By David Itile
Recent moves by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami, indicate, among other things, a deliberate ploy to usurp the power of the country’s telecoms regulator, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). From directives to orders on issues bordering on regulation, industry watchers fear that any attempt to tamper with the independence of the regulator through unnecessary interference would erode the huge gains recorded by the sector since liberalization in 2001.
From all indications, the Minister’s actions, both in body language and utterance speak volume of a man, who is knowingly or unknowingly undermining the independence of the regulator by giving Executive fiats that will, ultimately, discourage investor in the industry said to be contributing over N70 billion to the Nigerian economy.
Even though the Commission is supervised by the Minister, who oversees the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, under which NCC falls, the Nigerian Communications Commission is an independent body, established by the Nigerian Communications Act 2003, which was enacted by the National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. That independence must be maintained.
The Act establishes a regulatory framework for the Nigerian communications industry and for this purpose creates an effective, impartial, and independent regulatory authority that promotes the implementation of the national communications or, telecommunications policy as may from time to time be modified and amended.
But the Minister’s executive fiat to the Commission in the last few months has given credence to the rumor, suggesting the gradual takeover of the duties and responsibilities of those in charge of the daily affairs of NCC by the Minister.
For instance, an insider source disclosed that the Minister, who is the de facto chairman, Board of Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF), has gotten approval from the Presidency to change the title of the Secretary of the USPF, who reports to the Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC. The idea, according to the source is to expunge the USPF from the NCC.
The source believes that the Minister wants the title changed to the Executive Secretary. Thus, taking away the supervisory role of the Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC. Of course, an Executive Secretary cannot report to an Executive Vice Chairman.
Apart from being subversive, this move is wrong and could be a calculated attempt to take over the control of the intervention arm of the NCC, where 40 percent of revenues coming to the commission are channeled.
If the Minister wants the USPF expunged from the Nigerian Communications Commission, nobody is stopping him. But it is advisable he does so through the regulatory processes and not via policy statements. Regulation is entirely different from the policy. He needs to go back to the Act, do the needful and have it amended.
Again, in a sector that is in dire need of more investors, policy statements such as the recent that data prices should be slashed by fiat is a disincentive to investment. It is like telling investors that ‘your money is not safe here’. Such a statement, if continued, is capable of destabilizing the industry.
All over the world, industries are driven by competition among players. It has never been an arbitrary use of force by the government. The Government does not fix prices; it regulates by ways of churning out innovative policies that promote competitiveness.
Undermining the independence of the regulator by giving Executive fiat, discourages investors into the market. It undermines the Nigerian telecom industry, which has flourished based on the free market initiatives, promoted by the NCC.
Instead of policy statements that appear to be interfering with the independence of the Nigerian Communications Commission, the Minister should get himself busy by addressing some of the teething challenges in the industry. The challenges of multiple taxations, indiscriminate destruction and shutting down of telecom infrastructure are still a major setback for the industry.
The Minister should leave Abuja once in a while and visit some states, have an exhaustive discussion with the governors, who see telecom as a money-spinner. At least, Dr. Omobola Johnson, former Minister of Communications Technology alongside the management of NCC did it by signing Memorandum of Understanding with some state governors. The states, where such MOU were signed according to reports, include Abia, Enugu, Kano, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo and Kaduna.
The outcome of the MOU signed between the former Minister and those state governors were visible, especially in the areas of fiber deployment in those states.
These Ministerial orders will make a lot of sense if only the government has addressed the issues in the industry. The challenges in the sector are enormous. They have to do more with the environment. Those investors who have despite these challenges put their money into the market should not be frustrated out of business as a result of these executive fiats. The minister will do well to help address these challenges.
Nigeria needs policies that will address the challenges of the industry. Nigeria needs a holistic digital strategy that would deliver economic prosperity to its citizenry. Such a strategy should address critical issues such as Broadband Infrastructural development, Digital services, finance, capacity building, and the regulatory environment.
David Itile, an ICT industry watcher and analyst writes from Lagos