Vanguard (Lagos)

21 November 2012

Nigeria: Furore, As NIGCOMSAT Bill Splits Telecom Community

Barely two weeks after telecom industry stakeholders sharply disagreed with the management of NIGCOMSAT over the relevance of a bill designed to make the government-owned satellite company a corporation, more reactions and questions have continued to greet the bill which keen observers argued is antithetical to telecom deregulation.

Meanwhile, the Presidential Panel on Rationalisation and Restructuring of Federal Government Parastatals, headed by former head of the Cuvil Service of the Federation, Mr Steve Oronsaye submitted its report to the President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, saying that the proposed enabling law for NigComSat should not be passed, rather, it should now be fully privatized because if its enabling law were to be passed it would be in conflict with the Act setting up the parent body, NARSDA (National Space Research and Development Agency).

Passage of the bill, the stakeholders noted at the forum sponsored by NIGCOMSAT and hosted by the IT Publishers Alliance amounts to creation of a parallel space agency that will compromise the National Space Programme of the Federal Government.

The discussion on the bill at the forum which began with a note of controversy was rejected by key invited speakers like President of Association of Lincensed Telecom Operators, Engr. Lanre Ajayi, President of Nigerian Internet Group, NIG, Engr. Bayo Banjo, former President of AlTON, Engr. Emmanuel Ekuwen, Dr. among others.

Without mincing words, the forum while rejecting the bill advised NIGCOMSAT management to spare the industry of an unnecessary bill another white elephant project like the failed Nigerian Telecommunication Limited.

Not aware of NigComSat bill

Already, the Ministry of Communications Technology, the ministry supervising Nigeria Communications Satellite Limited, (NigComSat) had said in a report it was not aware of any bill seeking to grant NigComSat autonomy. The ministry said that its first intention was to privatize Nigeria Communications Satellite Limited for better performance.

The ministry was reacting to against the backdrop of the clamor for autonomy by the Company through NigComSat Corporation bill that seeks to free the company from government control. The special assistant on Information Technology to Minister of Communications Technology, Mr. Ola Ogunleye, had disclosed that the ministry was only interested in making NigComSat play its role in making internet truly ubiquitous, affordable and accessible in the country.

Mixed reactions with opposition

It would be recalled that NigComSat's bill to make the state satellite operator an independent corporation has stirred mixed reactions with huge opposition.

Meanwhile, critics have urged the national assembly to exercise caution to prevent the company from going the the way of Nitel.

Meanwhile, former President of Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria, ATCON, Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, had at the forum fired the first salvo when he told the gathering that government has no business doing business.

White elephant?

He cautioned that the bill, if passed, might give NigComSat the autonomy to operate as a business venture and as a regulator. This will go the way of NITEL, he said.

He noted that government has no business in doing business, but to create enabling environment for businesses to thrive. He was supported by the President of the Nigerian Internet Group, NIG, Engr. Bayo Banjo who did not hide his feelins by saying that granting NigComSat autonomy will lead to the creation of another NITEL.

He argued that the bill will transform NigComSat to a fully-owned government company. " Why do we need the bill? I do not see a reason for this bill because the company is already a limited liability. The bill is not in the interest of Nigeria. It will not serve the purpose of Nigerians." he said.

He further said that rather than having the NigComSat bill passed, it should be jettisoned with the best option to have it privatised. For the President of ALTON, Engr. Lanre Ajayi, NigComSat might go the way of Nigerian Telecommunications Limited but warned that with the Act, it appears we are now putting it in the hands of the law makers.

"Satellite technology is a very desirable technology in Nigeria, noting however, that this was not to say that other terrestrial technologies are not very relevant but they are complementary. The major advantage of satellite is its ubiquity. In a country like ours, where we have many rural communities, satellite becomes an option. If we must progress, we cannot run away from developing satellite technology and government must support this." he explained.

Need for accountability in the bill

In the submission of Dr. Jimson Olufuye, former Information Technology Association of Nigeria, (ITAN), Satellite project is a big budget project any where in the world that requires nurture and maturity before it is taken over by the business community.

"I think what matters the most is to ensure that there exists clear cut accountability mechanism in the bill for Performance Assurance. NASA in US got the US space transport business to a point before the industry could take over. Government funding is necessary to get a major business sector to develop. At the same time, the concern of wastage of public fund through such venture is a legitimate concern" he added. Hence, the critical question, according to Olufuye is: what measures are in the bill for performance assurance over a given period of time?

Satellite is critical national infrastructure

While supporting the bill, Yele Okeremi , member, Executive Committee of Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (Ispon) told the gathering that , "We must perceive satellite communication as critical national infrastructure which requires everything to protect including legislation and we must sit down to see that we do everything to see that this bill become a law." He said that technology, social perception and legislation were the key things that must be present before a revolution can happen.

Support

Supporting the bill also was Victor Nwakesi , representative of Olisa Agbakoba & Associates, the law firm responsible for the drafting of the NigComSat bill. He explained that the bill was much desired, adding that the passage would aid Nigeria's emerging development issue.

"The contents of the NigComSat bill have been developed to align with what the laws allow. "NigComsat should be protected in the best interest of the citizens," he added.

But the Managing Director of NIGCOMSAT, Engr. Ahmed Rufai, who was completely amazed and disappointed by the submissions of the stakeholders said the stakeholders may have misunderstood the Bill,, and vowed to continue to pursue the passage of the Bill by the National Assembly. Rufai said that the bill will allow NigComSat to raise additional financing and pursue strategic partnerships. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is said to have already passed the bill after three readings while the bill is yet to be discussed at the Senate.

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