It was Nicolo Machiavelli, the renowned Italian philosopher, who said that when you give a high political office to incompetent individuals or those who least expect it, chances are that they may come unprepared and in the haste to prove themselves inflict heavy damage on the system. Of course, history is replete with cases of some individuals who defied this postulation to make a huge success of their unexpected appointments, but the same history has never been kind to incompetent appointees.
In the case of Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, the incumbent Minister of Communications and Digital Economy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, not even his worst enemy could accuse him of incompetence. When his nomination as minister was announced by President Muhammadu Buhari in August last year, I cannot remember even one word of resentment being expressed in the telecoms industry.
But there is a world of difference between perception and reality. As director-general of NITDA, Pantami had performed creditably, accounting for why there were high hopes that he was going to perform superlatively as minister. Industry watchers attribute Pantami’s success at NITDA to the deep level of cooperation he got from Adebayo Shittu, the person who supervised him as Minister. Shittu never interfered in the operations of parastatals under the communications ministry, and Pantami had a field day coming up with innovations that significantly helped the industry and the Nigerian nation as a whole. This perhaps informs why President Buhari decided to promote him to the high post of minister to supervise the entire telecoms industry.
But in supervising the telecoms industry, there are limits set by the law. As a renowned Islamic scholar, it is rather strange that Pantami, by his actions that clearly border on crass overzealousness, seems to be forgetting that he swore by the Holy Qur’an to operate in full concert with the law governing his conduct as minister. He swore with the Holy Book to operate as Minister without fear or favour, and not allow his personal interest to override his decision as minister. But he ended up breaching exactly that by getting his aide to succeed him at NITDA. I am not sure the person whose appointment as director-general of NITDA he influenced is the most competent in the entire telecoms industry to serve in that capacity, with all due respects to the person.
Now Pantami is being accused of waging a proxy war in desperate efforts to undermine Professor Umar Garba Danbatta, the Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive of the Nigerian Communications Commission. The ultimate goal, according to reports already in the public domain, is to allegedly ensure Danbatta’s tenure is not renewed by President Muhammadu Buhari when it ends in August this year.
There are hawks in the centre of power who are clearly not pleased with Professor Danbatta’s penchant for playing by the rule; who are also envious of the unprecedented achievements he has recorded in almost four years as chief executive of the one agency regulating the telecoms industry.
Ordinarily, as a respected cleric, Pantami should draw Danbatta close and partner with him to ensure the industry contributes optimally to the growth of the Nigerian economy. Sadly, in Nigeria, personal interests often override national interests. And those who know Dr. Pantami very well are shocked that he could be involved in any underhand dealing to undermine anyone to ensure the emergence of a lackey as the next Chief Executive if the National Communications Commission.
But in trying to give vent to their argument, those who see Pantami as fighting a proxy war aimed at undermining Danbatta are quick to point to the show of shame that took place last week at the launch of NCC’s new building complex in Abuja. Prince Osuagwu, a respected editor, in a report he published on the matter quoted an eye witness, Mr. Craig Ofor, as saying that “the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy displayed the most shocking, unruly attitude and disrespect for the office of the Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC today at the launch of the digital economy complex. The way and manner the minister was hushing Danbatta while he was delivering his speech was bad enough. It was a total embarrassment.
“At a point, the minister took the microphone off the EVC’s mouth. As if that was not enough, he made the event a show of shame and lack of respect for the office of the President of Nigeria. The Minister broke protocol three times whilst the President, Commander in Chief was seated, to stop the Executive Vice Chairman from reading his speech. He timed him the third time to a point where Professor Umar Danbatta was to mention the achievements of the Commission – the ECC project, Pantami stopped him” he concluded
Personally, I could not believe that a person of Dr. Pantami’s caliber could descend so lowly, but then, sadly, that is exactly what he did. The man doesn’t even seem to know that the NCC is an independent regulatory authority for the telecommunications industry, established by Decree 75 of 1992 and reestablished by the Nigerian Communications Act of 2003. The law saddles the NCC with the responsibility preparation and implementation of programmes and plans that promote and ensure the development of the communications industry as well as the implementation of the Federal Government’s general policies on the communications sector of the economy.
Nowhere in the constitution or elsewhere was it mentioned that Dr. Pantami or any minister of communications has the power to appropriate the functions of the NCC or any other parastatal under the ministry. Of course, the law provides for the ministry to play a supervisory role on the commission. But neither the NCA Act of 2003 nor the federal government’s gazetted Public Service Rules prescribe that the commission should cede its independence to the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy or any other ministry for that matter.
The Act only permits the minister to formulate and review the general policy for the Nigerian communications sector. But then even on this, he could only ask the NCC to do so on his behalf by organising a public consultative process. Even in amendments of the policy, the Minister and the Council shall take into consideration the findings of the consultative process.
The minister is also expected to from time to time notify the Commission and or express his views on the general policy direction of the Federal Government in respect of the communications sector, even though the Commission is not bound to accept them.
The Civil Service Rule is quoted as toeing the line of the Act. In clear terms, the rule in chapter 16, section 2(b) and (c) says: “A Board shall not be involved directly in the day-to-day management of a Parastatal. A Minister exercises control of Parastatals at policy level through the Board of the Parastatal only”.
In his diligent investigation of this serious matter, Prince Osuagwu observed regrettably that “this appears not to be the type of relationship the current minister of Communications and digital economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami and his counterpart in the NCC, Prof Umar Danbatta are reportedly having.
Many industry stakeholders have described their relationship as almost a master-servant relationship which ruins the independence of the commission and erodes the gains made by the sector.
The minister is alleged to be breathing down the neck of the EVC and frustrating him from taking credit for his achievements since becoming the CEO of the commission in 2015. He is being alleged to have compromised the independence of the commission by completely changing the structure and the reporting line of the management of the Universal Services Provision Fund (USPF), a body set up by the NCC to provide strategic funding to take telecom services to rural and underserved parts of the country.
As one of those who expressed deep optimism about Dr. Pantami’s appointment when it was announced seven months ago, it is my hope that the Minister would do all he can to give the lie to all these postulations by ensuring only the right thing is done. He can prove those who believe he is trying to take over the work of Professor Danbatta by allowing the man to operate within the level of independence prescribed by law. Pantami can also prove those who believe he is trying to ensure Danbatta’s tenure is not renewed by spearheading the process that will see to Professor Danbatta appointed as Chief Executive of the NCC for another term of four years.
In spite of these false-starts, I personally believe Dr. Pantami is going to be a resounding success as Minister of Communications and Digital Economy. But he can only achieve that if he always keeps in his mind, the fact that he is a man put there by God to serve all Nigerians, and not a tiny group all out to foist a selfish agenda on the country.
The Minister must bear in mind, the fact that he is superintending over a very sensitive ministry of significant importance to the economy of Nigeria. The telecoms is a serious industry that thrives in maturity and not pedestrianism. Already, what the minister did last week is reverberating negatively on the industry. And what this means is that once such shows of shame continue, the much needed foreign direct investment will be threatened, and the means of livelihood of millions of Nigerians will then be on the line. I am sure Pantami will not want to be remembered as the minister who came and ended up destroying one of few industries working in Nigeria. He must, therefore, get his acts right. He must also remember that it is him, and not those allegedly goading him to go after Danbatta, that posterity will hold to account.
The Buhari Administration should do well to completely stop the practice where some ministers erroneously feel they are entitled to appointing only their lackeys to key positions in parastatals under the purview of their respective ministries. Situations of this kind have happened in some ministries, and if Mr. President allows it to fester, it will end up consuming his government (God forbid) and wiping out its countless achievements.
This article, written by Sulaiman Uba Gaya was first published in the Sun Newspaper