It was a coincidence, but one I found quite interesting. There is at least some irony in the fact that the day after I had, at a Press Conference, called on Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, to effectively make the case of the merits of SIM card registration to Nigerian phone users via better communication which extends beyond its customary deployment of newspaper advert and website postings, newspapers also reported that the House of Representatives were querying the Commission on why it should ask for a budget to spend on SIM card registration.
While it is right for our federal representatives scrutinize a government agency on accountability for public spending, what troubles me is the thinking that belies the Honourables’ inquiry about why the NCC should plan for money to spend on SIM card registration ‘when it is not its business to register SIM card purchasers’.
Let me start by saying that we in ATCON (Association of Telecommunication Companies of Nigeria) diverge from the idea of registration of telephone users being limited to SIM cards as it suggests that this process – a continuous census – is for only mobile telephone users. Indeed the objective of registration of phone users which, by the way, was our brainchild, is not limited to the crime perspective of mobile telephony, important as that may be, it is imperative that an industry like ours must not only track information about people that use our products and services, but also managing this information for the public good is crucial.
A database allows us to manage and use an incredible variety of information and will maintain order in an otherwise very chaotic environment. Its expansion and manipulation as the industry grows and our resources increase will not only mean we can fulfill the requirement of security surveillance, but it will aid and augment industry and consequently, national planning and economic growth.
We also advocate that the Honourable members should consider that it is the NCC, not telephone operators, who are justifiably ruled by their commercial imperatives, that is our agency that garners the industry’s and our peoples’ socio-economic interest.
They should be cognizant of the possibility of failures i.e. less than socially desirable byproducts of the market from which our industry is not immune. While telecom operators would take care of their investment, it raises the questions for example, who will educate our people on the benefits of new technologies? What happens if telecoms operators mis-educate our people? The prospect of these by-products provide a strong rationale for a portfolio of economic-incentive based public policies be enveloped by robust regulatory framework and incentives that systematically evaluate their success. For this reason and in these circumstances, people defer to the regulator to safeguard their interests.
When the NCC approved that we provide a register of SIM card users, we erroneously interpreted it to be the first phase of a bigger assignment but on seeing the proposed Bill that the Senate is working on, we realized that the vision of the Bill is indeed limited to registering only SIM cards and not all telephone users. Alas it was not a means to an end but an end itself.
We should impress on the National Assembly that it listens to itself because we read in the newspapers that Hon Dave Salako, Chairman House Committee on Communications, laboured to explain to his colleagues on the floor of the House the reasons why NCC’s powers should not be whittled apparently because he has seen the good in the good but limited powers that the agency has enjoyed to date.
We also need to impress on members of the House that the little isolated strides that was made in telecommunications industry has been partly due to the fine statement enshrined in the National Communications Act 2003 that defines the realms of the NCC’s power to perform its function and that any attempt to whittle down those powers may be retrograde step taking us back to where we have come from.
More importantly, the beauty of the Committee system of a democratic parliament presumes that the benefit of Committee members being able to study public affairs of selected agencies is infinitely deeper and better than the notion that the ill-informed can or able to propagate or implement policy from a re-inforcing layperson’s perspective all based on the specious premise of being the peoples’ representatives.
The perfunctory job of scrutinizing public spending and retaining the success and independence of the NCC are not mutually exclusive. It is indisputable that the way the NCC has professionally discharged its role and responsibilities has immeasurably taken the telecommunications industry to the lofty heights of performance that far exceeds that of any other public institution.