After the controversy that greeted the N6 billion SIM Card registration last year, the Senate Committee on Communications says it is closely monitoring the exercise apparently to ensure judicious use ^p of the fund. In an online interview with Francis Ugwoke, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Communications, Senator Gilbert Nnaji speaks on poor quality telecoms service, review of communication laws, harmonisation of NCC and NESREA laws and plans to domesticate international laws in the country.
What is your assessment of the current development in the telecoms industry?
I think the first thing to do in attempting to answer your question is just to go down memory lane. If we understand where the journey began, it will then be easy to appreciate the level of development in practical terms.
The current development in the telecoms sector became possible following government's recognition of the need to deregulate the industry especially as it was obvious that the then government-run NITEL was near moribund. The cost of maintaining it coupled with the subsidy associated with it and the public demand for a more efficient telecom system that would be in tune with modern business operation and also affordable to the rural populace no doubt compelled government to open up the industry for private-sector participation and investment. That was the genesis of the growth and development we are talking about today. I will say that the current development in telecom industry following the advent of GSM as credible alternative to NITEL has been a continued source of major economic breakthrough for the country. Come to think of it, the life of every business and relationship is dependent upon communication. And not just communication but telecommunication which is an important part of modern society. At least, with availability of telecommunication infrastructure, you do not need to travel miles again before getting in touch with associates, customers and relations. So you can agree with me that even the other sectors cannot function without the telecoms sector. In terms of contribution to the growth and stability of the economy by way of job and wealth creation it is ranking very high. Also in terms of improving the quality of life, particularly in the areas of security, general information access and acquisition, bank reform, facilitating good governance and service delivery and also raising the standard of education you can agree with me that Nigeria today is witnessing an all-round development.
But at the same time, especially given the extent of investments made by the Federal Government in this sector, magnitude of tax holidays the operators enjoyed after being licensed as well as continued patronage and then how long it has taken, I am therefore tempted to say that the industry is still undeveloped when compared to other nations within the continent at least. The due direct dividends of telecoms investments in Nigeria are yet to come. So it is not yet a success. Therefore, nobody should be deceived into believing that we have arrived. But the good thing is that we are making progress. And that is the major interest of the Senate Committee on Communications.
A N6 billion budget was approved for the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) for the ongoing SIM card registration in a controversial manner. This is about the second year that the exercise started, what has the Senate Committee in its oversight function done to ensure that the money is spent judiciously?
Even though I may not be comfortable with the phrase - "controversial manner" - because the appropriation was done during the sixth National Assembly particularly the Senate of-which I was not yet a member. So I may not agree or disagree that it was done in a controversial manner. But immediately after our inauguration as a committee there was this same outcry concerning the amount you just quoted. In short, I can now recall vividly that the Senate President while performing the inauguration emphatically queried why there would be a budget for SIM card registration which was supposed to be the obligation of the GSM operators. Based on that, we then quickly called for an interactive session with the Nigerian Communications Commission to get a very clear picture of the issue.
But when the question as to why Nigeria would be made to pay for services that the operators were supposed to deliver was raised, the Executive Vice-Chairman of NCC, Engr. Eugene Juwah, told the committee that although the money in question was meant for all the various stages of the registration exercise which included data collection, analysis and development. This according to him, was because after collecting the relevant information from people, they will be keyed into a system that would detect multiple and even incomplete registrations. After this stage, they would assemble all the data and compare it with the ones the operators already have before putting them in a central system for public use. I may not be too detailed on this but am sure it was a good presentation. He equally added that it became necessary when NCC discovered that the operators were not going to offer Nigerians a comprehensive data bank that would help address mainly the security challenges and also the number portability. But strangely, the NCC boss stated that the amount was arrived at on assumption that an average Nigerian had a minimum of two mobile phones. It means therefore that the cost of attending to a subscriber should be doubled. Although the committee frowned at the manner the amount was arrived at, and which was the reason why the Committee rejected in its entirety the recent request for additional fund approval for the same exercise by NCC. Committee insisted that it must see an appreciable progress before more money could be appropriated for them.
So whether or not money earlier budgeted for is being judiciously-utilised is a question of time. And that is when the exercise is finally over and Nigerians will access and evaluate the quality of job done with their money. But the committee is constantly monitoring development of events concerning the registration. Remember again that the appropriation was effected at the last Assembly. It means obviously that we have little or nothing to offer as explanations relating to the manner of appropriation. So, I enjoin the masses to be patient to see the outcome to avoid any form of interference with the project before judgement can now be passed or blames apportioned.
Few weeks ago, there was a conflict between the NCC and the Nigerian Environmental Standards Regulation and Enforcement Agency (NESREA) , in what was seen by many as the inadequacies of the law setting them up, what is the Senate Committee doing to address such situation?
I can tell you that that very incident embarrassed the entire nation, the three arms of government particularly. But the committee was the most-affected. This is because the actions and counter-actions of the two governmental agencies directly impact on the quality of telecom service which has become very deteriorating and has been costing the Nigerian public a lot. It is true that these bodies acted within the provisions of the laws establishing them, their roles are quite conflicting mainly in the telecommunications aspect. The committee in keeping with its mandate waded into the matter. As we speak now, series of inter-ministerial meetings between the ministries of Environment, Works and Communications Technology towards resolving this duplication of powers by these agencies are on-going. But primarily on the part of the committee, we have concluded arrangements for a public hearing during-which the laws setting up the agencies would be critically reviewed for possible amendments. Then as the Chairman, I have called for these laws with a view to having a firsthand study of the documents. Am sure by the time we are through with the discussion, such counter-productive incident would not re-occur.
Despite the availability of broadband in the country which is expected to improve telecommunications services, the situation appears not to have changed, what is the take of the Committee on this issue?
Honestly, the committee is more than worried about this ugly situation. Upon inauguration, we have held series of interactive sessions to get to the roots of this. We have invited both the regulator and the operators even the supervising ministry over this sensitive matter. But to a large extent, we have been receiving claims of insecurity, interferences mainly by governments at all levels and lack of public power generation as reasons for the noticed very slow or no growth in the telecoms industry. For instance, when governments want to either fix roads or pipe-borne waters the telecoms optic fibres are mostly cut and not repaired as the projects last. Equally, when there are cases of revenue default on the part of the operators, their towers or base stations are either shut down or tampered with. Also, when their power generating-sets become over-stretched and go off, service out-put would be affected especially as there is no steady public power supply. And of-course, it is possible that the activities of vandals disrupt the operations of the providers. Interestingly also, there was this recent disclosure by NCC that Federal Capital Development Authority refused granting the operators more sites for infrastructure deployments in Abuja and its environ. Come to think of it, if such occurs in the states of the federation, what would become of quality of service? Although these claims appear real and also tend to increase the cost of service provision, the committee has refused to be convinced in this regard. And that is why we have continued to commend and support the recent sanctions imposed on the GSM operators who performed below the key-performance indicator (KPI) set by NCC. Also the committee has reached out to the Ministry of Power and Federal Inland Revenue Service as well as the security agencies in this regard. So in a nutshell, it is either the operators improve or through the relevant legislative provisions they be made to leave the Nigerian business environment.
What is the Committee doing to address the issue of obsolete laws in the Communications industry?
Of course any law that is found to be obsolete in the course of our oversight functions shall either be amended or repealed. No two ways about that. But just as I said earlier, we shall soon call for a public hearing where all the laws governing communications in the country would be reviewed. That is when it would be possible for one to declare any law as being obsolete. But again, the bulk of the challenges lies at the hands of the public. We expect the masses, the professionals and technocrats to always come up with suggestions, ideas and proposals on how to deal with some of these issues like the so-called obsolete laws. And even those of you in the media are expected to be at the vanguard at least as opinion moulders and society watch dogs.
For instance, when we came on board we realized that there were practically no laws on telecoms. NCC was rather governing the operators with mere regulations which I and you know are not laws. We equally discovered that even the regulations were not being fully implemented or not all-embracing. And perhaps, that is why it took the lingering public outcry before NCC could slam a sanction on the erring operators. Corruption could as well be cited as a factor that undermines the effective application of the guidelines. So you can now see that laws exclusively are the sure way out.
Now look at it, is payment of fine enough to account for various losses perhaps including lives being suffered by the citizenry as a result of poor quality of service? The answer is NO! But if there are functional legal framework that for instance provides for direct compensation for the subscriber and a stringent penalty for the operator in the event of any breach, then you will see how dramatically things would change. Oh yes! Whenever there is a service failure, competent court of law would be the right destination for enforcement and or redress. With this in place, the regulatory agency can only be faced by mere task of seeking to ensure there is a very healthy and competitive operating environment towards alleviating the sufferings of the Nigerian telecoms masses.
What are the specific roles of the Committee to promote telecommunications in the country?
As you know, the primary role of legislative committees is over-sighting. So talking about specific roles of the committee to promote telecommunications in the country, I can only say we tackle them as they emerge in the course of our over-sight functions. But so far, we are committed to offering whatever relevant legislative interventions to ensure that Nigerians begin to enjoy the due dividends of government investments in telecommunications. They will begin to get values for their monies. Our regular interactive meetings with regulators and operators in addition to periodic public hearings will give us the opportunities of knowing the challenges of the stakeholders and also seeking for avenues of proffering solutions towards promoting telecommunications.
There is the issue of multiple taxation coming from states and the Federal Government, which telecoms companies have complained about in the industry, what is the Committee doing to address the issue.
I have mentioned multiple taxation earlier as one of the constant complaints by the operators but at the same time I still disagree that such is enough a reason for poor performance. I can tell you that during our recent public hearing on the continued decline in quality of telecom service, we made sure that principal actors in the complaints of the operators were in attendance. And interestingly, the Chairman of Federal Inland Revenue Service took the floor and time to enumerate the statutory revenues payable by businesses to various tiers of government. He directly debunked the claims of the operators and went further to challenge them to come up with clear evidences of illegal or multiple payment demands being made by governments or their agents. But as I said earlier, corruption has caused a lot of havoc in our economic life. Am sure most of these operators pay higher in other countries without complaining but because to them Nigeria is a place where anything goes, they can always have excuses to give for their lapses. If truly there are proven cases of multiple or illegal taxation a responsible operator is expected to follow due process in challenging them but what you hear is that mostly they go and begin to bargain for subsidy or engage in any other form of sharp practices with the revenue collectors. And when it backfires or there is service-failure you begin to hear multiple taxations here and there. How many of the operators have politely and directly engaged any government or agency in a dialogue concerning the issue? So you can now see that it is a baseless complaint except there is a proof of levy or tax that is not backed by law. But as a committee, we are looking at some measures to address it, especially as memoranda were submitted by some stakeholders and interest groups during the public hearing.
One major problem that many telecoms companies are facing is poor infrastructure, how can this problem be addressed?
Although infrastructure is relative, any operating company that complains of poor infrastructure is being unserious. As far as telecommunications is concerned, you only need base station and tower and of course power to energize the transmission station. So where does poor infrastructure now come in? Could it be power? Then it may interest you to know also that the Honourable Minister for Power had during the public hearing invited the operators to approach the ministry for short-term power supply arrangement pending the increased megawatts NEPA or PHCN promised Nigerians. Apart from that, is it not because of the claims of lack of power and even the multiple taxation that Nigerians arguably are being over-billed comparatively? The committee is already working on mechanisms to empower NCC which is the regulatory body, towards making the operators be sensitive to the endless plights of the Nigerian telecom masses. One major area we have continued to assist the Commission in its mandate is by continuous approval of fund for the execution of projects that would help to improve on the necessary infrastructure towards quality service. And that is why I still repeat my candid advice that if any operator is not ready to live up to expectations, Nigeria operating environment shall be made un-conducive for such service-providing company. This the committee can achieve with the instrumentality of its legislative powers. Remember that we are responsible to the senate plenary and by extension, National Assembly. So our reports form part of critical decisions of the legislature as an arm of government. However, I can assure you that any legitimate claim by the operators regarding improved quality of service shall certainly be attended to by the committee with serious dispatch. At least we have demonstrated sufficient capacity and willingness in this direction over time.
Your Committee recently conducted a public hearing on problems associated with service quality in mobile phone operations and co-location in Nigeria, what have been your observations and what do Nigerians expect in terms of addressing these problems?
Normally, after every public hearing or meeting, the committee goes into executive session during-which proceedings of the outing are critically-reviewed for necessary actions. It is after that stage that we determine on the next line of action. But remember as I said earlier, we make our advisory reports to the plenary for holistic actions. So I cannot preempt the committee for now. But certainly, the masses we represent shall be satisfied with the outcome of our actions.
What is the current status of NITEL, what is the contribution of the Committee to see that the problem associated with the privatisation is addressed?
Obviously, the true position of NITEL would become very clear when the on-going investigative hearing on BPE is concluded and decision taken. Also you may wish to know that review of NCC Acts is among our priority areas. So it means that the problem associated with NITEL will be properly addressed at the appropriate time. But I can assure you that NITEL shall rise again. Time is the only factor. But also am afraid that corruption might greatly undermine every sincere effort in this regard except the masses especially the media join forces with the National Assembly in getting to the roots of the controversies surrounding the purported privatisation. Therefore the committee needs only time and maximum cooperation of the public.