When President Muhammad Buhari inaugurated his ministers after he was sworn in for a second term last year, many had high hopes of a transformational change in the economy especially in the area of information and communication technologies (ICT) despite some failings in his first term.
During Mr Buhari’s first term, the ministry of communications, saddled with all responsibilities regarding ICT, could not meet the expectations of many. The ministry’s mandate is hinged on facilitating easy access to communication and promoting ICT usage to drive transparency and development.
Headed by Adebayo Shittu, the ministry failed to reposition Nigeria in the areas of advancing communication, increasing foreign exchange, quality service and creation of jobs as promised by the then minister, a 2019 PREMIUM TIMES’ findings revealed.
Fast forward to the start of another term, Mr Buhari, for reasons he did not explain, did not return Mr Shittu as the minister of communications.
Instead, on August 21 that year, he got Isa Pantanmi, a former Director-General of the National Information and Technology Development Agency (NITDA) on board to pilot the ministry’s ship.
Mr Pantami, 46 at the time of his appointment, fostered an image of confidence and competence as contrast to his predecessor, after having enjoyed a cordial relationship with other agencies in the ministry, as the DG of NITDA. As a technocrat, many felt he was the man for the job.
Not long after his inauguration, the minister pushed for a rechristening of the ministry to the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, to cover the goals of digitalising Nigeria’s economy and approved by the President on October 17.
One year after, his performance appears to tally with people’s expectations, an analysis by PREMIUM TIMES reveals.
There are five subsumed agencies in the ministry he heads, namely: Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC), National Information and Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST), Nigerian Communication Satellite Limited (NigComSat) and Galaxy Backbone.
In the assessment of the ministry’s progress in terms of public service standards and efficiency, PREMIUM TIMES finds that there have been some considerable improvements in communication and digital ecosystem in the last one year.
SIM cards registration policy
Upon assumption of office, Mr Pantami said his mandate was to ensure that the ministry plays its role adequately as a ‘supervisory ministry’ to agencies under its fold, in tandem with Mr Buhari’s focal points to facilitate economic development, anti-corruption and security.
He hit the ground running, asking for reports from all agencies in the ministry for performance targets. Receiving a report from the NCC that about 9.2 million SIM cards in Nigeria were not properly registered, he directed telecom operators to stop the issuance of unregistered and pre-registered ones, and asked the NCC to block improperly registered SIM cards.
Mr Pantami said the security implication of having such irregularity was too grave for the ministry to ignore as “it will not tolerate any actions or inactions that will compromise the nation’s security.”
This was to ensure the SIM cards would not be used for criminal activities.
After having set a deadline for telecom operators to alert their subscribers, the NCC deactivated 2.2 million improperly registered SIM cards nationwide.
Suspending telecom USSD charges
Last October, when a telecom firm, MTN, said it was going to impose a N4 charge on customers who use its shortcodes to access banking services, many Nigerians expressed outrage on social media over the plan.
Mr Pantami, who said his ministry was unaware of the plan, swiftly directed the NCC to suspend it.
The telecom giant halted the plan as the order came in.
Data cost deduction
As 2019 advanced to a climax, there were public outcries on a raft of tax and charges people were paying. One of those was the high cost of data.
Reacting to the situation, Mr Pantami ordered a downward review of the prices of data packages within five days from when the directive was given. The minister argued the order was to stop unstructured supplementary service data deductions by network providers because Nigerians appeared to spend more on data than the little value they get for their money.
But the Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) said the order was counter-productive for its members since their operating costs are mired by several challenges such as infrastructure vandalism, taxation, levies, Right of Way (RoW).
At a special reception organised by ALTON, Mr Pantami said the government was aware of the challenges the mobile operators experience in their business. He added that the government was committed to resolve decades-long challenges facing the sector.
“The way we pursue the mobile operators to do what is right, we should also work together to protect their interest and resolve the challenges operators face,” he said.
Nothing still signposts that there has been a full compliance with the minister’s directive even as the number of subscribers increased this year amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Right of Way (RoW)
The issue of Right of Way (RoW) charges is one of the decade-long challenges bedevilling the telecommunication sector. The RoW is a legal permit that allows telecom operators to use the state lands to lay their telecom infrastructures such as connectivity cables.
According to the minister, for 13 years, the problem had hindered broadband penetration (extent of internet transmission).
Addressing the Governors’ Forum in January this year, Mr Pantami entreated the state governors to follow the national benchmark for RoW charge of N145.00 per linear metre of fibre. After the meeting, some states such as Ekiti, Imo, Plateau and Katsina slashed the RoW charges—formerly N4,500—to N145 per linear metre, a 97 per cent reduction. Others like Anambra and Kaduna completely waived the levy.
The minister had argued that the implementation of the new RoW charges would not only reduce the cost of service but also improve the states’ economy.
As glamorous as it might look, many states are yet to implement the levy for a healthy relationship with the telecom operators, thereby losing out in the investment plan for a digital Nigeria if it does not circulate adequately to all parts of the country.
Naming telecom infrastructure as CNI
There had been calls for government’s help in battling the issue of vandalisation of telecom infrastructure as it had a stint on the growth of the ICT sector in the country.
According to the NCC, the telecom industry recorded about 33,000 cases of vandalism and theft of telecoms facilities within a period of 13 months spanning June 2017 to August 2018.
Buoyed by this, the minister played a significant part to have the telecom infrastructure named as part of Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) since a bill in its name was first introduced 12 years ago.
In June this year, Mr Buhari approved the provision of security for the telecom infrastructure nationwide, as he named them CNI.
Cancelling NIPOST’s cash payment method
Last November, Mr Pantami directed the Nigerian Postal Services (NIPOST) to stop cash payments in its offices nationwide. The minister said all payments across NIPOST offices in Nigeria should be made through Point of Sales (POS) machines or bank tellers.
He said the move was in tandem with the president’s anti-corruption agenda.
But analysts believe achieving nationwide compliance now seems superfluous.
Cutting-edge digital policies
As the ministry expanded its goals to include digitalisation of the Nigerian economy, it became necessary that good policies are put in place.
One of the highpoints of the Pantami-led ministry is the formulation of cutting-edge policies that seek to reposition Nigeria in the global digital ecosystem, the reason for which the ministry was renamed last October.
Conceptually, a digital economy comprises goods and services that either were produced using digital technologies or include these technologies, according to researchers at Brookings Institution.
The yardsticks for a blooming digital economy are hinged on the performance of the ICT industry.
According to Oxford Economics, the value of the digital economy today is 11.5 trillion USD, which is approximately 16 per cent of the world economy.
The launch of policies such as the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (2020-2030), National Broadband plan (2020-2025), National Policy for the Promotion of Indigenous Content in the Telecommunications sector—is panned out to reposition Nigeria’s economy from its over-reliance on oil and gas.
The digital revolution is expected to transform lives with unprecedented speed and scale as it expands the many potentials of a digital age.
According to the World Economic Forum, by 2022, 60 per cent of the world economy will be digitalised. By 2030, almost 85 per cent of the world economy is going to be a digital economy.
Increased broadband penetration
In 2013, Nigeria unveiled its first broadband plan for a period of five years. At the time, the plan was to achieve broadband access, defined as minimum download speeds of 1.5Mbps with at least 30 per cent coverage, and an objective of achieving 3G coverage to at least 80 per cent of the population, according to the NCC.
The rollout of broadband services would have tackled socio-economic challenges faced by the country such as economic growth, job creation, increased financial inclusion, improved digital literacy and educational standards; identity management and security challenges through the effective use of technology, and improved quality of life, the communication agency said.
However, the 30 per cent penetration achievement in the Nigerian National Broadband Plan 2013 – 2018 was obtainable but with unserved and underserved communities left out, setting grounds for another effort to increase the country’s internet coverage of 4G as the world embraces 5G coverage.
Noting the importance of increasing investment in fixed broadband penetration, Mr Pantami rolled out the National Broadband plan (2020-2025) last November which was later unveiled by Mr Buhari.
By July this year, the new policy had Nigeria’s broadband penetration increased by five per cent, to tally—40.1 per cent—up from 35.1 per cent in August, 2019.
Increased ICT’s contribution to GDP
The ICT sector has contributed greatly to Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the last year, as noted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
In the second quarter of 2019, before Mr Pantami’s appointment, ICT’s contribution to the real GDP stood at 14.6 per cent of the real GDP while in the same quarter a year later, it leapfrogged to 17.8 per cent. This is even in spite of the economic slowdown.
Consequently, many Nigerians on social media attributed the feat to the ministry’s strategic policy directions under Mr Pantami’s stewardship.
The minister himself described the ICT sector as “the new oil”— a euphemism for a major revenue-generating sector.
“The GDP Report has shown how critical the ICT sector is to the growth of our country’s digital economy and, by extension, the general economy,” Mr Pantami said.
Last November, the ministry approved trials for the fifth-generation (5G) network for a period of three months. Nigeria is one of two West African countries that ever held the 5G trial.
The fifth generation of mobile technology is an improvement on the current 4G technology being used, with enhanced capabilities that provide the platform for new and emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data to improve the way people live and work.
The trial was conducted by MTN in three major cities—Abuja, Lagos and Calabar. It used 26GHz frequencies and was concluded earlier this year.
There was, however, no licence given to telecom operators to go on with its installation. This seems to be unsettling for some who taught the installation of 5G no doubt would bring more development to the sector.
The ministry, through its communications agency, had defended the decision to let it stop at the only trial stage because “it is technology-neutral.”
“We don’t license technology but assign spectrum to operators for deployment of any service when allocated by the National Frequency Management Council (NFMC),” a statement by the commission once said.
However, experts believe the deployment of the 5G would transform Nigeria into a ‘smart city’, improve its economic growth and migrate it to a digital economy, this newspaper reports.
Across all geopolitical zones, the ministry had, within a year, launched about 80 digital capacity training centres, IT hubs, IT community centres, innovation and incubation parks, IT community centres and capacity-building centres in higher institutions of learning.
For Idris Oladipo, the head of Digital Innovation at EduFirst, there have been some significant improvements in terms of sound policies and regulatory framework.
“The ministry has been very deliberate about the implementation of its National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy and the National Broadband plan among others.
“As at July 2020, the broadband penetration in the country was reported to be 42.04 per cent which is a significant progress, meaning more people can access the internet and do so much more with the power of the web,” Mr Oladipo said.
He added that “the deliberate attempt at digitising core government functions across MDAs is another milestone recorded by the ministry in the past one year.”
When asked to grade the ministerial performance, he said the ministry has done well, “but not excellently well because it will be too early to assess its performance within a one-year calendar as some of the key efforts made by the ministry have growth implications which may only be visible in the next 5 to 10 years.
“It is expected to be one of the functional ministries to drive the much-desired socio-economic growth Nigeria wants.”
The digital expert, however, entreated the ministry to work closely with telecoms service providers in keeping the cost of mobile data more affordable
A marketing communication consultant, ‘Lara Obaremi, said Mr Pantami’s one year in office has been “topsy-turvy, especially with the pandemic.”
However, the communication sector, she said, has helped unify Nigerians as the providers really upped their game during the lockdown.
If she were to rate the minister’s performance, it would be a 50 per cent pass mark, saying there is room for improvement, she said.
This was echoed by Sani Yakub who works with Main One, a vast telecom company in Africa,
“As with everything, there is always a room for improvement,” Mr Yakub said.
He said the major loophole towards taking the industry to the desired height lies with the legislation that empowers the state with the sole right over the Right Of Way.
“This has been the perennial issue bedevilling the deployment of service by the operators,” he said.
He expressed optimism that there would be a positive turnaround as there are still ongoing engagements with the states and well critical stakeholders in surmounting the problem.
He rated the ministry’s performance—80 per cent.
Overall Grade for the ministry is: Above average.