In this exclusive interview, Nigeria's former communication minister, Adebayo Shittu, grants audience to PREMIUM TIMES' managing editor, Idris Akinbajo, and senior investigative reporter, Hassan Adebayo.
Mr Shittu talks about his failure to partake in the mandatory NYSC scheme, his role in the MTN fine saga, his achievements as a minister, the politics of his native Oyo State, the future of APC and other matters.
Mr Shittu starts the interview by restating his stance that participating in the NYSC was not a requirement to hold political office. He explains that he has sued the NYSC and wants the court to rule if he has to have an NYSC certificate before holding political office.
PT: We’ve spoken before the start of the interview on your non–particiapation in the NYSC. Do you still maintain your stance that you have not violated Nigerian law by skipping NYSC?
Shittu: Before finalizing the issue of NYSC, I want to put it on record that I won when it was first brought up in 1979. That time there was no tribunal. It was high court of Oyo. And I’ll still win again. The matter has already been decided at Oyo High Court where I won again. I will continue to win because the requirements for me to have served never existed. And I’m saying this with all sense of responsibility. How would anybody believe that I have gone to court, at my level, I will not go to court just for the fun of it. Just to establish that I didn’t need to have served because certain prerequisites before service had not yet been made.
PT: If you have a piece of advice for a child of yours or a relative or even just a young graduate who comes to you to say ‘Uncle, Dad I have two options; either I serve mandatory NYSC or I go for political office, which would you recommend for him or her to do?
Shittu: Number one, whichever he succeeds in doing. Both are services to Nigeria. I mean he should be appreciated. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Both are services to the same nation; so, whichever he succeeds in doing is fine. In any case, there should not be double standards in the way even you journalists report those because of all those who purportedly have not served, I have been the only one, apart from Kemi Adeosun, being…
PT: No. We also reported on the PDP governorship candidate in Kwara and we also exposed him that he did not serve even though he was picked as the candidate. We reported it.
Shittu: Did you report Ajimobi?
PT: We reported it. Infact it was you we reported to have alleged he (former Oyo State Governor Ajimobi) did not serve.
PT: Would you recommend an amendment of the NYSC law to expressly forbid people from holding political office unless they serve?
Shittu: I will not comment on the question until the matter in a Federal High Court Ibadan is disposed of. The guidelines will be there. I’m sure the court will give appropriate advice to the authorities.
PT: Okay sir. Before we go to the MTN issue, speaking about the extant law as we have at the moment, are you able to point to a specific section of Nigerian laws that exempts you from NYSC?
Shittu: That is what is before the Federal High Court. You wait, when the case is coming up you try and be in court to listen to the argument and you’ll be properly guided.
PT: Thank you for that. On the MTN fine case, would you say that your ministry or your office handled that well in the interest of the public?
Shittu: Again, a lot of people, either out of ignorance or mischief, have targeted me with attacks on the MTN issue as if I was central to the resolution of the matter or as if I had a role to play. For your information, and I hope this will go round, I never had any specific role on the resolution of the MTN matter. It was between the NCC, which is the agency operating and monitoring and supervising telecommunication operations, and the Presidency. I didn’t have any single role, the file never got to my table for whatever reason. So people do a lot of mischievous reporting that I collected millions, they have bought houses for me blah blah blah when I didn’t have any role to play in the matter.
PT: The NCC is an agency under the communications ministry.
Shittu: The law guiding each agency is very clear. My role as the Minister of Communications is to provide the appropriate policy direction for them. What happened between MTN and NCC was about operational issues. Those are different: policy is different from operation. If I give you instruction, sell this thing for this amount and anybody who wants to be your customer will not start looking for me. He deals with the man in charge of operations and it’s as simple as that. I didn’t have any role and I’m saying this to the general public.
PT: So, as the communications minister, the largest telecom network in Nigeria was slammed a huge fine that could have, in a way, shut down its operations. And you as the minister did not feel you should intervene in such matter in any way?
Shittu: Let me tell you that I’m not somebody who violates the law. I’m not somebody who goes out of my brief because I want to engage in egoistic or boastful actions of ‘I am Minister of Communications’. The law setting up the NCC predates the setting up of the Ministry of Communications, that’s a very clear point you must understand. And in setting up the NCC, the provides guidelines as to its operations. I didn’t have any role with regards for instance to pricing of services. I do not have a role with regards to cost of licensing or the daily responsibility of monitoring.
PT: So, in other words, you did not in any way get involved in the MTN saga.
Shittu: I’ve told you times without number, it was not part of my brief.
PT: What if evidence emerges that you at some point recommended or suggested to the NCC what position to take?
Shittu: It will be interesting if you have any such evidence.
PT: Would you say that the NCC has properly handled the MTN fine and…
Shittu: You should remember that NCC didn’t even have the last say about the issue – it was the presidency.
PT: The president whom you report to as the communications minister and the president didn’t consult you on it?
Shittu: He didn’t have to consult me.
PT: But he appointed you to head the ministry. Why wouldn’t he consult you?
Shittu: The president is the overall boss. Maybe some of the things you ought to also know; when the fine was imposed on them, they had a duty to pay. But when they felt that they couldn’t pay, they had to approach the presidency directly to let the presidency know the possible impact of sticking to that quantum of fine and that consequences included the fact that if they had to pay that amount in one fell swoop, for instance, they might have to close operations. If they close down business in Nigeria, it will affect all Nigerian employees who run into thousands. It will affect the financial services because we have a lot of banking activities around their business. And internationally, it will also affect our image because we are seeking foreign direct investment in our country. If we now give the impression that Nigeria is a hostile environment to foreign investments, of course, many other people will withdraw.
PT: But insisting that our law and policy be respected does not make us hostile to foreign investors. Does it?
Shittu: If you go to court for a case and somebody is fined N1,000, if he’s not able to pay, what does he do? He appeals for a review. These people simply appealed to Mr President for a review. And Mr President as the symbol of our sovereignty took the appropriate action considering all the facts in favour of MTN and decided to review it. So what’s anybody’s complaint?
PT: At no point of Mr President’s review were you consulted…
Shittu: Why would Mr President consult me?
PT: Because he appointed you to head the Ministry and supervise NCC.
Shittu: Does that mean he has no overriding powers? Remember that I’m acting on behalf of Mr President as the minister because it’s not possible for Mr President to be everywhere but I act on his behalf. In any situation, having regard to the critical importance of the international level, he feels that there is need for him to act, why will he wait for me? Is he the tail or the head?
PT: Wouldn’t you see that as not trusting your judgement if he wouldn’t even call you to have your view on such matter?
Shittu: I’m not complaining because I know that he has overall power of being the symbol of our sovereignty to act in matters that involve everything that affects Nigeria as a nation.
PT: But if companies operating in Nigeria or even individuals run afoul of the law, if they breach clear policies of the government, and when they are called to account, they run to the presidency or mobilise a network of influences to stave off punishment, what does that say about the institutions?
Shittu: It is within the powers of a sitting president to say do not do that again, you are let off.
PT: But does that not mock any avowed commitment to institutional effectiveness?
Shittu: If it happens in court, how much more with Mr President? He’s the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He’s the one who will take responsibility if there’s any problem with international investment and he acts in the interest of Nigeria. And in this case, we should also appreciate this. When the infraction was taking place, it was not possible for the MTN management to have known and deliberately ignored it. And heads rolled actually in MTN. A lot of directors were sacked to show that these infractions were negligence and at the end of the day, we were paid N330 billion. Imagine how much oil we would have to explore and exploit and drill to get that money. You have to be fair to the other side and be able to appreciate that we are actually benefitting from the negligence of an entity.
PT: How would you rate your performance as Nigeria’s communications minister?
Shittu: Well, I think the question would be best directed at people who are considered as critical stakeholders in the ICT industry. I mean I want to sufficiently be humble to say that. But having said that, also I want to say something about our scorecard. When I was first appointed as minister of communications, these critical stakeholders in the ICT industry couldn’t imagine how somebody coming from a legal background would be appointed to head communications ministry. Somebody who is not an engineer, is not an ICT person, would be appointed to man that industry. They raised issues, there were protests and all of that. But of course, Mr President had confidence in my ability to adapt very quickly, to learn very fast and to be able to provide leadership to the ICT sector. And barely one and a half years thereafter, the umbrella organization of ICT stakeholders gave me an award of fellow of the Nigerian Computer Society. Fellowship; you know what that means? It’s the highest award that anybody in the industry can get. So that speaks volumes of how I’m rated. Apart from that award, I’ve gotten more than 20 other professionally relevant awards from the various sectors of ICT. I believe I’ve done very well and I’m happy that I’ve given you a booklet which contains my achievements in the sector.
PT: What would you say are your key achievements?
Shittu: I believe I have done very well in several sectors. I can say, to start with, before me there was nothing like ICT road map for Nigeria. It was like industry stakeholders were in the dark. When I came on board conscious of our own limited of knowledge of the industry, I convened a retreat, brought in about 400 experts from within Nigeria and from outside to look at the industry from the past, look at where we were as at 2015, and look at where we should be going to and today we have a FEC approved road map for all time. It is what all stakeholders in the industry have as their encyclopaedia and their Quran or Bible as you may wish to say. Number 2, we also now have a road map of the various sectors. We now have a digital council. With NIPOST which is also one of our agencies, we are actually on the process of giving Nigerians 6 new companies to do different jobs. Recall that when GSM (not sure) came, NIPOST became horrible, people were no more patronizing NIPOST and all of that. But the network of services of NIPOST, the infrastructure of NIPOST is already in existence in 1500 locations across the country. So consequently, we thought that we needed to do a number of things to make NIPOST more relevant to Nigerians by providing new services and consequently also providing new jobs and also ensuring that we have a whole lot of business-related and income generating services across the board. So, by the grace of God, we would be having a NIPOST Microfinance Bank, we would be having a NIPOST Property and Developing Company, a NIPOST transport and logistics company, a NIPOST e-commerce company and a NIPOST e-government services company apart from the NIPOST digital services company. Six new companies. We would provide a lot of jobs, we would get banking services available in every local government in Nigeria. That means since a majority of Nigerians live in the rural areas where there are no banking services it means through our NIPOST Microfinance bank, we will have banking services in all the under-banked and unbanked communities across the country. Again, one of our achievements is also the fact that broadband connectivity was 18 per cent when I came and we had a target of reaching 30 per cent. As at the end of 2018, we had gotten to 31 per cent and our new focus now by the grace of God is to attain 70 per cent connectivity throughout the country by 2023. We are also in virtually all the other areas. For instance, in NICOMSAT which is also one of our agencies, we encouraged the private sector in acquiring two more satellites so that we would not have to take loan.
PT: The issues you mentioned with regards to NIPOST are very fantastic. Because in other countries, organisations like NIPOST, for instance, Royal Mail in England, are very huge sources of revenue. Now coming to Nigeria, do you see NIPOST competing with DHL, FedEx?
Shittu: The sky should be the limit actually. When all these companies are set up, we are going to ensure that recruitments are done on merit. The best brains will be brought in and we will do a lot of training so that we are able to do the best. Again, in advanced countries, what these other companies do here is never allowed there. In the UK, a DHL company will never be allowed to take mails to rural areas. When they bring mails from outside, they deliver it to the post office there who will do the internal distribution and so we would adopt that too here such that we would have a bite as to the income they generate.
PT: About how DHL is working in the UK, I’m not sure it’s exactly as you have put it actually.
Shittu: Find out, please.
PT: When you talk about NIPOST microfinance banks in all the local government areas of the country, many Nigerians in rural communities like in Zamfara, in Kaduna, in Benue, like the Emir of Katsina himself, would ask you, ‘where is the security for such microfinance banks’? The agriculture minister was recently in Katsina and the Emir had to ask him to go tell the president ‘don’t share seeds provide security first’.
Shittu: The business of government is all-encompassing. The business of government is not about security alone, Of course, security is very critical. It’s the primary role but it must be taken along. And you do know that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. There are people that think what money do I have to keep in the bank? Of course, they may not have money to keep in the bank but there may also be people who think that having microfinance bank which is funded by government in that locality will provide them an opportunity to take a loan of 50,000 to do small business so you don’t tell them because security is not yet fully guaranteed you will not engage in issues of development. They must all be taken together; otherwise, if it’s about security alone then what will be the purpose of government other than to surrender to the police or to the armed forces and all of that.
PT: What then would you say to people who say it’s not government’s business run business. Why is the government not allowing entrepreneurs to set up these microfinance banks?
Shittu: I believe in that philosophy of government not having business with business and I’ve always echoed that. But there are areas that government has to engage in intervention.
PT: Like setting up microfinance banks?
Shittu: Of course, where the private individuals who are supposed to set up this kind of banks in the rural areas refuse to go there because they would not make all the profit that they would be able to make in urban centres, government must take the initiative because of the critical importance of the services to people. Take, for instance, government is in business of satellite communication. To get one satellite constructed you need $250 million. It’s just now we’re encouraging the private sector to come in because this is a very technical area which has to do with the satellite and all that, and a lot of people are not exposed to that. So, government will not say because I have a philosophy of not engaging in business, I won’t engage in business in certain circumstance. So, there are certain critical areas that government, for the benefit of the common man, must engage in and I believe that setting up banks in underbanked and unbanked areas…
PT: You said in all the 774 local governments; so, it will also be in all the urban areas.
Shittu: It will be. Of course, there will be people to whom the condition of current commercial banks will not work. For instance, if you go to any of these commercial banks to seek a loan of N50,000 they will ask you to go and bring security which you may not have but conditions of taking loans and transacting business in the microfinance banks in rural areas will certainly be less. You may not have to be introduced by the emir, the oba, the obi or some of before you get the loan. So, people are able to engage in businesses other than just sitting down arms folded all the time waiting for someone to come and dash them 200, 500 naira.
PT: Critics of that will say your government is setting a trap for itself. The government workforce is over bloated, all Nigerians agree to that. Nigerian government, including the Buhari Administration, has not shown that it is efficient in managing anything. I mean the refineries have not worked for the past 4 years that the Buhari government has been in place and rather than allowing private businesses to set up the microfinance banks you want to do that.
Shittu: I think you should be reminded that nobody prevents any private person from setting up microfinance banks.
PT: But you want to over-bloat the workforce by setting up more business for the government.
Shittu: In Nigeria with a population of 200 million, we have only 10 thousand people working in NIPOST throughput the country compared with some smaller countries in Europe.
PT: Countries that are better and more efficient at managing…
Shittu: It must be a work in progress. You don’t wait until you can attain a full efficiency level before you do the needful. You have to take everything together so that as you expand you also try to ensure that Nigerians do what is right. Before this government came up you know we didn’t have TSA.
PT: We had it.
Shittu: It was not in existence. It was just the policy statement involved at that time by the ministry of finance. It was on paper. But at least you see the difference now. So, in the same vein, every good thing that we think will be of benefit to the common man, this government will not be shy to introduce it. I mean the fear of the possibility of sabotage or possibility of inefficiency or whatever will not drive government away from implementation. We may never have a revolutionary change in Nigeria but at least we are sure that with the right leadership as we have now, reform would continue.
PT: When should Nigerians be expecting these NIPOST reforms?
Shittu: I believe in a matter of two months.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: In the concluding part of the interview, Mr Shittu speaks on his chance to be reappointed a minister, his role in APC's loss of elections in Oyo State, and the future of the APC. Watch this space for the concluding part).