Telecoms companies are not Father Christmas – Shittu, Minister of Communications

In this interview, the Minister of Communications, Adebayo Shittu, insists that his ministry had no hand in the recent increase in data tariff because it was not part of its mandate

Nigerians expressed displeasure over the plan to increase data tariff. How did this proposal come up at a time when Nigerians were groaning under economic hardship?

We have a Ministry of Communications, which is saddled with the responsibility of providing political leadership for the Information and Communications Technology industry. The ministry is involved only in the formulation of policies as opposed to dabbling into regulatory issues which concern telecommunications.

By law, it is the Nigerian Communications Commission that has the power to regulate, licence and provide frequency. The ministry does not have any business regulating the telecommunications industry.

Are you saying that as the Minister of Communication Technology, you had no hand in the proposal to increase data tariff?

When the NCC wanted to increase the so-called data tariff, it did not take any permission from us (ministry). I heard it like any other person in the society. Because of the uproar which greeted the so-called increase, the Senate came in to resolve that the NCC should suspend the new increase and consequently it was suspended. A stakeholders’ meeting was convened by the Senate, I was invited with officials in the ministry. The NCC and operators in the industry were also invited.

When the facts came out, it was discovered among other things that the new rate was actually the rate that was suspended in 2013. In other words, the operators had been caged in a way by the regulatory authority not to increase tariff.

Let me provide a background to this problem. Before 1999, Nigeria had less than 500 lines to a population of about 152 million people. Because it was impossible for Nigerians to communicate among themselves or with the outside world, the Nigerian government called investors to come and invest in Nigeria’s telecommunications sector.

They were not asked to come and do Father Christmas. They came to invest in the telecommunications industry in order to make money and satisfy the telecommunications needs of Nigerians. The challenge that the Nigerian government had at the time was that it had the duty to provide an enabling environment for operators who came to Nigeria to invest. Part of the enabling environment to be provided by the government was that electricity would be made available.

There is no other country apart from Nigeria where electricity cannot be taken for granted by operators. We all know that operators in Nigeria power their equipment with electric generators which they change once in six months. They also buy diesel to power these generators every day. So in a way, Nigeria failed in providing that aspect of its obligations.

We have also failed consistently in providing security for the installations in the telecoms industry. A lot of these operators’ facilities have been vandalised by some people and as a matter of fact, some of the private guards hired to secure these facilities have been killed.

For the operators to lay cables, they have to dig the ground and to secure the right for such an industrial activity, they have to pay through their noses because the state governments and local governments will tax them. Sometimes, they have to pay some people who are called omo onile (land owners). When you consider all these factors, you will conclude that the environment in Nigeria is not sufficient enough to be regarded as an enabling environment.

However as a government, we must weigh the interest of the people and that of the operators, otherwise, if it becomes unprofitable for the investors to work here, they will leave and we will go back to the pre-1999 era.

So the proposed data tariff increase was actually being done to push the consequences of government’s failure on poor Nigerians. Is that so?

I am not a technical person and I do not know the factors that the NCC and the operators considered before arriving at data tariff increase. The Senate does not possess these qualities too. It is only the NCC that has the expertise and the legislative power to dictate what will be reasonable in this circumstance.

In doing that, NCC must also consider the value of our naira as against the dollar. This is because all these services have foreign components. Perhaps, the storage facility for the data we use on our mobile telephones in Nigeria is in the United States of America. For operators to be able to operate efficiently, they have to make subscription to foreign companies that will provide them the required services to be distributed to their customers in Nigeria.

They will not pay in naira but in dollars. To do this, the rate they charge here must be able to sustain them in the market so that they do not go out of business.

Is your ministry in support of the plan?

As a ministry, we neither support nor oppose the move. What we are saying is that there is a regulatory body that has the technological wherewithal to decide on such matters. When they take such a decision, we must respect their expertise. The present government will not be happy if Nigerians are in pains. Government will not want to do anything that will bring pains to Nigerians.

Government must also face the reality that we are in a situation where you must not throw the baby away with the bath water. I want to say that at the end of that stakeholders’ meeting, the Senate felt that there was justification for a suspended rate. The Senate also appealed to NCC to sensitise Nigerians because if they are not aware of the factors that brought about this proposed data tariff increase, people will naturally express their anguish. That is the mandate that the Senate gave the NCC.

The media reported that there had been an increase of about 250 per cent, and that certainly was extremely over- exaggerated. People did not have the correct information before spreading falsehood. Why would I be happy that data tariff is going up when a percentage of the money increase is not coming to me or the government?

What is likely to be the percentage increase?

I would not know because like I have said earlier, I am not a telecommunications expert. Nigerians should await the outcome of deliberations of the NCC, which is the legally empowered organisation to take such a decision.

Power, security and other factors you mentioned are facilities that government should provide for Nigerians and for the operators to operate successfully. In view of the absence of these facilities, if data tariff is eventually increased, don’t you think Nigerians are being made to shoulder the burden of government’s failure?

We cannot say that it’s government failure but failure of the Nigerian state. We had a government over the last 16 years that had spent billions of dollars on improving electricity supply but unfortunately, Nigerians have not seen the result of that investment, perhaps because of the effect of the corruption of the system. This government is new and cannot be fairly asked to pay for that failure. We know that it takes time to improve on electricity.

Before this government came in, crude oil was being sold for as much as $140 per barrel. We were producing up to 2.2 million barrels a day. You would expect that if we had patriotic people in government over that period of time, there would be savings for a rainy day and investment in infrastructure. If that was the case, all these issues about electricity should not be a problem now, but unfortunately, corruption was the guiding philosophy of the past government. The current government is doing a lot and I am sure in the next three months, Nigerians will see the result of its efforts in the power and security sectors.

However, new technology is coming up in the way cables are laid to eradicate vandalism. With the new technology, telecommunications cables will be laid alongside electricity cables and no longer underground. Anybody who wants to steal such cables must be ready to commit suicide.

From what you have said, it is almost certain that the suspension on data tariff increase will still be lifted. Is that true?

Government’s responsibility is to provide an enabling environment for operators to succeed. If you look at those who bring in their services and technology to invest in Nigeria, they are private companies who obtain licences from the government.

If those companies want an increase that is unfair to Nigerians, government can come in and negotiate for a better rate on behalf of Nigerians. Telecommunications is an enabler of other sectors everywhere around the world. If you have a business, the telecoms industry helps to bring it to the people. I want to assure Nigerians that government is doing enough to make Nigerians happy on this issue.

What government will not do is to subsidise telecommunications industry when there are other sectors like education and health to subsidise. Government cannot subsidise peoples’ wish to talk longer on the telephone.

Nigerians are complaining that there is no value for the current data tariff rate. Customers cannot measure how their data is being charged and most of the time, the service is frustrating. Why is your ministry sitting idle while all these are going on?

We are addressing these issues through the NCC. As a Nigerian minister, I am also a victim of these irregularities in the industry. I receive unsolicited calls and messages. I have read the riot act to the operators and I am also aware that NCC has established a toll free line for Nigerians to make comments and lodge complaints.

It is a very complex industry and the processes are equally complex. Government appreciates its role and we shall continue to do our best.

One of the arguments against the planned data tariff increase is that with higher subscribers, tariff should actually reduce. The operators have millions of Nigerians as customers. Doesn’t the government realise this fact and put it on the table while negotiating with the operators?

I do not have all the facts but like I said, we must hold the balance. Just like Nigerians are complaining, the operators are also complaining. Many of these investments have given employment opportunities to Nigerians. They have also contributed to the nation’s economic revival.

I am not holding brief for the operators, I am only telling Nigerians that there are challenges on both sides and by training, I am not conversant with the factors that the NCC uses in doing its job. It is not part of my mandate. I am, however, certain that the NCC will not do anything that will negatively affect Nigerians. I have a document of the position of the organisation.

As a lawyer and minister in this government, are you not concerned that this government has been disobeying court orders, especially the rulings that granted bail to the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu, and the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki?

This government has respect for the rule of law. If someone is standing trial in four or five different courts at different times and a judge grants him bail in one of them, the bail does not cover all his cases. The State Security Service law grants it power to detain people for much longer time. All these people who are in detention did not offend President Muhammadu Buhari, but Nigerians. Dasuki was entrusted with hundreds of billions of dollars and he wasted the money. We have to balance his rights with that of the government to prosecute him.

Are you aware that Nigerians are gradually losing patience with this government because of the level of poverty in the land?

This government has employed 200,000 people. The entire staff strength of the Federal Civil Service is about 500,000 but more is being injected to the system. The school feeding programme of the government is a big boost for farmers and cooks. We are also going into social investment scheme where 1.5 million people will be receiving N5,000 each every month. These are parts of the things that the government is doing to revive the economy. In the area of agriculture, a lot of work is going on.

Government is banning importation of milk to encourage people to have cow farms with the government’s promise of giving the technology to increase milk yield of cows.

Is Nigerian Postal Service still going ahead with its plan to add banking services to its mandate in Nigeria?

NIPOST now has a new postmaster-general, who will drive the process. I have presented the reform package to President Buhari, who then mandated that any reform must be discussed with the Bureau of Public Enterprises. Our calculation is that we would be able to roll out all the reforms by the end of the first quarter of 2017. This is because part of it will require legislation. If NIPOST is going into the business of banking, insurance, transport and property development, the Federal Executive Council and the National Assembly must make huge inputs in the amendment of the bill that established it.

We are not turning the post offices into banks but we are establishing banking services as part of NIPOST services. China practises post banks in the rural areas where there are no banks. There are no banks in about 50 per cent of the 774 local governments in Nigeria. This cuts off a large chunk of the Nigerian population from receiving banking services. NIPOST has about 1,500 offices in Nigeria and it covers villages. The formula will be discussed during our next meeting with the BPE.

The most important thing is to allow all Nigerians access to financial services irrespective of where they are, using NIPOST structure as a vehicle to drive the idea. – Punch.

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