An industry source called the other day to ask one troubling question: did you hear anything? I hear things all the time was my riposte. It will be an unfortunate disservice to over three decades in the journalism profession if I don’t hear things.
Oh, this is about Dr. Isa Pantami, former Minister of Communications and Digital Economy. He doesn’t want to leave the Ministry or its parastatals. He is plotting a return.
Hey! You can’t quarrel with that. Dr Pantami can take any action that excites his body. After all, he is a politician. And Nigerian politicians are known to be very restless, like locusts, which is why they move from one party to another once they sense any impending moment of dullness or a dip in the expected returns on political investment. Pantami is obviously too exciteable to accommodate any dullness.
Whether out of excitement, enthusiasm or even overzealousness, Pantami swept into the ministry with gusto and began to initiate series of actions that would reverberate in the entire telecommunications industry. Actions in the industry, whether by the Ministry or the regulator, are weighed on the strength of the Communiications Act 2003, which can unquestionably be described as the Bible of telecommunications.
Under his watch the Nigerian Communications Communications Commission (NCC) conducted two 5G auctions in the 3.5GHz band and raked in over $800m. That was a good harvest, something extraordinary that the Buhari government would always gloat over.
In spite of the preceding observation, the minister does not have the good luck to enjoy the kind of cover which the NBC Act Cap N11 2004, gives the counterpart in Section 6, to the effect, that the minister can give any general direction that can override any regulatory decision of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). Instead the Communications Act 2003 shields the Nigerian Communications Commission from every external encumbrance and restricts the minister and his ministry to the areas of policy.
This could be the reason some of the actions of the minister at the Communications and Digital Economy ministry didn’t seem to ingratiate him to the industry irrespective of his claims of achievements. He came in a blaze and left in a welter of furore. On being appointed minister in August 2019, Pantami immediately moved into the regulator’s property at Mbora, Abuja. This was too close for comfort. The regulator’s peace had been traduced and uncertainty would soon envelope the regulator that used to be the pride of the nation and even the continent.
The minister started to exert undue influence on the regulator by way of regulatory capture. All of a sudden, there was a rash and indiscriminate employment at the NCC. Could the minister have gotten too close to know that there was staffing need at the NCC and decided to help solve the problem? Employment used to be planned at the NCC like procurement, methodical and diligent, and only available for some of the best in the land.
This time there was a deluge of employment without respect for the principles of the Federal Character Commission. Most of the people recruited were spirited into zonal offices where their employment would never really be accounted for. The nominal roll spiralled from less than 800 in 2019 to over 1600 in 2023. Some people call what happened at the NCC a big employment scam. But I wouldn’t be that harsh. The regulator came under so much pressure that it forgot it’s indenpence enshrined in the Act or lost the scent of its corporate culture.
For instance, the minister claimed to have been given approval by former President Muhammadu Buhari to employ three directors. Profs. Salahu Balarabe Junaid and Aminu Ahmad were employed as NCC directors. Perhaps they were part of his technical team but it broke the norm. Why were they not employed as Ministry staff? In the past, NCC staff were seconded to the ministers for all necessary technical support, people with competences in various fields of communications.
Furthermore, as a proof of the obtuse recruitment at the Commission in the past few years, a promotion exercise carried out by the regulator early this year, had all 15 Senior Officers (GL9) that were promoted come from a section of the country. Insiders even nailed it down to a couple of states in that part of the country. Some workers at the Commission said that was a very strange development and traced it to external pressure.
Pantami’s tenure at the ministry destroyed peace and long existing camaraderie at the NCC and sowed discord, distrust and suspicion among the staff. Some workers were given positions of advantage and all of sudden they began to themselves as products of sections of the country instead of the harmony that used to be among them. They were no longer part of the knitted whole.
In a particular instance, the minister wrote to the President early in the year and prayed that a particular position at the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) be indemnified in the name of one person, until this person retires. I can testify that the person in the position is a good man, a very good, affable guy. I don’t think that such indemnity is what he yearns for. No. Not at all. But I also want to say that good souls can buckle under sustained pressure.
Although the minister is the USP Board chairman with the executive vice chairman of the NCC as vice, he does not have the support of the Communications Act 2003, from Sections 112 to 120 to canvass such request or validate such appointment.
To support his prayer, the minister made reference to a certain section of the Act in his memo to the President late December. Beyond the Act, this is what Section 23 of the Universal Access and Universal Service Regulation 2007, says: The Commission shall appoint an individual person to serve as the head of the USP Secretariat ( the USP Secretary ) who shall be responsible for the day to day operations of the secretariat. The USP Secretary shall be an employee of the Commission that has been seconded from the Commission’s staff to serve as the USP Secretary on or a full-time basis.“
The Commission has its internal employment policy which allows it to move workers around internally to work in different positions. The minister has only meddled in, and muddled up such internal policy.
Here is what seems to be Pantami’s final act. In a letter dated May 8, the Commission conveyed the approval of waiver request made to the President through the minister by Emerging Markets Telecommunications Limited (EMTS). At a time the country is neck-deep in debt and lacks cash to run even daily operations, the President gave a 50 per cent waiver on the huge debt being owed by EMTS on spectrum fees. The waiver is as follows: Forty Three Billion, Six Hundred and Eighty Million, Forty Eight Thousand, Seven Hundred and Sixty Seven Naira and Fifty Kobo only (N43,608,048,767.50) and for the 2100MHZ band, the sum of Twenty Nine Billion,Three Hundred and Twenty Nine Million, Nine Hundred and Seventy Seven Thousand And Six Hundred Naira only (N29,329,977, 600). Over the next ten years the balance would be paid in instalments as follows N4,360,804,876.75 for the 900/1800MHz and N2,932,997,760.00 for the 2100MHz band.
On Monday night, an industry source told this writer, “we shall respond. We know who is doing this. It is not the NCC but the minister.” Such response may further cause its own disharmony in the industry and cost the government much needed funds.
Under the last administration, the NCC behaved like refugees of a conquered territory, permanently under fear. There was nothing too small to attract the minister’s attention. In May last year, having been blindsided on a conference organised by the NCC in Lagos, the minister fired a memo to the Commission demanding for all their programmes for the remaining months of the year.
Under the last administration, some agencies suffered shame and top government officials were pressured to behave like zombies and turn their back on the rule books and the industries they were appointed to regulate.
Do you hear things? This writer hears a lot. There are frantic moves in some agencies for certain things not to ever come into the open. Others are making the rounds in government circles to maintain perpetuity in office or, on the extreme side, just lobotomise everybody to ensure the past is interred, forever.