The Federal Government launched with pomp, the Abuja phase of the DSO, to mark the initial kick-off of the full roll out of digital broadcasting in Nigeria.Olaoluwakitan Babatunde x-rays the ordeals, in the hands of the EFCC, of the immediate past Director-General of the NBC, Mr. Emeka Mba, whose ingenious leadership gave Nigeria the breakthrough.
Nigeria had struggled perennially, but unable to meet the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) deadlines on digital broadcasting due to lack of funds for the highly capital-intensive project or, better still, government’s unwillingness to fund the project.
Therefore, the pageantry with which the Digital Switch Over (DSO) for parts of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) was launched end of 2016 was expected. It was performed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, on behalf of President Muhammadu Buhari, with other top government functionaries, including the Minister of Information and Culture, Alh. Lai Mohammed, in attendance.
However, it was an event, which sent tongues wagging again, especially among industry stakeholders, who are miffed at what they term political persecution of the former Director-General (DG) of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Mr. Emeka Mba, by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. They believe stripping the ex-DG of his deserved credit and failure to tap into his experience cast a gloom on the digital migration efforts.
Not long after Treasury Single Account (TSA) was introduced, a petition was filed against Emeka Mba, alleging concealment of unremitted N15 billion to the TSA and payment of fraudulent sums of money to set-top-box manufacturers, signal distributors, suppliers cum managers of IT infrastructure, among others. The petition also alleged non-compliance with due process, among others.
He was detained by the EFCC for weeks and subsequently granted administrative bail and allowed to return to office before the sack of all the DGs in Ministry of Information by the FG.
Stakeholders weigh in
However, industry players have continually dismissed the allegations against Mr. Mba. A respected woman in the industry who prefers not to have her name in print described the allegations as “spurious, vexatious, and vendetta-driven efforts by unholy interests to rubbish Emeka and remove him from office”.
She also explained that the payments to ITS (NTA’s signal distribution company); Inview UK (supply and management of the critical IT infrastructure) as well as Technology Advisors, the firm, which came up with the ingenious proposal for raising the perennially elusive DSO funds through an innovative licensing of the redundant 700 Megahertz (MHz) spectrum, were within the approval for the DSO granted by the President.
Also, speaking on Channels TV programme, Sunrise Daily, during Mba’s detention in 2016, President of the Set-top Box (STB) Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, Mr. Godfrey Ohuabunwa, explained that Nigeria had been at loss as to how to raise money for digital migration until Emeka Mba brought eggheads together to seek the way out.
He continued: “So, NBC licensed to MTN 700 megahertz, a triple play license, to do TV on mobile. From what we heard, one of the telecoms actually wanted to get that frequency for N399 million. But to God be the glory, NBC was able to sell the same license for N34 billion. The money went straight to government account in Zenith Bank. Note, I didn’t say into one bank; to Zenith Bank. And that account is the NBC/Digital Storage Oscilloscope (DSO) account because all licenses paid for went into that account.
“They came to us, set-top-box (STB) manufacturers to manufacture, but we said, ‘no’, we can’t do that. For a transaction like that, there must be a guarantee because one, there is a change of government. Two, the STB manufacturers need to borrow money and for you to borrow money, there must be a guarantee. The Bank of Industry, all banks want you to show proof of who would buy what you want to produce. So, the NBC had to issue a guarantee, an ‘off taker guarantee’. With that, we went to different banks and took loans. As at today, some of them are owing over N2 billion to N3 billion. So, that N15 billion is the cash-backing for that guarantee given by the Zenith Bank to these companies. And this was done before the Treasury Single Account (TSA) regime came into force. So, when TSA came, Zenith Bank remitted all the money, except the N15 billion because that money was already encumbered. Zenith Bank couldn’t have remitted that money. You cannot remit what is not available”.
Much Ado over 700MHz license for digital broadcasting
“Regarding the novel raising of the N34 billion, which by the way, is still being used by the government today to fund the DSO, it will interest you to know that Technology Advisors, which came up with the brilliant fund-raising idea, had pegged the success fee (professional consultancy fee to be paid to them if their proposal succeeded) at 20%; however, the NBC board reduced it to 10%, which was approved in writing by the President”, said another insider source.
Documents sighted show that the 10% legal fees covered legal services of Technology Advisers prior, during, and post fund raising process.
Contrary to the claim by the EFCC that USD171 paid by the MTN was low and that the FG could have raised N200 Billion instead of N34 Billion, report of the digital spectrum valuation by the Communication Chambers, a reputable UK consulting firm engaged by NBC, put the highest Nigeria could rake in from sale of the three slots of spectrum in NBC’s spectrum profile at USD300 Million or USD100 Million. As such, NBC actually surpassed industry expectations by raising a whooping N34 Billion from the license of only one slot.
In fact, the former Minister of Communication Technology, Mrs. Omobola Johnson, in a letter to former President Jonathan, expressed serious reservations over NBC’s assurances that it could rake in more than USD170 from the deal.
Checks also show that the 2.6 gigahertz spectrum, which has a far greater quantity of spectrum, which the NBC recently handed over to the NCC, raked in only USD70m. So, for raking in USD171 from 700mgz, Emeka Mba naturally deserves accolades, not persecution and humiliation, many believe.
It has also been noted that whereas with the National Communication Commission (NCC), spectrum licenses to Visaphone, Glo Mobile, Spectranet, etc. were administratively awarded, rather auctioned, Mba ensured its spectrum license was competitively auctioned, hence the N34 billion raised.
Meanwhile, it is no longer for ‘missing’ N15 billion or NBC’s money ‘hidden’ in NBC’s account that EFCC is charging Mba to court. It is for the N2.9 billion consultancy fee paid to Technology Advisors, NBC’s Legal consultant, which pulled the N34 billion licensing deal to MTN through. Yet, the anti-graft agency has failed to also declare the payments made to ITS, Inview, etc. from the funds raised by the Legal Consultant as fraudulent.
Industry stakeholders wonder why the EFCC is bent on criminalising a clearly lawful transaction by a corporate entity, which is even paying N500 million in taxes to the FG from its earning, just to allegedly nail Mba at all cost, even without establishing that the former DG benefited in any material way whatsoever from NBC’s licensing to MTN or the STB manufacturers.
Besides, they argue that if a transparent, meticulously documented, and approved process has now become fraudulent, the anti-graft agency should also prosecute all the approving authorities, namely, all members of the defunct NBC board, the approving Ministers, and the former President. It should also be able to prove a case of fraud and money laundering against them by establishing beyond doubt that they intended to conceal or deceive anyone so as to divert money.
Furthermore, while the EFCC further accused NBC of illegality and failure to advertise in the process of licensing of set-top-box (STB) manufacturers, investigation have clearly shown that the NBC duly advertised in several national publications and applicants were duly screened.
13 most successful applicants were selected and they paid N50 million licensing fee. Many now wonder how the EFCC just selected five out of 13 companies and claimed they were paid huge amounts from the money realised from MTN licensing, whereas no dime was paid to the STB manufacturers. It was the STB manufacturers that paid. An ‘off taker guarantee’ made by the NBC, which was domiciled with Zenith Bank, for the supply of the set-top-boxes cannot be construed as money paid to the STB manufacturers by any stretch of imagination.
Honour, Not Persecution
While upholding Mr. Mba’s integrity and ingenuity in leadership, former members of NBC Board, in a widely published statement held that Emeka Mba, as well as themselves, deserves national honour for his creativity in raising money to set Nigeria on the path of digital migration rather than being humiliated and tried by the EFCC as is now the case. “As I speak with you, it is the plans and strategies provided under Emeka Mba’s leadership that they are still executing. It is the funds raised under him that are being utilized for driving the processes and payment for items hitherto approved by Labaran Maku, Omobola Johnson, and Goodluck Jonathan.
“Above all, with the recent directive by President Buhari to the EFCC to repatriate back to the NBC the sum of N10 billion, which the EFCC had earlier claimed was hidden in Zenith and therefore confiscated into the TSA, so that the NBC, now headed by Modibbo Kawu, could continue to utilize it for the same purpose (off taker guarantee) for which it was kept in Zenith Bank in the first place, why then is the EFCC still traducing Emeka Mba? It is a clear case of witch-hunt” a respected industry player fumed.