Perspective

 

Nigerian leaders still have a lot to learn in terms of communications governance, writes Tunde Musibau Akanni

Prior to the commencement of this year’s edition of Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which held in Guadalajara, Mexico, Nigeria’s Communication Minister, Alhaji Adebayo Shittu stoked a fire of controversy. He announced that telephone services in Nigeria would soon be subjected to additional tax of 9 per cent.  
Not a few Nigerians were amused. There was a barrage of negative criticism. Most people complained that the planned tax was another manifestation of President Muhammadu Buhari’s insensitivity to the plight of an already impoverished population. The controversy gradually subsided. But it didn’t take long for another to be stirred on data service.
It was the turn of the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) this time. Much closer to the IGF which commenced Monday December 2, 2016, NCC blew the lid off the rather calm data sales realm to trigger what turned out to be another protracted debate. It announced that the prices of data would go up. As it happened to Minister Shittu’s offensive against Nigerians, so was NCC immediately confronted with a stern opposition from the people.
Perhaps for want of what to say, NCC made effort to rationalise that the plan to endorse the price hiking for data was in the interest of the small ones among the service providers, who may be stifled out of business if that step was not taken. Thus arose questions that have not been duly addressed: How did NCC, justifiably and responsibly, arrive at this judgment? How would NCC justify its support for the poor taxpayers on whose sweat it’s been thriving? Most important: What reckoning has NCC for the engagement with stakeholders it claims to conduct? Seriously speaking!
As NCC mustered efforts to defend its unenviable position, identifying as Nigerians for some of us attending the 2016 IGF suddenly became a burden. Colleagues from other parts of the world kept remarking derisively that Nigeria was always a surprise in spite of its insistence in claiming all of the superlatives relating to development in Africa. Within oneself, there was no doubting that those given governance responsibilities in this regard need to learn a lot.
Shittu confessed, to senators after all, that he was not an expert but a sheer political office holder, when he tried to absolve himself of the NCC’s blunder. Even this Communications Ministry-NCC’s seeming dissonance isn’t healthy for a nation whose other sectors are not in the best form. What seems to be the biggest revenue earner after oil does not seem to be enjoying the kind of peace and seriousness that could nurture it to optimal earning capability and effective social relevance. It is rather disappointing that neither the ministry nor the regulatory body took cue from the events of the recent past and even the contemporary ones.
In 1998, Columbia Journalism Review published a cover story, “Will Gates Shut the Papers?” In that report, the magazine recounted the dilemma of newspaper and magazine publishers in the US following the inception of the internet. The publishers, at the reported annual congregation, noted that a greater percentage of their advertising accruals were being diverted to online platforms.
They expressed serious concern and felt they need to be seriously creative and supported by all including the government since they would have to inevitably co-habit with the emerging, new media. The publishers’ worry became the worry of the society especially relevant government functionaries.
The media were perceived as an indispensable variable in the democracy mix. Their survival would always be beneficial to the society it was argued. Subsequently, government agencies deemed it necessary to parcel advertisement out to several of these news media establishments as some kind of support.
When this same experience began to play out in Nigeria, it was not in any way inconspicuous. Indeed, the then Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State, home to the highest number of media houses in Nigeria, acknowledged it in one of his public statements. He however barely advised that the media should explore alternative avenues for revenue for survival. Not for him, any likelihood of supporting the media. Today, big newspaper companies like The Guardian and Thisday have had to shed considerable weight of labour wages. Like Governor Fashola, like NCC since then till date.
But there’s no stopping the incessantly rolling wheel of innovation. At the just concluded 2016 edition of the IGF, 73-year old Google executive and one of those, who saw to the inception of the Internet, Vint Cerf registered one bold submission – it was rightly titled: “The Internet as an Unfinished Business”.
Cerf noted that even for those of them that were part of the beginning of what has turned out to be the most open technology they could not project what the functionality would be in future. According to him, it was particularly striking that when Professor Tim Berners Lee finally invented the worldwideweb in the early 1990s, he was first ignored.  Incidentally, that appears to be the most dominant feature of the Internet today.
According to him it has been interesting to note how OTTs (Over The Top applications) like WhatsApp and Skype have multiplied, adding that there was no predictable end to this multidimensionality in future. His advice to everyone at the opening session of the 2016 IGF therefore was that all those given the responsibilities to manage internet and allied services all over the world should be open to suggestions and even nurture the environment that would encourage volunteers of suggestions.
Throughout the weeklong, multi-sided programme, this writer ruminated over this as a deep and far sighted remark and one that does not seem to resonate with the concerned authorities in Nigeria. Vint Cerf’s advice was a good reinforcement to the philosophy behind IGF itself. In most parts of the world, stakeholders are almost unanimous on the ideals of internet governance.
Generally, the global best practices also endorsed by the Commonwealth Telecommunications, CTO and others recommend, among others that internet governance actors must necessarily be open and inclusive in their disposition. They must recognise the fact that as much as governments are important, so are users, the technical community, civil society and the academia. Multistakeholderism in this sense must, in the bid to making more voices heard, be emphatic on equitable participation and inclusiveness.
CTO especially helps to bridge up member countries on trendy practices.  Currently, that organisation is undertaking a study on the use of OTTs in relation to both the service providers and the users. It is interesting to note that the findings and recommendations of this research will be ready in the first quarter of 2017. One then wonders why NCC does not want to take advantage of the CTO’s research efforts before taking a decision on the data services even if it means persuading the said small players?
The Internet Governance Forum is the single, largest, annual global meeting of experts and other numerous stakeholders dedicated to discussing the various dimensions of the applicability of Internet to humanity. It derived from a United Nations Resolution.
Interestingly, the Commonwealth Telecommunication Organisation delegate to the 2016 IGF was led by a Nigerian, Shola Taylor. Unmistakably committed to the ideals of the best practices in relation to telecommunication and allied services, he reiterated the indispensability of the ideals at the CTO session to the applause of all attendees. But who could take the message to the relevant authorities in Nigeria? Nigeria’s Ministry of Communication had zero representation.
No less significant is the fact that although scholars around the world have been trying to use the 2016 IGF to strengthen the evolving multidisciplinary, global academic body of the Network of Scholars on Internet Governance, GIGANET. Yours sincerely has been the only university based Nigerian scholar at both IGF 2015 and 2016, courtesy of Ford Foundation and South African-based Research ICT Africa supported by IDRC of Canada.
The conspicuous absence of Nigerian scholars from IGF 2016 and even that of 2015 which held in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, brings up the issue of the complete indifference or mutual exclusivity that had characterized the relationship between the Ministry of Communication, NCC and the nation’s universities and polytechnics over the years. The result: No Nigerian university or polytechnic is a member of the International Telecommunication Union, ITU, since Nigeria became a member in 1960s.
The membership of the organisation is open to academic institutions in the member countries and so, academic institutions from such countries like Cote d’Ivoire and Bangladesh are members. With this conspicuous absence, how then would the duo of the Ministry of Communication and NCC realize the appropriate consciousness to collaborate on relevant concerns?
As is the case with the academia, so it is with the media. NCC, interestingly, is interested in the survival of the small players in the telecommunication sector. But how much of the financial strength of the nation’s media, especially the print media, has been undermined by the inception of the internet? No one wants to heap any blame on NCC here but given its centrality to all related developments, being alive to them would only earn NCC, citizens’ better reckoning and better co-habitation with the media.
– Dr. Akanni, member of the Internet Society is a Journalism teacher at the Lagos State University, LASU, Nigeria.