If NITEL Rebounds…, By Ikeogu Oke
…the story of NITEL’s rebound won’t be complete without being recognised as the culmination of the success story of the country’s choice, made on its behalf by the National Council on Privatisation (NCP) and its secretariat, the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), to embark on its “guided liquidation” as a special means of privatising the public utility, which essentially saved it from asset stripping, among other benefits.
There are several reasons why the news of the possible rebound of the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) should cheer every Nigerian.
One is plain patriotism. Or shouldn’t we be happy that our “national carrier,” if one may use a phrase usually applied in aviation to refer to a telecoms concern, could be revived after many years of being comatose, even though rejigged and relaunched under the ownership and management of a private investor?
And ours would become like other countries that continue to profit from the services of a national telecoms company, with its fixed landlines, fax facilities and what not intact, despite having subscribed to mobile telephony, with the result that its citizens are provided with other means of enjoying telecoms services than just through the GSM system with its paradoxically liberating and restrictive characteristics.
The other is that it will strengthen competition in the telecoms sector. And competition, the bane of monopoly, is the heart that pumps oxygenated blood in business, energising it in the greater interest of the customer.
We already know how it led one of our leading telecoms companies to introduce per-second billing, ending an exploitative regime of per-minute billing where GSM calls were so calibrated that a caller was billed for a minute even for a call that lasted one second.
We also know how, following the introduction of more telecoms companies eager to impress subscribers and grab chunks of the market share, it forced down the cost of SIM cards, and fostered a strong “promo” culture by which GSM companies seek to retain existing subscribers and woo new ones with freebies like corporate gifts, bonus airtime and free data bundles.
Without doubt, the rebound of NITEL will further strengthen such competition in the telecoms sector in the overall interest of the Nigerian telephone subscriber. With the expected rollout of its mobile network and the restoration of its fixed landlines, it will be a case of “the more the merrier” in the telecoms sector, resulting in competition-inspired improvement in efficiency and affordable service in the sector.
The third reason is purely economic. It will create jobs and new streams of income for the citizens and government through salaries, taxes, the production and sale of consumables, with a ripple effect that would foster business transactions with several other sectors connected with telecoms. And the significance of this cannot be overemphasised for a country whose economy is, to put it mildly, on hard grounds, for it would be a veritable stimulus for economic growth.
I, for one, have had a personal experience that makes the news of NITEL’s possible revival especially gratifying. It was in 2008 while I worked as the Deputy Director of Communications in the American University of Nigeria, Yola. I needed to send a document by fax, as required by an institution based abroad in connection with an important transaction.
On inquiry, I realised that the institution in which I worked, regarded as one of the best private universities in the country, did not have a fax line, which I found curious, to say the least.
Anxious to beat a closing deadline, I began a frantic search for an alternative means of sending the fax, and a colleague directed me to the NITEL office in Yola. On reaching the office, the staff told me that the entire fax system that used to be supported by NITEL facilities nationwide, with its fixed landlines, was out of use, as one of the fallouts of the introduction of the GSM system, and so that even if I went round the entire country, I would not find a place to send the fax in a NITEL facility, which explained why my university did not have a fax line – due to the unavailability of fixed land lines nationwide.
I then inquired from the NITEL staff if other countries that had introduced the GSM system still retained their fixed landlines unlike ours, including African countries, and the answer was yes. So why should we settle for less?
In the end, I had to scan the document and take the convoluted route of emailing it as an attachment to a friend abroad to fax to its intended destination.
And I had to explain why I was asking for such a needless favour from my friend who found the request curious, coming from a citizen of “the giant of Africa” living in the undeniably rich estate of that giant. Was it a reasonable explanation that my country does not have functional fax facilities because its fixed landlines that should support this had fallen out of use in the aftermath of the privatisation of its telecoms sector?
This situation has lingered for over a decade, resulting in the denial of the average Nigerian telephone subscriber of what should be an essential, affordable and and easily accessible service and in huge revenue losses to the economy.
In Abuja, my current city of residence, I have since resorted to sending faxes from the business centre of a five star hotel, which I realise is about the only option available to the public in the city, for a facility that citizens of far less endowed countries can subscribe to from the comfort of their homes.
So, if NITEL rebounds, one expects it to solve such problems on a mass scale for the Nigerian telephone subscriber in due time, besides stimulating the said improvements in the economy and telephone services across the sector. I cannot see how Nigeria won’t be better for it.
But the story of NITEL’s rebound won’t be complete without being recognised as the culmination of the success story of the country’s choice, made on its behalf by the National Council on Privatisation (NCP) and its secretariat, the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), to embark on its “guided liquidation” as a special means of privatising the public utility, which essentially saved it from asset stripping, among other benefits.
As the Chairman of the Technical Committee of NCP, Atedo Peterside, explained during the privatisation bid for NITEL, “Under the guided liquidation strategy, all the core assets and business undertakings of NITEL … will be sold as a single or multiple lots to a qualified bidder. Thus, the bidder that acquires the assets of NITEL … will pledge to continue to operate the assets to provide telecoms services. This is as against the traditional liquidation of an enterprise by assets stripping.” Also, the former Director General of BPE, Mr. Benjamin Ezra Dikki, expressed a strong hope that the winner of the bid for NITEL “will deploy the required resources to rehabilitate and grow” the company “to play a significant role in the Nigerian telecoms sector.”
Indeed, doing this will be crucial to the success of NITEL and the fulfilment of what should be its new, progressive mandate under the management of NATCOM Consortium, the winner of that bid, if the recent news of its possible rebound becomes reality.
Ikeogu Oke, a public affairs commentator, lives in Abuja.