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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

GSM, ingredient of a free society

REMMY NWEKE reports that advent of Global System for Mobile (GSM) communications is stimulating a free society in Nigeria.

Unknown to many Nigerians, especially the adolescents, the freedom they now enjoy, courtesy of the liberalization of the telecommunications sector, did not come easy.

While some paid with their lives, some incurred economic misfortunes to get to this point, which to some Nigerians actually began with the annulment of the 1993 general presidential election, hitherto adjudged as the freest and fairest elections, before 2011 elections in over 50 years of nationhood of the Nigerian people.

Today, it is easier for a stranded car-owner at the other side of Lagos to call his or her mechanic to come to the rescue, then follow-up with the mechanic until he or she gets to the spot where the attention is required.

Also, today, it is no longer news that several people’s lives have been saved since the coming of mobile communications in Nigeria in 2001. A case in point that quickly comes to mind was that of a widow, Mrs. Elebele Ihuoma who suddenly took ill at about 11pm, penultimate Friday. Her confused eldest daughter returned from work and saw her mother laying motionless, but breathing.

All she could remember was to buzz her mum’s closest friend around their vicinity, Mrs. ‘Tonia Domson, who resides within the same Oshodi suburb of Lagos and within a distance of about 800 meters away. It follows that Mrs. Domson swiftly drove down to Mrs. Elebele’s house in the family car and put up a call to her family doctor before rushing her friend to the doctor’s nearby clinic to ensure prompt attention; where the medical doctor on-call informed them after due examination that Mrs. Elebele had suffered a stroke. Now, to the glory of God she has fully recovered and the rest is better imagined than experienced if that call was not made by the daughter.

As a result of the liberalisation in Nigeria, citizens now air their views unbarred on how they are governed and should be governed on prints via SMS to the editor, call-in during television and radio programmes to express themselves. Just as it could not be forgotten in a hurry that recently President Goodluck Jonathan reversed his ban on Nigeria national football team from foreign matches, which he alluded to interactions he had with Nigerians through the media and mostly on his Facebook account.

Today, to save time, customers now call hair salon operators to know if they have chance to attend to them or should book for another date instead of getting to the salon and be told that the Barber or stylist has just left to no particular location.

Before now, many Nigerians residing in the urban areas rarely go home except for festivals such as Christmas, Easter, Sallah and New Yam. Nowadays, it has become literally a ‘sin’ not to get in touch with the family, especially where one’s parents are still living, customarily at the rural areas; if one is in the city for one or two weeks.

All these have changed with the coming of GSM for local parlance and liberalisation of the telecommunications market for the experts and investors. In fact, most Nigerians think that GSM or the availability of mobile telephony is all about giving dividends as real freedom to the populace of Nigeria, following the return of democracy in 1999. Critically examining this, one would discover that it’s not far from the truth. Nigerians have not had it so good in over 40 years and now they could call and talk as long as they want to anyone, anywhere via their mobile handsets.

Thus, encouraging one to ask what is liberalisation and democracy as well as how both could affect the level of freedom enjoyed in a given society like Nigeria.

Online encyclopedia, the wikipedia.org, described democracy as a form of government in which all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal and more or less direct participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law. This definition encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that allow the free and equal practice of political self-determination.

While there is no specific universally accepted definition of ‘democracy’, equality and freedom have both been identified as important characteristics.

And for ‘liberalisation’ it was described in general term as referring to a relaxation of previous government restrictions, usually in areas of social or economic policy, therefore, giving more powers to the people.

Most often, the term is used to refer to economic liberalization, especially trade liberalization or capital market liberalization.

However, in slight comparison between the two; liberalisation and democracy – A school of thought had pointed out recently that there is a distinct difference between liberalization and democratization, which are often thought to be the same concept.

So, liberalization, they argued could take place without democratization, and deals with a combination of policy and social change specialized to a certain issue such as the liberalization of government-held property for private purchase. Whereas yet another school of thought professed democratization as being more politically specialized that could arise from a liberalization, but works in a broader level of government.

There is no gain saying that mobile phone usage and adaptation in Nigeria have become a ritual to an extent that one industry observer once described GSM as General Street Madness (GSM), due to the fact that people who own GSM phones are often seen talking and laughing on the street all alone.

To some it has become status symbol as disclosed by Yemisi, a system administrator recently that the ‘unfortunate trend’ is that, even her office cleaner’s mobile phone, of course, a Blackberry and is costlier than her phone, simply because one has to literally belong to the rave of the moment.

For some people it has been about using technology to find their old friends and like the group chief executive officer, Teledom Group, Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, once said that telecommunications is like a water tap, which when opened would discharge water based on the kind of pipe – big or small - used to lay it. This means that the more the telecommunications industry is opened up, the more freedom it enables people to communicate. Ekuwem also noted that Communications in this sense could come through voice call, data; internet, World Wide Web (www), knowledge-base among other useful means it could be put to.

Therefore, it could be apt to state that democracy has brought Nigerians the necessary freedom they desire as a society, mostly since the advent of GSM in the country.

Like another industry observer argued, Nigeria gained true independence on May 29, 1999; that is, the day Military through former head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, retired, handed over government to a democratically elected government led by former General Olusegun Obasanjo; who invariably capitalised on the freedom of democracy to liberalise the telecommunications sector.

Now, with over 90 million Nigerians talking, the freedom embedded in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) and capsulated in GSM manifested during the just concluded 2011 general elections; as results were exchanged from various monitoring groups, data pulling became an alias for Nigerian youths and youths at heart and use of social media like Facebook and Twitter to name a few, through mobile phones.

It has now dawn on many Nigerians that democracy pays, after all, they are enjoying the freedom spurred by GSM technology, at least, chatting these days with one’s parents and family from various parts of the world has permeated the Nigerian society to what a rural woman once described as ‘oyibo gossip’ – English gossip, for sake of using mobile phones at ease, to chat with family members in faraway lands like China, India and Europe.

Talking is known to engender a free mind and free mind begets free society which paves the way for dialogue and investment in addition to flourishing of businesses, especially in the small, medium enterprise (SMEs). At least, at the last count, Nigeria had over 50,000 commercial call centre operators, tagged ‘umbrella people,’ with Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in billions of Dollars and employment created for Nigerians, thereby collapsing the ‘Berlin walls’ of doing business in Nigeria to a greater extent.

For Mr. Titi Omo-Ettu, president of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), despite the over 90m subscriber base currently recorded, there is still room for over 50 million potential telecom consumers in Nigeria. Pointing out that in the next decade, 50 million telecommunications users are expected to be connected on broadband internet access.

He also noted that the emphasis hitherto placed on ‘number of connected lines in Nigeria will be shifted to emphasis to ‘number of users’ of telecommunications services to reflect the true development requirement of empowering Nigerians with telecommunications.

Although there are still lots of infrastructure to be fixed, such as electricity power supply, good road network and security, Nigerian state deserves a path on the back and Nigerians for evolution into the rapidly emerging ‘free’ society accompanied with several reforms at all fronts. In fact, it has made the investment climate second to none on the continent of Africa and earned Nigeria the fastest growing telecom market in Africa, and second to China, globally.

Apart from the fact that talking in a given society eases tensions, it also aligns to one of the GSM operators marketing catchphrase ... ‘Now Nigerians are talking’ in other words things are looking up.

Who says that GSM telephony is not a democracy dividend!

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