Barrister Adebayo Shittu, Hon. Minister of Communications Technology, Federal Republic of Nigeria, speaks on his stewardship so far.
R.SF. Honourable Minister sir, I will like to thank you for this opportunity to discuss some burning issues on ICT in Nigeria with you.
HM. It is my pleasure.
R.SF. You will recall Honourable Minister sir, that exactly a year ago, 22nd to 24th January 2016, we were at Ibadan for the stakeholders meeting on ICT. I just wanted to quickly remind you of some of the promises you made then, and to ask where we are now, so that it will serve as a reminder and also be able to communicate back to the community.
First, what you said last year is that the stakeholders meeting will be an annual event. Do you still hope to make it an annual event, and if so, when will the 2017 edition take place?
HM: Thank you. I see this as a reminder. We have problems in Government. We still have the problems, but I can assure you that these problems are getting solved.
You know, as a result of that retreat that we had, we came up with a draft ICT road-map. After the Ibadan event, we sent a draft to all stakeholders. We then prepared a memo to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) with a view to getting it adopted. That road-map was taken to the FEC about six months ago.
Unfortunately, we had a Minister of Science and Technology who felt that some of the agencies to drive that ICT road-map ought to be under his own ministry rather than the Ministry of Communications. It was unfortunate. The man went round, started campaigning and lobbying everybody. The President then setup an inter-ministerial committee, giving us one month to get a resolution, with the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo being the Chairman of the Inter-ministerial committee.
Unfortunately, one month has become six months. It was only within the last ten days that we had the final meeting that we consider satisfactory to us. That again ended with a promised proposal that the final conclusion will be put on paper and distributed to all members of the inter-ministerial committee, to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s. That was to be done within a week. It has not been done, because the VP has been very busy handling assignments. I hope within the next one week, we will get that done.
If we had gotten than memo out of the FEC months back, it will have been easier for us to have been planning for this year’s edition of the stakeholders meeting, because we really should be reporting something substantial, and not that we are now launching it. I don’t think the stakeholders will be pleased with that.
Once we get the Memo passed at the FEC, we will organize the stakeholders meeting to celebrate the one year, and also launch the road-map formally, where all stakeholders will be invited and copies of the ICT road-map will be made available to everyone.
R.SF. Its been one year sir. What will you say, apart from the road-map, which I have been privileged to read and I will say, it is fantastic and all-embracing. What other thing will you say is a major achievement of your stewardship in office?
HM. The Ministry has been engaging all stakeholders. There are so many stakeholders in the ICT sector. We participated in virtually every activities of the various associations and groups. The various sectors of the ministry have also been engaging, organizing one workshop or the other. We have been doing a lot of training programs particularly in the area of e-Government.
We have also been building a number of knowledge centers in schools as well as ICT hubs. We do have an ICT hub in Oyo State. We have also had a lot of management changes in some of our agencies. We have new Chief Executives for NITDA and NIPOST and even recently, the Board of NCC was constituted.
There have been challenges, but I want to say with satisfaction that we have been able to weather the storms. The foundation of our activities is the ICT road-map, because it covers all the sectors and with the challenges we have faced, it has been very difficult to really start its implementation, but I believe that within the next one month, we will be able to make progress. At the time the problem arose with the road-map, we went with three major briefs to the FEC. All the three had to be put on hold, because we needed to resolve who implements. Specifically, ownership. I had to lament at the last inter-ministerial committee meeting that the intrusion by that Ministry (Science and Technology) cost Nigeria six months wastage.
R.SF. So these challenges inhibited traction?
HM: Despite this deliberate pause of my agenda, though it is six months in time, the impact is much more than that. However, there is traction. Whereas our E-government master-plan is on hold, it did not stop capacity building. Our capacity building program continues. We are training public servants in Abuja, to be the early adopters and the change managers.
I have also focused on the area of local content. When I came on board, some of the multinationals who did not want to embrace the policies put in place by my predecessor in office, tried to pull a fast one on us. We did not bulge on the local content policy.
We have seen the benefit of this. You will now notice that a number of them (multinationals) are opening new offices in Nigeria and expanding their operations. They no longer just hire sales representatives, but they actually conduct research within the country and carry out their implementations in Nigeria. We have also seen them partnering with our hosting companies, putting up cloud services in Nigeria.
We have recently launched the Government Contact Center, which has been in place, but not widely adopted. Whereas there are one or two issues, I have pushed that since the Government has invested a lot of resources in such an Infrastructure which will bring the Government closer to the people, then we must let people know about it, so that it can be used. Since its launch, we have been getting a lot of calls from people who want to engage the Government, while we continue to work behind the scene to fine-tune it.
[an aide cuts in … “Time for the next meeting sir”]
R.SF. One more question please. I will want the Honourable Minister to answer these two related questions. The first is the Communication Tax. There is a lot of misunderstanding by Nigerians, on the need to introduce it, at this point in time, in this era of ICT development in Nigeria. A cross section of players believe that the industry is not yet matured for us to impose such a tax because ultimately the tax will be passed by the companies to the users and it may have negative effect on the development of ICT.
The second is the price floor for Internet Access. There is also the believe is that it will raise the cost of access. I will want you to please shed some light on these two issues.
HM. As an Industry player, what is your own position on these two issues?
R.SF. HM Sir, in terms of Tax, I think the communications industry is still young, there is so much potential for growth, that there are other areas that need to be taxed in the immediate, which will still give Government as much traction, as what it will get from communications tax.
R.SF. For example, bringing back the toll gates. I want to see toll gates come back, before we even consider communications tax.
HM. That will somehow also increase the cost of transportation.
R.SF. Yes, but at least the roads will be well maintained, and the surplus thereof will go to reduce pressures elsewhere for the nation.
That is my own take, Honourable Minister. What is yours?
HM. I have always said this, the executive was not the initiator of either of the two taxes, if you like to call them so. The telecommunications Service Tax was an initiative of a member of the Nigerian Senate. We are bystanders at it were, even if we, as a Government, will benefit from it, if it passes through. For me, if it were possible, if Nigerians will reason along, I would have thought that it is a question of: “you want to eat omelettes, you have to break eggs”.
We are all complaining that there is no development, services are poor and all of that. We know that Telecom operators are operating under very very trying conditions. Particularly in relation to use of electricity. They cannot operate without having electricity. Just yesterday, Someone was telling us of the serious problem that they have, getting payments for the electricity produced. Today, Nigeria produces less than 2,000Mw.
It is very sad, but How do we get money to bring about electricity which will leverage positively on the provision of good services? I do not know what happens, but I am sure in Kenya, the operators will not have to rely on their own generators and buy diesel and all of that to operate. In Nigeria, that is an additional burden on them, and the cost today, of services are so low that Govt gets afraid on anything about tax because of the political implications.
I recall that when our President was the Chairman of Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) in those days, what brought about PTF was that Government at that time wanted to increase fuel prices and Nigerians cried out and resisted, but because Abacha then, as unpopular as he was, and as he has always been, he did something which was novel and which paid off. He committed himself to establishing PTF so that the funds would be channeled through that to provide services in road transportation, education, etc, and it worked perfectly well.
Today the road from Lokoja to Owo was done with PTF funds. I would have loved the situation that Nigerians will agree that OK, if this money is coming in through the service tax, let it be dedicated to the development of electricity generation and distribution so that it will have effect on telecommunications operations and provision of service, but Nigerians will not want to listen to that, so at the end of the day, we will have to keep managing with what the telecom operators are able to do, because Government will not have money to do what it should do. It is not our initiative, it is the initiative of the senate. If it passes, Government will benefit and Nigerians will benefit, but if it does not pass, we will not take any position.
With regards to the floor pricing thing, again, that is not the initiative of the Government, it is the initiative of the operators. I am told that the prices which have been suspended had actually first been suspended three years ago. Three years ago, the price was supposed to be what was recently announced and people resisted and so, they had to suspend it.
Now, operators are coming to say, Look, in three years, the cost of this thing remains the same. The cost of every other thing is increasing, so how can it be in the area of Telecom services alone, that price will remain stagnant, when the operators also have to subscribe to International companies and pay in dollars. If you look at the West African environment, services are cheapest in Nigeria than in any other country, having regard to the exchange rate.
You know very well, today, if you want to send a text message from Kenya to Nigeria, it is Fifty Naira. Within Nigeria, it is Five Naira and From Nigeria to Kenya, it is Fifteen to Nigeria. Somebody has to pay the bill. Actually, NCC ought to have explained all of the details to the general public, so that it could have some sympathizers, unfortunately, it didn’t and that was what the Senate blamed NCC for. As of today, there is no more suspension, even if the operators have not yet resumed that billing because the senate itself understood the inevitability of the new prices.
The likes of you, who are influential in the community have the opportunity to understand these issues more deeply and explain to the people. What we see sincerely, people who have access to Social media keep parroting these issues, without understand the intricacies. On this issue of price floor, what people do not understand is that down the line, the people will now pay the price, if things are not done. Why? We need competition. Now the GSM operators are taking over that space.
As the President of the ISP’s Association of Nigeria, how many of your member companies are still existing? The telcos have taken over and they are now doing that by this reduced pricing. Even the companies coming up again, cannot operate profitably, which will limit the options available to customers down the line. And when these people begin to put higher prices, you will be stuck with just a handful of providers. These are the issues, and I implore the likes of you, to be able to delve deeper and explain, so that people can have better understanding.
R.SF. I plan to highlight the issues, and that is why this interaction is very important to me. I also think, your excellency sir, that the issue of quality of service should be mandated, and enforced and equally tackled.
HM. Which should come first?
R.SF. It is quality of service first.
HM. If quality of service would come first, then the operators would have to look for money somewhere to be able to offer qualitative service.
R.SF. No Sir, the point I am making is that the GSM operators are able to get away with murder because they do not stick with the acceptable quality of service in lowering price. If you look at the cheapest operators today, the services is not acceptable. But because it is so cheap, people buy, before they realize that the quality is low.
HM: It is the case of the Chicken and the egg, which comes first? I have to go now.
R.SF. Your excellency, that you very much for this opportunity. And to say this is phase One. I had Nine questions, but you have answered only two. I will like to say that you answered two of my nine questions effectively.
HM: I hope the two were effectively resolved.
R.SF. The two, I am very satisfied. I will look for an auspicious time for the other seven questions.
HM: I am still available. Just surprising that you are a Journalist today.
R.SF. Na so sir. Thank you very much.
Left: Mr. Alan Barrett (CEO AFRINIC), Middle: Barrister Adebayo Shittu (Hon. Minister Comm. Technology, Nigeria) Right: Revd. Sunday Folayan (Chair, AFRINIC Board and President NiRA). Nairobi-Kenya. 23rd Jan 2017.