A minister’s conceit

Yours truly has been struggling to make sense of the showboat activism of the type mounted by Isa Ibrahim Pantami, since his assumption of office as President Buhari’s Minister for Minister of Communication and Digital Economy. It started with a ‘directive’ by the minister to the Nigerian Communications Commission “to compel telecommunications service providers to reduce the prices of data being offered subscribers” and to stop “illegal deduction of subscribers’ data by the telcos”. The minister’s personal assistant on new media, Yusuf Abubakar, said his boss issued the directive after he received a progress report on the implementation of Short-Term Performance Targets set for the NCC.

The rationale: A country of over 174 million internet users should rank among the top 10 African countries with low average price of data. As if the prevailing high cost of data in Nigeria is not bad enough, the minister claims that “citizens still do not enjoy value for money as subscribers battle daily with illegal deduction of data, poor quality of service, among others”.

The NCC, he said is to “immediately work hand in hand with the telecom operators and ensure a downward review of the price of data…improve the quality of service and check the illegal deduction of subscribers’ data”.

Now, if you considered that strange from a minister, how about the fiat issued to the NCC Board on November 5? Receiving the Olabiyi Durojaiye-led board on a courtesy visit, the minister had insisted that the NCC must work out modalities to reduce the price of data in the interest of Nigerians.

“His office”, he said “has been inundated with complaints from concerned Nigerians about the high cost of data by telecoms.

He then went on to canvass the now worn argument: “If you go to other countries, even countries that are not as largely populated as Nigeria, data prices are not this high”.

The long and short of it is that the minister wants data prices reduced – initially within FIVE working days and as it now seems –at all costs. As for the complaints by the telcos – of poor infrastructure, insecurity, multiple tariffs etc. – which although preceded the current administration but has gone unaddressed, the minister’s word appears to be – obey first; complain later!

And now that his fiat has been ignored, the minister is alleging blackmail by forces he claims are opposed to his ‘people-friendly’ policies!

Read Also: Pantami, populism and telecom sector

 

Hear the minister’s spokesman – Uwa Suleiman on the subject  only last week: “Since assumption of office, the honourable minister has consistently rolled out policies that strive to protect the consumer and entrench discipline and professionalism in the sector, this stand has obviously ruffled some feathers whose sole aim is to discredit Dr Pantami’s mass-friendly policies.”

“The strategy”, he said “is to compromise the media, using financial inducements and they have raised a considerable amount of money for this campaign.”

The essence, according to Uwa, “was to intimidate Pantami’s office into allowing the continued exploitation of Nigerians by compromising regulators”.

The minister certainly deserves pity. If, as one suspects that his problem is with the regulator, he should simply go ahead to report things to his principal? Wouldn’t that have been better than casting a veiled aspersion on one of the few institutions that have managed to stand the integrity test? By the way, isn’t the NCC a creation of law – as against being another parastatal – prone to being micro-managed by a powerful minister?

We must pity the minister for his exaggerated notion of the office that he occupies hence his promise of what is clearly beyond his powers to deliver! The minister obviously didn’t think that his remit stops at formulating and implementing policies for the digital economy; he wants to play the regulator as well including descending into the arena of tariff formulation whenever he deems necessary. And now that he’s apparently run into the brick wall, he in a moment of grand delusion would recline to playing the patriotism card!

“Mass-friendly policies”; sole-minded resolve “to protect the consumer and entrench discipline and professionalism in the sector”; what else are we not going to hear?

Or that the entire world, including his own regulator – NCC united against the all-knowing Pantami! And the media too! Over what?

Such conceit! Does anyone smell blackmail?

And to imagine Pantami is not your typical, run-of-the-mill political appointee. Until his current station, he was supposed to have been the top gun the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) – a key agency in the digital economy orbit. A graduate of Computer Science from Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, he also holds a PhD from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.

I do understand the seduction to populism. It is however too cheap. Unfortunately, that is the way we do business here. For other ministers, it is not sufficient to prance about in project sites even at the cost of distraction to busy contractors, outlandish promises have often come as part of the package if only to prove that the minister is truly working for the people! Just imagine what would have happened were the minister to have had his way with his so-called ‘directive’ on the telcos. For sure, he would have emerged as the darling of the masses; more, he would have secured for himself the spot of number one activist in government – never mind that this would have come at the cost of a fatal misunderstanding of his remit!

Now the minister is being forced to learn the hard way – that things are not necessarily as they seem; that issues of tariff determination in a complex sector like telecoms are neither simple nor straightforward; and that arbitrariness, no matter how well packaged has its limits. The awareness obviously makes the minister mad – hence his rage at imaginary enemies!

Here’s my one kobo: the minister should eat the humble pie by seeking the counsel from wide and near to carve a way forward. If he has a problem with NCC, he needs to sort it out fast!

He needs to engage the telcos as the key drivers of his digital dream – if ever there was one. He needs to understand that without the telcos, there will be no ministry to preside over! Aside seeking to understand their problems, he should be in the vanguard of the creative policies to address them. To put it in street lingo, the current adversarial postures won’t cut! In all,  to learn to work with the relevant stakeholders for the public good.

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