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Wednesday, December 28, 2022

A Minister's quest for balkanisation of NCC by Sonny Aragba-Akpore - ITREALMS

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The minister of communications is out to strip the NCC of its powers, reckons Sonny Aragba-Akpore.

Sonny Aragba-Akpore

After reading and re-reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, searching for the fate that awaits telecommunications regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) is not difficult to decipher.
For reasons left to our imaginations but well-choreographed by Communication and Digital Minister, Dr. Isa Pantami, the battle to make the NCC a conquered territory began in 2019 when out of the blues, an interventionist organization, Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) was annexed and its Secretary by NCC organogram was renamed Executive Secretary.

Henceforth, the Secretary moved his office from NCC Headquarters in Maitama to the Minister’s Office/Home where decisions on which projects and by which contractors to be approved became the prerogative of the minister and his crony, the executive Secretary. Neither the board nor the management raised any dust.

Pantami had tested the waters and saw himself on a voyage of conquest. He never trusted the NCC management hence the removal of its board Chairman then, the late Senator Olabiyi Durojaiye and replaced him with his friend, Professor Adeolu Akande, former chairman of NITDA when Pantami was its Director General.

He narrowly missed imposing his former Personal Assistant at NITDA, Inuwa Kashifu as NCC new boss.

Kashifu was a level 12 officer whom Pantami made DG against known conventions and wanted him to move to the NCC. Having failed to actualise that and sensing he could not remove the incumbent Chief Executive or Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) Professor Umar Danbatta, he boxed him to a cliff. The entire management became captives as the board existed in name and an appendage of the minister. Employment issues became issues so much that jobs were given out as political settlement and curiously slanted in favour of friends of the minister. There was no rule of engagement as interviews were conducted on Sunday evenings and new intakes resumed on Monday morning. The minister became a god who directed those who must get what and how to worship in his “shrine.” Strangely too, industry players lost their voices and they struggled to be on the “good books” of the super minister who boasts everywhere that he could over rule the President. 

The minister’s voyage of conquest manifested early as he dished out directives that remain surreal and in desperation to succeed in this conquest he acted like a modern czar. The NCC was his target and his self-appointed mandate was to balkanize the place and elevate Nigerian Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) to a super regulator. In order to make this a reality, NITDA released a code of practice for the ICT sector in June 2022 ostensibly to regulate content on social media, telecommunications and broadcasting.

Sensing no reaction from stakeholders, the minister began the move to repeal the NITDA Act of 2007 that set it as a development agency with emphasis on technology incubation for government, schools, research institutions, among others. And stakeholders and industry players were jolted last week with the announcement of a stakeholder meeting on the eve of Christmas to consider a bill to make NITDA a regulatory agency for Information and Communications Technology with a view to develop a digital economy. Although, the poorly attended meeting in the National Assembly didn’t stop anything, but something is clear: the NCC is living on borrowed times as it’s overriding regulatory oversight of the telecommunications sector is being taken over by the omnibus agency, NITDA, once the bill sails through. As it appears, the minister began NCC’s castration early by putting it on flight mode. And the new NITDA bill is the road to actualizing the final conquest.

The new bill simply states that stakeholders should sit and consider“AN ACT TO REPEAL THE NATIONAL INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT AGENCY ACT, NO 28 2007 AND ENACT THE NATIONAL INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT AGENCY ACT TO PROVIDE FOR THE ADMINISTRATION, IMPLEMENTATION, REGULATION OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY SYSTEMS AND PRACTICES AS WELL AS DIGITAL ECONOMY” (caps for emphasis ).And so from a development agency to a super regulator ,NITDA will carry out functions enshrined in the NCC Act of 2003 without even attempting to repeal the painstaking document that has seen Nigeria grow its telecommunications sector second to none Africa and an envy to global community by ceding its mandate to an organization managed by rookies and neophytes.For instance: Section 6 lists among others Powers of the Agency to include:

(1) implement all Government policies on information technology and digital economy;

(2) test, and approve the use of information technology infrastructure and services before adoption in Nigeria;

(3) develop regulations, guidelines and directives on the use of information technology and digital services in every sector of the economy to attain the purpose of the Agency;

(4) collaborate with the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON) to develop and enforce the standards relating to this Act and make inputs to international standards on information technology and digital economy;

In order to strip the NCC naked in the market place, the new bill clearly states the followings.

Section 1 states the purpose to include the creation of an effective, impartial, and independent regulatory framework for the development of the Nigerian information technology sector and digital economy but didn’t define the digital economy which is shrouded in ambiguity. The NCC already does this and what it clearly means is to strip it of this responsibility.

The inclusion of the concept of ‘Digital Economy’ as part of its regulatory purview expands its frontiers to matters within the exclusive regulatory mandate of the NCC. This will impact on the Commission’s functions in Section 4 of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003; that empowers the Commission to regulate communications services that drive the digital economy.

1Access to digital services is based principally on mobile internet services that is within the regulatory purview of the NCC and residing it in NITDA is in conflict with Section 3 of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003.

The bill says NITDA will issue regulations, guidelines, frameworks, directives and standards for ‘appropriate infrastructure’ and ‘information technology systems’ for the development of ‘digital services applications’.

We must note that the infrastructure that drives digital services’ is on matters related to physical and non-physical elements that facilitate internet services in Nigeria. These are currently within the purview of the NCC.

It also conflicts with the provisions of Section 157 of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 that defines “Communications sector” or ‘’market’’ as “an economic sector or market for a network service, or an applications service, or for goods or services used in conjunction with a network service or an applications service, or for access to facilities used in conjunction with· either a network service or an applications service.”

The bill empowers NITDA to regulate digital devices even when there’s no clear definition of digital devices’ but it could assume to mean devices that facilitate access to the internet and other communications services.

This is clearly within the regulatory purview of the NCC as outlined in Section 2 of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003.

Section 147 of the NCC Act 2003 has empowered the NCC to monitor equipment and devices for national security purposes and it has issued a regulation in that regard. This too has been included in the NITDA bill.

Section 9 (l) of the bill states that NITDA shall promote universal access for information technology, digital services and systems penetration in Nigeria.

Our understanding is that the generic use of ‘universal access’, ‘digital services’ and ‘system penetration’ makes this bill a replica of the provisions of Sections 112 and 113 of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 that establishes the Universal Service Provisions Fund (USPF) under the NCC and this impedes the intendment of the draft provisions, which is to deepen internet penetration in unserved and underserved areas, roles within the purview of the NCC thus creating regulatory overlap.

The generic use of ‘information technology infrastructure’ and ‘digital services’ will bring current licensees of the NCC under the regulatory purview of NITDA because most IT infrastructure and digital services are driven by the internet platforms that are majorly based on services provided by the ISPs and MNOs; that are current licensees of the Commission.

And this will further overlap the functions of NCC as all corporate entities that provide information infrastructure and digital services (as defined in this proposed act) are directly licensed by NCC and all technology devices connected to the communications networks in the country are required to be Type Approved by the NCC.

It’s not clear what the new legislation wants to achieve but it will not be out of place to assume that the minister wants to impose his cronies on the system in order to feather his nest in and out of power.

Indeed, his success at the National Assembly in converting the NITDA bill to an Act of parliament may be a jolly parting gift as the minister counts his days in office.

*Commentary by Aragba-Akpore is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board and first published in ThisDay/Editor

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