One of the biggest revelations of my recent brief visit to Nigeria was to discover the shabby, deteriorating state of mobile telephony in Nigeria. In a word, service providers are serving Nigerian mobile phone users a raw deal. And the hapless phone owners can't count on any government agency or official to look out for them.
The mobile telephone crisis is across the board - and it's become nothing short of a scandal. Nigeria has three major mobile telephone networks - MTN, Glo and Airtel. I don't believe any of them boasts satisfactory service delivery. Many Nigerians maintain three or more phones, one from each of the major providers. Yet, the problem persists.
In fact, my friends, relatives and acquaintances who use one of the three providers or another voiced the same complaints. They said circuits are so often jammed that they are unable to reach the person they need to speak to. When contact is made, the calls are plagued by frequent, irritating disconnections. Often, one or both parties are unable to hear the conversation.
I didn't just get an earful about these problems, I also experienced them. On one occasion, I was at the domestic airport in Lagos waiting to board a flight for Calabar. I desperately needed to speak to a cousin of mine who was supposed to meet me before my departure. We had spoken earlier that day. Yet, when I made more than ten attempts to reach him from the airport, I kept getting the message that his number did not exist! Later, he informed me that he had similarly tried to reach my number, but got nowhere.
The day of my departure back to the US, I rang the number of a friend. He and I were within the vicinity of the airport, but my calls didn't go through. This time, I repeatedly got the message that his phone was not available. Yet, when we finally ran into each other, he confirmed that his phone was always on. And that he wasn't on a different call, either.
In between these two experiences, I made or received numerous calls where I could not hear the person on the other line - or the person couldn't hear me. A few times, the phone made a whirring sound that impeded hearing by both caller and called.
And here's what rubs high doses of salt on the injury of "dropped" or inaudible calls: the telephone companies still make you pay for it. That's right. Each time I made an uncompleted call, I immediately got text information on how much I was charged. It was a case of heads you lose, tails you lose. If the phone providers can't do their jobs, they still make their customer pay! Perhaps, this factor is a major reason the three main operators cart away ever burgeoning levels of profit.
It's one of those painful paradoxes that make you want to shout: Only in Nigeria!
The main reason people invest in telephones is for ease of communication. And the kind of instantaneous communication afforded by mobile phones has become an integral part of any modern society. Businesses depend on mobile phones to negotiate all kinds of deals. Individuals use them to transmit all manner of information, from the critical to the ordinary. If a child takes ill in school, a teacher would want to get through to the kid's parents immediately. If there's a serious accident, witnesses would need to alert the police or a hospital. If a spouse's flight is delayed, she or he would be anxious to convey that information to the other spouse. Sometimes, there's just that itch to reach a friend or a relative: to relish the joy of hearing their voice, knowing they are doing well.
Don't Nigerian telephone users deserve the same kind of efficiency that their counterparts elsewhere take for granted? It's bad enough that Nigeria became a late entrant and bloomer in the mobile telephone sector, trailing such neighboring countries as Ghana and Cameroon. Why should such a relatively young industry develop geriatric symptoms so early in its life? What accounts for the shambolic service being offered Nigerian users?
One constant explanation offered by "learned" customers was that the number of cell phone subscribers in Nigeria had far outstripped the infrastructure installed by the operators. My follow-up was then: Why has the government failed to compel these companies to plow some of their stupendous earnings into infrastructural development? Again, those who "know" conjectured that the companies were in no haste to invest in infrastructure. And I heard that too many Nigerian government officials were too compromised to force the issue.
I remarked to one friend - a lawyer - that, if members of the National Assembly took their overseeing tasks seriously, they would long have held hearings to, one, figure out the roots of the woes in the mobile telecom sector and, two, passed legislation to better protect Nigerian consumers from the shenanigans of any inefficient, profit-guzzling providers. Amused, this friend suggested that many of the legislators and other government officials who are supposed to regulate the telecom sector enjoy gifts of free phones with unlimited calls from some of the companies. "How do you legislate on or regulate an entity that owns you?" he deadpanned.
The brazenness of his claim - and the possibility that his conjecture was founded - left me stunned. Is it true, indeed, that many Nigerian law makers, including the highest ranking, receive corrupting telephonic gifts from mobile phone operators? If that's the case, then why is nobody - neither government officials nor groups of concerned citizens - demanding the prosecution of those who offer such illicit benefits as well as the unscrupulous officials who accept them? Why is nobody demanding that ethical standards be established to cover business transactions, and specifically the relation between businesses and their official regulators? Why does the government look the other way as Nigerian consumers are forced to accept substandard service - and perhaps blatantly exploited?
One is hardly surprised that the government has been indifferent to the frustrations of Nigerian phone users. In fact, indifference is the most benign way Nigerian governments respond to the discomforts or plights of Nigerians. Perhaps, then, it's up to consumers to remedy their situation. How about a group of mobile phone users going to court to demand a finding that they should not be made to pay for calls and other services that are not provided? Enlightened citizens might as well take up the fight, since the government shows no inclination to rise to the occasion.