Telecom as national PR tool

WITHIN the past 12 months, I have had the privilege of attending, at least, four international conferences in Europe and Africa, the last being the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) organised conference in Egypt last May, called the ITU Africa Telecom 2008. 

It was a conference that attracted the stars and icons of telecoms from all over the world. In fact, it was a meltdown of the latest geeks and gizmos in the global telecoms bourse.

In a global assembly such as this, you would expect Nigeria to be swamped or dwarfed, especially given the calibre and pedigree of other participants. Never! Nigeria made an impressive showing with a strong delegation led by the Minister of Information and Communications, John Odey.

Nigeria presented, at every turn, a veritable case study of how telecom, if properly managed, could accelerate, not just a nation’s developmental strides, but also the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Speaker after speaker painted the picture of how telecom has helped to leverage their local economies. But of all the presentations, none approximates in substance and magnitude to the Nigerian story.

In a period spanning just seven years, the country has moulted every unsavoury garment that it has long been associated with. A few statistics would suffice. 

Telephone throughput from 400,000 lines in 2001 to over 45 million in 2008; foreign direct investment from $50 million in 2000 to over $11 billion in 2008; direct well paying jobs in excess of 10,000 in seven years with over 500,000 ancillary jobs created within the period; increased earnings in cash for the Federal Government arising from licensing fees, among others.

All of these, and many more, fittingly tell the story of a nation that was once on the receiving end of butts and jokes at international forums. The Nigerian telecoms story, unbelievable, yet true, is well known in the global arena. 

That was the story the Nigerian delegation told in Egypt and at different forums they have found themselves these past years. It is a fairy tale which impact is not only strongly felt on the nation’s socio-economic front but also on the international circuit where Nigeria was once cast aside as an unworthy member. Now, telecom has rolled away the pariah stone and Nigeria has emerged from the debris as a beautiful bride sought after by many nations.

When the Nigerian story was told in Egypt, as in other places across the globe, it did not sound like some twaddle intended to clean up a dirty pig, it did not have the rhyme and rhythm of a make-believe. It was empirical and true. Again, we did not hear the raucous cynicism that often attended Nigeria’s participation at international forums.

Inside the ornate hall, amid an ambience of pomp and circumstance, Nigeria shone like a shimmering star from the Milky Way. Venture capitalists, telecoms entrepreneurs, bankers and sundry professionals salivated as the statistics from the Nigerian market were reeled out. I felt proudly Nigerian as I watched the cosmopolitan assembly of investors and professionals preen their ears to hear more about how well the nation’s telecoms industry is doing. 

For some familiar with the Nigerian story, it was a miracle to achieve so much in so short a time. Tim Lloyd-Keresh, a Venezuelan who is familiar with the operational tardiness and red-tape that were the hallmark of operations at the old NITEL, was too eager to find out how the magic was wrought, how a nation in the black book of ITU a few years ago as under-performing has suddenly transformed to a benchmark of telecoms excellence in the global marketplace, such that it has continued to receive pristine reviews in telecoms journals across the world.

Much as I was enthralled by the Nigerian story, I could not but shudder at how much and how sudden a nation could transform. I found myself believing again, first, in my country and, second, in the reality that out of our much touted madness, good can evolve. 

Out of the legendary sloppiness in the nation’s telecoms sector since 1886 when the colonial masters introduced telephone into our national life, professionalism and productivity have become the touchstones that signpost our path. In the same industry where we have been despised, we have become the toast of nations. 

Yet, unknown to many Nigerians, the success recorded in telecoms these past seven years owes so much to the leadership provided by Alhaji Ahmed Joda, a veteran journalist and administrator, and Ernest Ndukwe, an engineer. Both are Chairman and Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), respectively.

It must be stated that deregulation had been effective since 1992 but only assumed a revolutionary dimension in 2000 when the likes of Joda and Ndukwe arrived on the scene. It is in itself a testimony to the fact that with the right leadership, this nation can yet be great. And greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right use of strength (apologies to US cleric and abolitionist Henry Beecher). Both have deployed their individual strength rightly. 

As Nigeria gropes for clues to achieving President Yar’Adua’s Vision 20-2020, the President’s think-tank may need to understudy the NCC’s success story with a view to replicating same in other sectors, particularly in the power sector.

Mr. Musdafa, a policy analyst, 

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