CYBER ERA OPINION

Ensuring The Independence Of The Nigerian Communications Commission

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An independent telecommunications sector regulator is critical to the growth and development of the telecommunications industry, and, by extension, the digital economy as the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy appears to be focused on and is apparently ferociously pursuing. Telecommunications sector regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission(NCC), evidently is ahead of its peers as far as regulatory processes are concerned on the African continent. We join pundits and industry experts in affirming that ‘the NCC has been delivering on its key mandates  which has earned it the confidence of all operators in the national network and internationally.’

President of The Federal Republic of Nigeria
Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR

The liberalization of the telecommunications industry in Nigeria, midwifed by the Obasanjo administration, nursed by the Yar A’dua regime and later nurtured by the Jonathan administration, upheld  the independence of the regulator as etched in the Nigerian Communications Act 2003(NCA 2003), from which the Nigerian Communications Commission derives its powers. Specifically, Chapter 2, Part 1 subsections 3 and 4 of the Act deals with the establishment and function of the Commission. It is the same legislation that empowers the supervising minister.  Chapter 111, Part 1, subsections 23, 24 and 25 deal with the functions of the Minister, Formulation of Policy and Relationship with the Commission.

NCC Boss, Professor Umar Danbatta

Expectedly, the liberalization process was largely successful and achieved so much during the tenures of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo through that of the Jonathan dispensations, because of commitment at the highest level of government to the independence of the sector regulator.  Plus government’s consistency with its regulatory policy and avowed commitment to openness and transparency.  The federal government’s communications policy stance, chiefly pushed by the then Ministry of Communications and implemented by the NCC, was maintained during the Obasanjo and Jonathan eras.  Indeed, it was during the tenure of President Jonathan that the Ministry of Communications underwent an ecdysis which led to its emergence as the Ministry of Communications Technology(MOCT) in 2011.

Both followers and analysts of the communications industry are agreed that the MOCT, working in tandem with an independent regulator in the NCC …achieved so much that they looked forward to a maintenance of the status quo under the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, who surprisingly deflated their optimism by reverting to the pre-2011 appellation of the Ministry of Communications and was to later in 2019, rechristen the ministry to the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy(MOCDE). While Buhari may have had the best of intentions for effecting the change in the ministry’s name, industry watchers were quick to point out the move could prove counter-productive.

The NCC has been particularly lucky to be run by top-notch boards,  visionary leaders and competent management and staff, factors that cannot be divorced from the sterling achievements the Commission has recorded since coming into being.   Now, there are visible signs the supposed telecom umpire is being emasculated and may  end up not being  able to discharge its statutory mandates.

Red flags to this effect emerged recently from critical stakeholders of the ICT industry.  When last year the Minister ordered the regulator to sanction mobile network operators(MNOs), for charging subscribers for unstructured supplementary service data(USSD), many stakeholders reacted to this saying while it was not out of place for the Minister to show concern on such an issue, it was clearly not his remit to intervene in the manner he did.  They hinged their argument that statements bothering on regulation of the industry should come from the NCC not the Minister. One of them captured this succinctly when he wrote that “policy and regulation need not clash otherwise the industry could be thrown into confusion.”

Another red flag came from Engr. Titi Omo-Ettu(popularly known within industry circles as the ICT Parable) who took to his blog on his website TITIOMOETTU.COM.NG to condemn why the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy should pronounce on the issuance of spectrum when it was not his remit.  The Minister’s pronouncement came amidst conspiracy theories the 5G technology was linked to the devastating Coronavirus(COVID-19).  Omo-Ettu wrote: ‘Going by the operating Communications Act, it is the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, that issues LICENSES. It is out of place for the Ministry of Communications & Digital Economy to issue a statement denying issuance of licenses when it does not issue any.

“NCC should be seen to be on top of its mandate if it responds FORMALLY to the public on issues of LICENSING. The current procedure may paint the picture of a destabilised industry if not checked. It is not too late for NCC to issue a statement even if to confirm what the Ministry has said. The Commission should also pronounce on the SPECTRUM vis-a-vis HEALTH CONCERNS without waiting for any other body to take the initiative at these worrying times.  A stitch in time saves nine.”

The third flag came from the NCC itself, perhaps, crying aloud, its independence was being toyed with.  In one particular statement to the media, the telecoms umpire recently surprisingly included “independent regulatory authority”.  

And, the fourth fed flag.  Some weeks back at the commissioning of digital projects under the Ministry of Communications Technology, performed by President Buhari, the Minister was alleged to throw protocols to the wind as he either hushed the EVC/CEO of the NCC, Prof Danbatta or wrestled the microphone from him.  We make bold to say that both Prof Danbatta and Dr. Pantami are public servants who must conduct themselves with dignity and decorum.  They both are two gentlemen serving Nigeria and should serve her creditably and honourably.  Whatever differences that exit between them must not be allowed to affect the mandates of the ministry and the departments under it. The MOCDE needs the NCC as the NCC needs the MOCDE, but Nigeria and Nigerians need both ministry and agency most.

The principles of global regulatory decision-making are well known.  They include: transparency, objectivity, professionalism, efficiency and independence. We make bold to say the Nigerian Communications Commission has done fairly well on all principles, but independence. The Commission does not necessarily need the validation of the Arewa Youth Assembly, who recently scored  the chief regulatory officer of the Commission, Professor Danbatta, high on regulation of the industry, to appreciate the fact that stakeholders are following it closely on its regulatory duties and may praise or criticize it when it gets it right or wrong.  So, why would anybody be interested in an emasculated telecoms regulator?

We caution that no public functionary has a monopoly of prescience. Digital economy is not the creation of the NCC or the MOCDE; the terminology has been in the public space since 1998(indeed, many would argue, it may have crept into the lexicon much earlier) and none should create bad chemistry and optics for each other or for the larger political economy, for that matter. But the actions and inactions of the NCC and the MOCDE could potentially make or mar Nigeria’s digital economy aspirations.

The digital economy is worth US$3trillion today and Nigeria does not deserve to be a fringe player in this. The UNCTAD had Nigeria in mind when it advised that some developing countries should be able to establish substantial niches within the digital economy which could enable rapid growth – as Singapore and South Korea did in trade and manufacturing during the latter half of the last century. On its advisory to these countries to identify the most appropriate policies, UNCTAD  listed the need  for the right policy and regulatory frameworks that enable businesses within those niches and help other firms in national economies to make the most of such digital opportunities as come their way.

“It is up to governments,’ says UNCTAD, ‘in close dialogue with other stakeholders, to shape the digital economy by defining the rules of the game.’ This requires shaping strategies to promote national digital economies that meet national economic needs, rather than simply accepting priorities set by powerful actors in the global digital economy, whether governments or businesses.” 

 It is not disputable that Government is a very important stakeholder in the job of telecommunications regulation, but it becomes curious when government that is meant to ensure that the regulatory independence of the NCC is maintained at all times, is the entity being alleged to be wittingly and unwittingly eroding the independence of the sector regulator. The regulator, on its part, needs to appreciate that  there is plenty room for improvement on all principles aforementioned, regardless of the quantum and quality of accolades coming its way, from both objective and subjective assessors.

Importantly, many have argued the NCC is aiding and abetting the erosion of its independence.  One critic on social media explains: “what has happened is that the Commission’s power is not taken but surrendered.”  It is high time the Commission did an introspection and worked tirelessly to remove alleged real or imagined factors militating against its true status as an independent regulatory authority, both in word and deed.

The digital economy is both a powerful catalyst and a driver of inclusiveness and we urge that Nigeria and Nigerians be allowed to reap the catalytic and inclusive benefits of the digital economy seamlessly.  Policy and regulation must cohere to make this happen.  We appeal to the Nigerian Presidency not to wait until matters escalated before doing the needful, not by cutting both men loose at this time, but by settling whatever differences they might be having.  We believe that Nigeria needs both Pantami and Danbatta at this crucial stage of her digital economy journey, but both  men must close ranks and work in harmony and with utmost mutual respectability.

Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Pantami

Nigeria deserves a digital economy  that will make her competitive in the global economy and this can only come to fruition with the ministry and the regulator working in tandem.  Any other stance is diversionary, counter-productive and grossly contraindicated in Nigeria’s circumstance.

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