By Sonny Aragba-Akpore
From August 21, 2019 when new Ministers in President Muhammadu Buhari’s second term were inaugurated, one particular Minister, that for Communications as it was then known, had a vaunting ambition.
Get a strong hold on the sector by annexing its agencies and parastatals for his own purpose.
He had his friends in the Villa who could smuggle in documents and prayers to the President for effortless approvals. He was so powerful so much that he could allegedly over rule Mr.President in several instances through his allies in the Presidential villa. So powerful was he that he held every one spellbound in the telecommunications sector.
He allegedly concocted a memo proposing that the Ministry of Communications be changed to Communications & Digital Economy Ministry, and pronto, it was approved.
He began to run with this, thus enlarging his coast in the economy including dabbling into areas that he knew nothing about.
As a super minister, some of his colleagues revered him for his ‘envious position.’ This went into his head and encouraged his conquest in earnest.
Since 2019, he took over the day to day running of both the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) where he was Director General and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC ) completely taking over and thereby confining the Acts of both organizations to the dustbin of history.
He appointed his Personal Assistant the Director General at NITDA having failed to make him NCC chief executive due to resistance from many quarters to remove the incumbent CEO. So he wove a web around the NCC and its officials and anyone who didn’t fall in line risked demolition.
Thenceforth, his words were the laws through which every thing must be done in the sector.
And so NCC’s plan to take services to rural Nigeria through its Infrastructure Companies (Infracos) for which no fewer than seven companies were licensed for that purpose was allegedly hijacked by the Minister and the programme shoved aside in pursuit of building Data Centres in parts of country.
The former Minister was said to have directed attention to building Data Centres and ICT Parks in some parts of the country practically to frustrate efforts of the regulator to take services to unserved and underserved areas as part of its mandate.
Strangely, no one including industry players could raise any questions about this and the minister had his way.
He then began a move to castrate the NCC further and make National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) to take over NCC’s mandate and become a super regulator of ICT through a repeal of NITDA Act 2007, and enact another Act in that regard.
Though the Minister denied his involvement, he left no one in doubt about his ambitions.
“I had a meeting with the Executive Vice-Chairman of NCC and the Director-General of NITDA and I directed them to work together.
“And there was an agreement that both Acts needed to be amended” he was quoted as saying.
He said that both the NCC Act 2003 and NITDA Act 2007 were obsolete and long overdue for review due to imperatives of new technologies.
According to him, the old Acts did not address the fourth industrial revolution and emerging technologies.
He said: “We are talking about Fourth Generation (4G) Technology and Fifth Generation (5G) Technology today as well as digital economy.
“The NITDA Act was specifically on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, while the NCC Act dwells more on telecommunications.”
Despite the resistance to his ambitious pursuit, the Minister succeeded in getting the 9th Senate approval of the NITDA bill on May 16, 2023. But it failed woefully to get the House of Representatives concurrence for it.That saved the telecommunications sector from an imminent disaster waiting to happen. (More on the machinations later).
The controversial bill may have been the Achilles heel for the Minister believed to be a czar of the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy which began shortly on assumption of office when he advertised his closeness to President Buhari.
Having cleared the ground, he unleashed on the Nigerian telecom industry some controversial and bizarre events and incidents, from which the industry may take a long time to recover.
First, he publicly abandoned the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 that gave independence to the NCC, for efficient regulation of the industry by bullying the board and management of the Commission into submission.
He took over and directed the activities of the Commission, including the handling of distribution of funds for different projects of the commission.
His influence on the government was mind blowing.
In one of his disregard for protocols he embarrassingly walked across the podium from where he was seated with President Buhari, to abruptly stop the Chief Executive of the Nigerian Communications Commission, Professor Umar Garba Danbatta, midway into his welcome address to Mr. President at the NCC Office at Mbora, in full glare of the public, and the media.That was on March 19, 2020. He also asked his media aide to order a particular TV crew out of the auditorium at Mbora, Abuja.
While serving as Minister, he allegedly acquired the title of ‘Professor’ from the “blackmarket “ reportedly a professorial position in one of the Nigerian universities where he was not on its faculty and without the requisite qualification.
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) publicly disclaimed this but he simply shrugged his shoulders and moved on since he was clinically anointed by the presidency.
Also on assumption of office, another drama was witnessed when he confiscated a building belonging to the NCC at Mbora Annex, which he renamed Communication and Digital Economy Complex, and converted it to his office despite the standard bearing of the Federal Secretariat as home to the Federal Government ministries.
His first victim at Mbora was Abike Dabiri-Erewa who he ordered to be evicted together with the agency she chaired, the Nigerian Diaspora Commission. The controversial manner of eviction attracted condemnation for the way he humiliated the lady CEO.
While the industry was counting down to his exit, he had other plans – to force down a bill that would ensure that the industry comes under his control through an ally of his.
In very brazen moves, he allegedly influenced some members of the National Assembly to do the job designed to whittle down the powers of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003, and render the NCC impotent.
Designed as the “National Information Technology Development Agency Act 28 (2007) and Enact National Information Technology Development Agency Act, the bill sought to change Nigerian Information Technology Development Agency, NITDA, into a full blown regulatory agency that is bigger than the NCC, subsume some functions and powers of the Commission, subsume the technical department of the Ministry of Science and Technology, the engineering directorate of the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, and take control of Galaxy Backbone, the government’s agency managing governance infrastructure to become a Super Regulator. He found an ally in the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Information Communications Technology, ICT, Senator Yakubu Oseni.
Oseni convoked a public hearing of the joint committee of the Senate and Reps on ICT surreptitiously scheduled for December 23, 2022, the day that the National Assembly went for Christmas break, in anticipation that only few members of the joint committee will attend to validate the bill as packaged by the Minister and passed down as an Executive Bill. The Senate Committee on Communications, chaired by Senator Oluremi Tinubu, wife of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, and the House of Representatives Committee on Telecommunications, chaired by Prince Akeem Adeyemi, were deliberately blanked from the public hearing and all the proceedings on the amendment bill that had more implication for the telecom industry than ICT.
The plan to surreptitiously host the public hearing was to ensure that the bill got accelerated hearing, and made available for Presidential Assent on December 28, 2022 at the resumption from Christmas break by the National Assembly.
At the scheduled hearing, critical stakeholders like the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, Association of Licensed Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria, ALTON, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria, ATCON, Nigerian Computer Society, NCS, Nigeria Internet Group, NIG, Computer and Allied Product Dealers Association, CAPDAN, Investors, and experts, were not invited, having realized their rejection of the bill in earlier stakeholder meetings.
Some House of Representatives sharply disagreed with Senator Oseni for the short notice, and for showing more interest in that particular bill than the original sponsors.
Undeterred, Senator Oseni and the Minister devised another strategy, host another public hearing, now by the Senate committee on ICT, held on April 27, 2023.
Strangely, over 90 percent of stakeholder organisations and individuals in attendance, condemned the bill and requested that it be dropped in the interest of stability of the industry.
The Minister could not push his way through as several attempts hit a brick wall at the House of Representatives.
Insiders familiar with the matter revealed that hours after the Senate passed the bill, it was pushed to the House of Representatives for concurrence and subsequently smuggled into the Order Paper for debate, even when it was not originally scheduled to be debated.
“The inclusion of the bill in the Order Paper was said to have infuriated the speaker, Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila, who handed a warning to the Clerk of the House that he didn’t want the bill in the Order Paper of the House again, because of the manner it was smuggled in.
“That pronouncement by the Speaker was said to be the masterstroke that finally killed the bill and saved Nigeria from potential embarrassment and loss of investor confidence in the telecom industry, considered to be the best performing sector in the country since the return to democracy in 1999.” an industry kingpin said.
That the Minister and his allies in the 9th Senate carefully avoided going through the Senate Committee on Communications headed by Senator Oluremi Tinubu for fear that the committee would shoot down the bill also spoke volumes about their curious motives.
That is why it remains a question for him and those interested in growth of the sector. What did the Minister really want from the telecom industry? We are waiting to provide some answers another day on this column.
▪︎ Aragba-Akpore, an analyst on telecom trends, lives in Abuja.