columnBy Mohammed Haruna
In contrast to the oil sector which has remained a by-word for corruption, waste and inefficiency since the seventies, there is widespread public perception that the old telecommunication sector, at least from the advent of mobile telephony some eleven odd years ago or so, has turned into an excellent demonstration of how privatization can turn the fortune of an economic sector around.
This public perception has a sound basis. Today mobile phones number in their tens of millions in sharp contrast to less than 15 years ago when fixed phones were only for the well-heeled or well-connected and numbered only in their few thousands. Mobile phones have also been relatively cheap to buy and use compared to what we had before, if not compared to elsewhere in the world. Not least of all, the services the private phone companies provide have been making quite a bundle for their shareholders and users alike.
Behind this public perception of a relatively efficient and profitable telecommunication sector, however, there seem to lurk a level of corruption which seems different from that of the oil sector less in its nature than on its depth and scope. Indeed there are experts I know who believe, given the way Nitel, the government telecommunication company, was privatized, corruption in the sector is worse than in the oil sector, regardless of the public perception.
We may quibble about the depth and scope of the corruption in the telecommunication sector, but no one can deny that it is there - and that it is big.
Any Doubting Thomas need only refer to recent newspaper reports of how the management of the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC), the regulator of the industry, has been washing its dirty linen in public.
It would seem the first blood in the commission's running feud was drawn by Dr Bashir Gwandu, NCC's Executive Commissioner (Technical Services), who has been at daggers drawn with the Executive Vice-Chairman of the commission and its chief executive, Dr. Eugene Juwah, almost from the day Juwah took over from him as acting chief executive following the retirement of the penultimate chief executive, Mr Ernest Ndukwe, a couple of years ago.
On October 8, Leadership ran a front page lead story in which it alleged that President Goodluck Jonathan had approved a waiver of a little over 1billion Naira to a company, MTS First Wireless Services, which Dr. Juwah had worked for and in which he had shares before it went belly-up a few years ago. This was also before he became the CEO of NCC. The insinuation in the story was obvious.
Even the most casual reading of a full page advert entitled "Mr. President, Please Save NCC now!", published in the Daily Trust of October 23, among other newspapers, and signed by five members of a Business and Technology Publishers Forum (BTPF), which they claimed is "a professional body of seasoned Nigerian journalists who are actively engaged in the reportage of Business and Technology especially ICT in the country," can only lead one to conclude that Juwah and his sympathisers believed the source of the Leadership story was Gwandu.
Predictably the BTPF advert's conclusion was that the only way the president can save NCC is to sack Gwandu who, it alleged, has been a serial saboteur of the commission's management since he was first appointed a commissioner about seven years ago, all, they said, in his bid to become the commission's CEO.
BTPF is not alone in its call for Gwandu's sack. Sources close to the supervising ministry say it too would not be averse to sacking the executive commissioner.
The president may yet succumb to the pressure to do so, even though this would not be so easy because it requires the approval of the Senate. But even it were so easy, the president would be ill-advised to listen to the BTPF because sacking Gwandu will not make the issues involved in the now open management feud in the commission and about which Gwandu is accused of talking to the press, to go away. On the contrary it can only raise questions about the president's oft-stated commitment to fight corruption. For, there are indeed sordid goings-on at the NCC.
First, no one has denied that the president has approved a huge waiver for the MTS with which Juwah had had links. I believe the insinuation in the Leadership story that this was his handiwork is somewhat unfair to the man. He may have worked there before, but the initiative for the waiver did come from him. Instead it came from his supervising ministry. Besides, the president did not have to approve. So even if he had a residual interest in MTS, the blame for the waiver should go to the minister and the president.
In his own attempt to defend himself from the charge of conflict of interest in the case, the Executive Vice-Chairman told Thisday (October 21) that the allegation was an attempt by enemies of the Jonathan administration to discredit its record of performance.
"It is," he said, "now obvious that there is a motive and an agenda by some elements who are enemies of this administration and who are bent on stopping us from excelling." Coming from someone I do not believe should be blamed for the MTS waiver, this is rather disingenuous.
As Juwah himself said in the interview in question, the waiver came about because of moves by a new putative owner of Starcomms, Multilinks and MTS to merge and transform the three into a company that can compete with the Big Four in the industry, namely MTN, Glo, Airtel and Etisalat. All three merging companies, he said, applied for waiver but only MTS was given. This, he said, was because of the three, only MTS had gone bankrupt. This was in 2007. "It was," he said, "no longer a going concern unlike Starcomms and Multilinks."
Surely as an industry consultant, Juwah must know that when you buy companies, as the chap he said was behind the planned merger of the three did, you buy them with all their assets and liabilities. Why was it necessary for anyone to ask government to shoulder the liabilities of MTS?
Juwah, obviously, could have done better than trying to defend the indefensible.
Then, of course, the MTS is not the only indefensible going-on at the NCC. There is even the more serious issue of the improper underselling of spectrum in no bid deals, the two most prominent of which were the sale of one spectrum to Open-Skies Limited led by Chief Emeka Offor - someone whose permanence in the corridors of power is almost legendary - and a similar sale of another spectrum to another company with the almost cynical name of Smile Communications Limited (Could it be that its owners enjoy smiling all the way to their banks at the expense of others?).
In both cases the spectrums could have fetched the country much, much more that the price at which they were sold. And in the case of Open-Skies, not only did it pay peanuts for its spectrum; it failed to meet the deadline for payment more than once. Worse, it did not and still does not have a licence from NCC to use any spectrum.
Worse still, at the time the company bought the spectrum it was yet to be properly retrieved from the Nigerian Police Force to which it had initially been allocated for security purposes but which it had failed to use.
Again, it seemed more than mere coincidence that Open-Skies rushed to complete its payment only after the police had acquired a 406 million dollar security surveillance system in preparation for the use of the spectrum. This can only fuel suspicions that Open-Skies acquired the spectrum merely to speculate with it, akin to land speculation.
Certainly the president should move to save the NCC, as our telecommunication beat reporters have urged him to in their advert. However, what he should move against is not Gwandu but the messy goings-on at the NCC which the commissioner has been complaining about but which our concerned reporters see as the antics, indeed, "the lies of an ambitious Commissioner," to use their own words.