More details have emerged on how former Speaker of the House of Representatives and current Chief of Staff to the President, Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, saved the telecom industry from a strange Bill pushed to the 9th Assembly by former minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami.
Pantami who exerted so much influence under the Muhammadu Buhari government had wanted to repeal the National Information Technology Development Agency Act 28 (2007) and enact “National Information Technology Development Agency Act, to provide for the administration, implementation, regulation of Information Technology systems and practices as well as digital economy in Nigeria and for other related matters.”
The Bill could have been passed by National Assembly but for intervention Gbajabiamila.
Though hurriedly passed by the Senate on May 16, 2023, in a desperate bid to secure Presidential assent before the departure of outgoing President Buhari, the bill met its waterloo in the House with Speaker Gbajabiamila warning to the Clerk of the House that he does not want the “smuggled” Bill in the Order Paper of the Nigerian House of Representatives.
The controversial bill may be the denouement to Pantami’s despotic superintendence of the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy which began shortly on assumption of office when he advertised his closeness to President Buhari. Having cleared the ground, he unleashed on the Nigerian telecom industry some controversial and bizarre events and incidents, from which the industry may take a long time to recover.
First, he publicly jettisoned the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 that gave independence to the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, for efficient regulation of the industry. He bullied the board and management of the Commission into submission. He took over and directed the activities of the Commission, and personally took over the distribution of funds for different projects of the Commission estimated at about N55 Billion in the last four years.
In one of his bizarre displays of disdain to the flagship agency under him – the NCC, Pantami embarrassingly walked across the podium from where he was seated with President Buhari, to abruptly stop the Chief Executive of the Nigerian Communications Commission, Professor Umar Garba Danbatta, midway into his welcome address to Mr. President at the NCC Office at Mbora, in full glare of the public, and the media.
While serving as Minister, Pantami attached the title of ‘Professor’ to his name, having reportedly obtained the professorial position in one of the Nigerian universities where he was not teaching, and without the requisite qualification. The Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities, ASUU, had publicly placed a disclaimer on the award, but Pantami did not give a hoot.
These are in addition to audio and video evidences that emerged in the media which revealed his involvement in the activities of some terrorist groups in his days as a lecturer. Also on assumption office, another drama was witnessed when he confiscated a building belonging to the NCC at Mbora Annex, which he renamed Communication and Digital Economy Complex, and converted it his office. In doing so, he ordered the eviction of the Chairman/CEO of Nigerian Diaspora Commission, Hon. Abike Dabri, and her agency out of the facility in a very controversial manner that attracted condemnation for the way he humiliated the lady CEO.
While the industry was counting down to his exit, Pantami had other plans – to force down a bill that would ensure that the industry comes under his control through his personal assistant at NITDA, Mr. Kashifu Yesufu.
Recall that Yesufu was a manager at the Central Bank at the point of Pantami’s appointment as DG, NITDA, and he would later appoint him as the Director General at NITDA after he resumed at the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy.
In a brazen display, he recruited some members of the National Assembly to do the job designed to torpedo the Nigerian Communications Act 2003, and render the NCC impotent. Dressed as the “National Information Technology Development Agency Act 28 (2007) and Enact National Information Technology Development Agency Act, the bill sought to change Nigerian Information Technology Development Agency, NITDA, into a full blown regulatory agency that is bigger than the NCC, subsume some functions and powers of the Commission, subsume the technical department of the Ministry of Science and Technology, the engineering directorate of the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, and take control of Galaxy Backbone, the government’s agency managing governance infrastructure to become a Super Regulator. He found an ally in the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Information Communications Technology, ICT, Senator Yakubu Oseni.
Senator Oseni convoked a public hearing on the bill by the joint committee of the Senate and Reps on ICT surreptitiously scheduled for December 23, 2022, the day that the National Assembly went for Christmas break, in anticipation that only few members of the joint committee will attend to validate the bill as packaged by Pantami and passed down as an Executive Bill. The Senate Committee on Communications, chaired by Senator Oluremi Tinubu, wife of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, and the House of Representatives Committee on Telecommunications, chaired by Prince Akeem Adeyemi, were deliberately blanked from the public hearing and all the proceedings on the amendment bill that had more implication for the telecom industry than ICT. The plan to surreptitiously host the public hearing was to ensure that the bill gets accelerated hearing, and made available for Presidential Assent on December 28, 2022 at the resumption from Christmas break by the National Assembly.
At the scheduled hearing, critical stakeholders like the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, Association of Licensed Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria, ALTON, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria, ATCON, Nigerian Computer Society, NCS, Nigeria Internet Group, NIG, Computer and Allied Product Dealers Association, CAPDAN, Investors, and experts, were not invited, having realized their rejection of the bill in earlier stakeholder meetings. Some Representatives sharply disagreed with Senator Oseni for the short notice, and for showing more interest in that particular bill than the original sponsors.
Undeterred, Senator Oseni and Pantami devised another strategy. Another public hearing, now by the senate committee on ICT, was held on April 27, 2023. Over 90 percent of stakeholder organizations and individuals in attendance, condemned the bill and requested that it be dropped in the interest of stability of the industry.
That warning and advice fell on deaf ears and Senator Oseni’s was in a race to meet some deadline, and on May 16, 2023, the controversial NITDA Bill was presented to the Senate in the plenary. During the presentation, and contrary to the overwhelming rejection of the Bill at the Public hearing which was on record, Senator Oseni reported that majority of the stakeholders that made submissions, were in support of the bill!
But the real drama began after the Senate transmitted the bill to the House of Representatives Committee on ICT for concurrence. On May 25, 2023, the transmitted bill found its way to the Order of Proceedings of the House of Representatives without undergoing any public hearing or deliberations of the House Committees.
Apparently having watched the backgrounds to the controversial bill and the desperation with which Pantami and Senator Oseni have prosecuted the bill, Hon Gbajabiamila raised the gavel, and sunk the chimp! That ended the last of Pantami’s chicanery and expensive joke for the telecommunications industry in Nigeria.
· Tahir, a telecom expert, writes from Jos