By Okoh Aihe
I have a friend, a very funny guy, but he is a repository of records. Dates are at the tip of his fingers and he reels them out to maximum effect. Sometimes I look at him and I try to convince myself that if a majority of us were this good with dates and figures the country wouldn’t be sighing in stupor for this long. But we live for the moment as a people, borrow for the day, and leave the trouble for the future.
After all some of us would be long gone by then. Since some hearts are crossed and some people don’t believe in the reality of heaven and hell they really don’t care if their souls belong to the devil forever.
My friend is a very funny guy and would always use every opportunity to hit a point home. Before setting out on a journey last week we had a conversation, one of our many conversations in a day, and at the end he returned to the point.
You know NITEL was there for a very long time, and today, that organisation is no more, gone with the wind, like many other government run organisations, with the hope of so many workers shattered into smithereens. Their salaries unpaid. Their pensions stolen by people who would never pay the prize.
My friend is a very funny guy but the story of NITEL is not funny at all. Instead it evokes spasms of painful nostalgia. Most of the young people of today in whose hands the mobile phones have become instruments of dread, that is, if you follow the point of view of the authority, may never know the story of NITEL and what horrendous route led to owning a land line, then followed, by a NOT-NINE-NOT.
It’s not an experience worth relating. But what they will find out, which is made manifest by the present telephony operations in Nigeria, is that as it is in the sector, the former government operator adds no value to the industry, and its relevance and importance stop to matter a long time ago.
My friend is a very funny guy but explaining the ephemerality of power, especially using the demise of NITEL as an illustrative reference point, is not the easiest thing to do. NITEL was king and made life difficult for customers and business partners but had to pay the price of waywardness when some semblance of modernity came to the telecommunications sector. This was the degenerate octopus that held the yam and the knife in the industry but has little trace today apart from the liabilities littered all over.
Ephemerality of power. Concerning the telecommunications industry, NITEL had the power of life and death, metaphorically. At the height of its reign NITEL had about 500, 000 connected lines, meaning that its operations as per the population of the country at the time was actually Lilliputian. But we all misunderstood the regressive existence of a monopoly to strength.
So, when the authorities wanted to do somebody a favour, they directed the person to NITEL. The contract may never be executed but somebody is smiling to the banks. One of the few legacy projects NITEL can point to today is the NIgerian Communications Commission (NCC) which it was encouraged to greenlight with a loan of N50m for take off, and the result is there for all to see.
So the story of NITEL is like one dying for the other to live but that was never the intention. NITEL failed, like some other government businesses, like the railway, like the airline, like the refineries, all presenting very grotesque epistles of how businesses should not be run, but some of the final undertakers are in high places in government with better opportunities to lay the future in jeopardy.
My friend is a very funny guy but carries the story of NITEL, and organisation in mid flight but went down very badly. So when my friend speaks, it’s like evoking the biblical injunction of the holy book, which says, “let those who think they stand take heed lest they fall.”
The fickleness of power and the difficulty of survival should be of more interest to the various stakeholders in the telecommunications industry, from the regulator to the operators. Under them there is no concrete foundation but quicksand which can quickly disappear to illustrate the inevitable meaning of the word.
I have enjoyed every bit of life in the telecommunications industry, especially the latent and contemporaneous experience, the travels, the meetings in high places, and much more, but I live in dread of the future of the industry, and am astounded when I see people hit their chest about achievements and how well they have done in blessing the country with their contributions. They exhibit projects without foundation and never retreat to the countryside to test the veracity of their claims.
With more government incursion the telecommunications industry can take a serious beating and its future becomes even more uncertain. Please, let’s clear the ambiguities. The regulator, NCC, represents government but should have a life of its own, independent of government, in order to assure investors that it has enough capacity and will-power to wish their business well. But such expectation is becoming illusory and the relationship between government and regulator becoming so tenuous that a once boisterous industry is reacting to happenings in the sector with suppressed remonstrations.
That my friend is a funny guy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look beyond the veneer of his words to think seriously about the telecommunications industry. For me, we have to do more of regulation to strengthen the pillars that hold the sector which everybody so readily points to as the poster boy of success without any thought for the weaknesses therein. The reward for lavish praise-singing is complacency which easily erodes legacy foundations. It will be catastrophic to let that happen to the telecommunications industry.
From Friday last week I have had the goodluck of going into Delta State and just having some little fun in some towns in Edo State before finding myself in Benin, the state capital. A friend has threatened to report me to my wife for exposing my life to danger.
But I am with her and we are sharing the experiences of life together. And she will agree with part of my story. But permit to say that Benin this Monday evening looks very tranquil, just like the old city we have always loved, before the encroachment of the infernal creatures from hell.
Being on the road and relying on my communication tools, I can certify that the networks are too fragile outside of the state capitals or, if you live in Abuja, outside of the city centre. The integrity of the networks is far below the industry standard and attempts at communication can elicit curses, that is, if you are foul-mouthed. But frustration can really get somebody worked up to a degree of unintelligibility, especially if you are faraway from your abode and you are trying to reach loved ones.
Something is very wrong. We should put a hand on it and look for creative solutions. I have a feeling that the situation in the country is not encouraging operators to commit more investments into the industry because nobody wants to put funds in an uncertain environment. Oh, just like feeding a hungry fire with very dry firewood. Time has come for us to look at ourselves in the face and put an end to the bloodletting which is slowing weakening the strength of our great nation.
The regulator should have a genuine conversation with operators and try to encourage them to bring life back to a weakening industry which we still hail as performing at premium best. There is a pervasive weariness in the land which is affecting our definition of standard and this should not be allowed to tar the rating of a once performing industry.
I am regularly in touch with the industry. Their readiness to accelerate to the next level is never in doubt but such readiness should enjoy the confidence and encouragement of the regulator and, by extension, the government. At least, let the country for once, have an industry with star rating in performance and service delivery.