7 February 2013

Nigeria: The Frequency Management Controversy

In the past four months, there has been uncommon media scrutiny of frequency spectrum sales and allocations by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). Specifically, it involved allegations of underhand frequency dealings by officials of the telecoms regulatory agency.

The allegations were that the Commission, in less than one year, and during the tenure of Dr Eugene Juwah as chief executive officer, sold spectrum that belonged to the Nigerian Police to a private firm, Openskys Ltd at a price adjudged to be below value in comparative terms, and also sold another set of frequency to a private company, Smile Communications, without due process and at a price also argued to be below par.

However, a twist in the tale emerged when the former Executive Commissioner in the NCC, Dr Bashir Gwandu, source of the allegations, told a section of the media that he could not continue to stomach the way the Commission was being run. The table however turned when the Commission came out with a public statement indicating that the allocations of frequencies to the companies followed the due process, and began since 2009 which predated the current chief executive, Dr Eugene Juwah. From the statement, it transpired that Gwandu attended the meetings of the board of the regulatory body when the decisions were taken on both companies.

Gwandu's dismissal from the Commission by the Federal Government, several commentators have begun to discuss frequency issues in a manner that makes light of the technicality of the subject. In recent times, even some non-governmental organizations that have no knowledge of the subject joined the fray, which prompts the question: Who is afraid of frequency management by the Nigerian telecom regulator?

The main question which the traducers of the Nigerian telecom regulator have raised to the NCC was why it did not subject the frequencies in question to a public auction. Their position is that an auction would fetch the nation more income. The Commission responded that the law allows it to use whatever method prescribed by law that suites it in maximizing the allocation of any frequency. It added that it has already used this same process to allocate frequencies to several operating companies in Nigeria, including Multilinks, StarComms, Intercellular, and a host of other companies that have been operating in the country in the past ten years.

But there is something curious about the allegations on the allocation of frequency that belongs to the Nigerian Police. Since the controversy has raged, the Nigerian Police has never claimed publicly that its frequency is missing. The Commission has in its statement, claimed that it has allocated a frequency designed for security operations to the police while relocating them out of a commercial frequency. The Police on its side never disputed the position of the Commission, making those accusing the Commission of allocating frequency belonging to the police to be crying more than the bereaved.

Some news reports credited to Dr Juwah also cleared the air to the effect that the relocation of the police to appropriate frequencies several years ago was with the full knowledge and acceptance of the Nigerian Police Force, which may have accounted for the silence of the police authorities over the matter.

For several years, the Nigerian Communications Commission has staked its claim to transparency in the manners it has handled the spectrum management for the nation. In 2001, it scored major globally acclaimed success when it successfully managed a big auction for digital mobile frequency licenses which led to the mobile revolution in Nigeria.

In 2008, the regulator's claim on excellent frequency allocation management came under test and from its own backyard, when the then Minister of Information and Communications, Professor Dora Akunyili, accused the Commission of not following due process in the sale of the 2.3GHz spectrum frequency. The Minister went further to invite the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, to probe the process. This allegation became a major subject in the media for several months, eliciting all kinds of comments until a Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja declared the allegations by the Minister as false, and gave the Commission a clean bill of health. It also ordered the return of the frequency licenses to the winners as approved by the regulator.

There are curious similarities in the ignition of bogus allegations about frequency sale at the NCC, between Akunyili and Dr Gwandu; both are insiders who have access to whatever information they needed to substantiate their allegations, but for some strange reasons failed to do so. In addition, their allegations on frequency sales which attracted the most visible and negative comments about the activities of the Commission have been proven by the court of law and the relevant investigating agency to wit, the EFCC, to be founded on frivolities. I acknowledge whistle blowing as a safety valve against fraud, but such whistle blowing must be based on facts not on the misplaced fantasy of a self-appointed whistle-blower.

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