G licence, and in line with the roll out conditions, MAFAB publicly launched its services in Abuja on January 24, 2023, and in Lagos on January 26, 2023. At launch, the services were targeted at six cities – Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Kano and Kaduna,” the statement pursued further. 

Trying to understand the above statement only magnified the obtuseness of the December 2021 statement. Why was it ever necessary for the NCC to disclaim Senator Tinubu’s relationship with MAFAB, if any? Tinubu was a private citizen and a businessman and had the freedom to invest in anything, including tomato farming and fried bean cake (Akara) on the way to Osun State, if he wanted, not to talk of a high yielding field like telecommunications. That statement was incongruous and overreaching and communicates very little respect for a Commission which prides itself as independent and transparent in its operations and auction processes. 

However, the most recent statement was the ultimate clincher in frivolity and unwarranted meddlesomeness in matters completely outside the purview of the Commission, if only for ethical reasons. The regulator has no reason speaking for, or defending an operator except there are issues beyond the comprehension of those who think they know how a regulatory agency and the industry should relate. It is true that MAFAB actually launched services. I am aware of the launch in Lagos. But I have asked a few colleagues who attended the Lagos programme whether there was any practical demonstration of how the technology works. There was none. In my neck of the wood, they would always say the taste of the pudding is in the eating. How could there be a launch of technology without any demonstration and there is a subtle push for the acceptance of the existence of such technology? This writer is aware of 5G services by MTN and Airtel respectively, and the cost of each product. I have no information on MAFAB, whatsoever. 

There is nothing wrong if MAFAB is making grand preparation to launch its services. It should be allowed to do so, for the simple reason that 5G deployment is cost- intensive even for existing operators, not to talk of a new entrant who will build from the scratch. What is wrong is the regulator releasing press statements on behalf of a particular operator. This is compromise without measure, it is favoritism beyond the call of regulatory relationships. I will want to suggest there is more information people may have on MAFAB beyond the walls of the regulatory agency and it is only commonsense that they are not pressured to regurgitate them to the discomfort of a company trying to find its feet and even the unsettling of a whole industry. My other suggestion. 

NCC and all the other agencies of government should leave the President alone to face a much bigger assignment that has been thrust upon him. Having already stated that Tinubu is a big businessman and a wealthy man (even his wife said so), what this writer will want to hear is that all his business interests have been consolidated in a Blind Trust where they will suffer no manipulation of power and influence, and insulated from conflict of interest. He will be celebrated for embracing probity, away from a past silhouetted in a welter of controversies.