20 November 2012

Nigeria: The Senate and NIGCOMSAT Bill


The spell to uphold a NITEL-like government owned telecommunications organisation has been cast on the nation since the past 11 months when the House of Representatives conceived the idea of a government-owned telecommunication company - the Nigerian Satellite Communications Company, NIGCOMSAT. It came after the Bill quietly scaled the first, second, and the third reading, without even those at the gallery having a clue about its arrival on the floor.

This has not stopped civil society groups, the industry stakeholders, the supervising ministry, experts, industry enthusiasts, and even the international telecommunication community from rejecting this Bill and its import. With the House' stand, industry watchers are asking will the Senate, led by a former minister of Communications, David Mark, yield to the NIGCOMSAT spell?

The minister of Science and Technology, Mrs. Omobola Johnson, who currently supervises NIGCOMSAT, has herself fired another salvo, publicly disowning the NIGCOMSAT Bill, believed to be on its way to the Senate. There are reports that the minister has also communicated her disapproval of such a Bill to the National Assembly. Early this year, an industry stakeholders forum convened by the minister to discuss the draft policy of the ministry, told the minister in one voice that the industry expects immediate privatisation of NIGCOMSAT before it becomes another NITEL. Thereafter, the minister was said to have recommended 100 per cent sale of NIGCOMSAT. This position is not new. A presidential committee headed by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar under President Olusegun Obasanjo had earlier made a recommendation for invitation of the private sector to take up 75 per cent ownership of NIGCOMSAT.

In March this year, an advocacy group, Leadership and Role Model Foundation, LRMF, was to alert the nation about the surreptitious passage of this Bill. The fury of the advocacy group stemmed from the frenetic speed with which such an important industry Bill went through the House of Reps, without at least, being subjected to stakeholders' input through a public hearing. It also alerted the nation on the contradictions in such a Bill.

"By enacting a law conferring on any company the authority to carry out telecommunications business, or to control a segment of the communications industry, the National Assembly has by default usurped the powers and functions of the nation's telecommunications regulator as prescribed by the laws emanating from the same hallowed chambers", LRMF said.

The regulatory body then insisted that by the policy and laws of telecommunication deregulation, it was not going to issue an operating license to a government company to compete with private operators. However, it appears there is desperation to hoodwink the nation by surreptitiously passing the Bill to create another state-run monopoly which would function as both operator and regulator. This is bizarre and a mockery of reason.

There is a growing industry curiosity over the intentions of the Bill as NigComSat is currently carrying out its activities without let or hindrance. One school of thought says that the intention of the Bill is to equip NigComSat with quasi regulatory authorities. Some of the provisions of the Bill indicate that the company, under the envisaged status will regulate all activities in the satellite industry and would acquire government's assets with satellite content. Another school of thought says it is an effort to gain some level of autonomy from the Ministry of Communications Technology to which it currently reports. This might be true as the provisions of the Bill strangely indicate that the company will report directly to the President of the country and that NigComSat chief executive would play the role of the Minister in many situations.

A recent attempt by an organisation going by the name, ICT Publishers Alliance, which sought to confer industry affirmation on the Bill through a forum sponsored by NigComSat, failed woefully as the event almost ended in fisticuffs with the former President of Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria, ATCON, Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, and President of the Nigerian Internet Group, NIG, Engr. Bayo Banjo dismissing the Bill as retrogressive. Yet, in spite of the obvious industry disapproval of the Bill, promoters and organisers of the failed forum have in full consciousness of the duplicity of their action, mounted a media campaign purporting acceptance of the Bill by stakeholders. Such fallacy should attract the attention of the presidency as it negates President Goodluck Jonathan's quest to step up the momentum in the telecom sector.

President of Association of Telecommunications Subscribers of Nigeria, NATCOMS, Mr. Deolu Ogunbanjo, has in condemning the NIGCOMSAT Bill alerted the nation to yet another Bill at the House of Representativess which has already scaled second reading. The Bill is seeking to create a law on the management of Electromagnetic Field Emissions. The grouse of NATCOMs is that this Bill is moving in the House like the NIGCOMSAT bill, where the industry is kept from making input into a Bill that is likely to contradict existing telecom laws in the country.

All eyes are now on the Senate on the controversial NIGCOMSAT Bill. The NigComSat Bill will hurt the economy and would rubbish every gain made in the sector. The legacy of reforms being created by the Minister, Omobola Johnson, are too precious to be swept away by the misplaced obsessions of an avaricious few.

- Aderinoku writes from Lagos

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