Can Nigeria’s Digitisation Journey Move Beyond Mediocrity?

Lai Mohammed

Trueson Sydney

One of the best things to have happened in Broadcasting is the shift from analogue to digital, which has created a whole lot of opportunities in the industry. It is not a Nigerian creation but the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). It is compulsory then that Nigeria must be involved in the process, which has greatly enhanced the way broadcasting is carried out.

While other member countries of the United Nations have since embraced the technology, Nigeria has been stuttering and bedeviled with controversy due to the selfishness of a few individuals bent on destroying or frustrating the project.

Indeed, when on the 17th day of June 2006, representatives from the 193 member states of the ITU met in Geneva, the world body came up with a binding document, which resulted in a treaty signed by members to usher in a wave of digital broadcasting for 119 countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia – to begin with – 2015, which was set as the terminal or deadline date, seemed too far off.

However, all of that long time seems so short for many countries that fall in the region marked for the first phase of the digital switchover signed by all member countries of the ITU on June 17, 2006; but for those who prepared very well and have since achieved the migration, it was time well-utilised.

For countries in the Region 1 for the digital migration, those who made it are wondering if 12 years were not too long a time, whereas those who could not make it wonder if indeed, 12 years have sped past so soon.

The Digital Switchover Over (DSO), the analogue switch-off (ASO) or the analogue shutdown, ultimately encompasses the process in which analogue television broadcast is converted to and replaced by digital television. The process primarily involves the conversion of analogue terrestrial television to digital. However, it also involves analogue cable conversion to digital cable as well as analog to digital satellite television.
Other countries in the ITU region have since taken the giant leap and may soon jam our digital space if lack of seriousness continues on the path of authorities involved.

Interestingly, after a long while and bureaucratic bottlenecks, History was made on April 30, 2016, in Jos, Plateau State, when the federal government launched the pilot phase of the digital transmission project that kick-started the digitisation process in the country, transiting from analogue to digital television in the city which has always been a hot spot in the country’s broadcasting history.

DSO has so far been launched in six states of the federation including Plateau FCT , Kwara, Osun, Enugu and Kaduna. The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, launched the pilot phase in Jos, while President Muhammadu Buhari anchored the Abuja launch in December same year.

Speaking during the switched-on ceremony in Abuja, President Buhari who was represented by Vice President Osinbajo disclosed that the local industry was already experiencing a boost from the new vista in digital economy, with several indigenous companies now manufacturing Set-Top-Boxes as he was told that many of the set-top-boxes we are using for this Abuja switchover were produced in Nigeria.
Osinbajo explained that the significance of the event cannot be lost in the world as the digital switchover becomes a reality in the capital city of Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.

The Vice President did not hide the obvious fact that digitisation will create jobs in the area of content and software development; provide the platform for film producers and musicians to release their productions directly to households which will of course substantially cut off piracy.
‘’Even if only for the huge local and international opportunities for Broadcast, media, ICT, entertainment and education, we are right to say that we stand at the threshold of exciting times for job creation, entertainment and in general, local and international commerce.

‘’The successful launch of the pilot scheme in Jos in April has clearly demonstrated the gains of Digital Switch Over. I am told that viewers in the pilot are able to enjoy 15 free channels covering news, sports, music and business,’’ he said.
Sadly though, since the launch of the DSO in Jos, Abuja, Kaduna, Ilorin Osun and Enugu, the whole process has been stalled with several controversies coupled with the greed of a few individuals bent on stalling the process.

During the official launch of DSO in Enugu state two years ago, on the 16th of February 2018 to be precise, optimistic about the whole process, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State offered to distribute 10,000 Set top boxes worth several millions of naira, to low income households in rural areas to enable them access digital television. The governor described the launch as a `landmark’ in television broadcasting in Nigeria.

Since then, series of petitions have continued to trail the NBC led by the erstwhile Director General, National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Modibbo Kawu, over alleged corruption. After several months of being investigated on allegations of corruption, he was suspended two weeks ago by President Muhammadu Buhari. The suspension is coming months after the anti-graft agency, ICPC, urged the federal government to suspend Kawu, and 32 other public officers/civil servants undergoing corruption trial at the time.

Pending the conclusion of investigations into the allegations against him, ICPC said it is prosecuting Kawu for “using his position to confer corruption advantage.”
Kawu and two others were arraigned on May 2 over alleged N2.5 billion fraud by ICPC. The trio, who are being prosecuted on 12-count charges, allegedly conspired with each other to use the position of Kawu to confer a corrupt advantage on a few individuals and corporate entities.
Observers had earlier said that the monies to finance DSO were not used for the purpose It was meant, adding that the DSO launch project that took place at Jos sometimes in April, 2015 would have been a success story by now, but currently was faced with so many technical issues and shortcomings, with some areas yet to be covered even in the state where the DSO was launched.

Out of the 36 states in the Federation, only six states where covered with so many hiccups. A petition by Corruption Watchdogs, signed by Nari Rikoto, noted that in all the places the launch took place, “we can categorically say none was successfully executed. It is either half done or haphazardly done. It appears it is a failure. N10 billion released to the Commission in 2015 is already spent within space of one and a half year and was an outright failure.
‘’This has made many stakeholders to lose faith in the project. Of recent, Broadcast Organisation of Nigeria (BON) had cause to call a press conference to urge the Commission to come out and tell Nigerians if the scheme was not a sham. Even the federal government seems to have lost confidence in the DG spear-heading the project, the financial assistance it ought to have released for the continuation of the project is no longer attainable due to mistrust the government has on him.”

Also, concerned staff of the National Broadcasting Commission collectively decided to draw the attention of the government to the ugly development in the commission to redeem the commission from further embarrassment and ridicule.
Significantly, one of the best things President Muhamadu Buhari has done so far is the move to restart the process of digitisation when after several petitions and investigations, he decided to suspend the agency’s DG. It could have come earlier as many thought that the problems had become bigger than the country.

President Buhari may have taken the bold step to forestall the settlement of several cases and threats that would have brought shame and ridicule to the country when viewed against the background of the fact that, SES, a major world player in the broadcast industry is threatening to cut off its services if it is not paid urgently. The company, after several pleas, has vowed to block and withdraw its services which will be an ill wind that would destroy the entire process. The UK-based company that provides the backbone of the process is being owed several hundred millions of pounds for services so far carried out for Nigeria.

The controversy may also not have come up but for the recommendations of the NBC management and the recommendation made to Lai Mohammed that the Federal Government should pay N2.5 billion to a private company as seed money after a case was made for the NTA. While talking about the plight of set top box manufacturers, the issue should be addressed holistically, so as not to break the ranks of the association.

On the urgent need to ensure that the DSO is back, the group managing director of Gospell Digital Technology Limited, and chairman Set Top Box Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (STBMAN), Sir Godfrey Ohuabunwa, at every available opportunity, has never failed to inform the federal government that fast-tracking the digitisation could boost the economy and create jobs for the unemployed.

Ohuabunwa said the digitisation process had been delayed while acknowledging the fact that the President had done well by listening to informed opinion on the way forward. He urged the Minister of Information, through the NBC, to restart the process to avoid further distractions.
More so, the President has done well by appointing a technocrat and Director of the NBC Prof Armstrong Idachaba to rejig the process and ensure the digitisation is not hampered.
Idachaba, a professor of Communication, should be empowered and equally encouraged to bring all the stakeholders on a round table to fashion a way out of the quagmire.

The federal government through the NBC should as a matter of national concern set up a timetable for the roll out in other areas outside the six states. The Acting DG with his staff has the manpower to effectively move the process forward and bring about the economic benefits of digitization
Ohuabunwa said: “It is also worthy to note that since the last launch in Enugu, nothing significant has been done on DSO. The former DG could not be said to be unaware that Set Top Box manufacturers are being owed billions of naira and have the capacity to do more but yet went ahead to organise a bid for box manufacturers. Funny enough, none of the companies could meet the requirement for the manufacturing of the STBs.

“There is an urgent need for a well-planned schedule and time table of the digitisation process. The federal government has done well by asking Kawu to step aside, however, there is a need for the federal government to push the digitisation process with a strong political will. We have been running the company and paying our staff for two years now, yet nothing concrete has been done in the past two years.”

Again, Areon Technology of Korea, a leading STB manufacturing firm in partnership with Gospell agreed to produce several millions of boxes to boost the process but, yet nothing is been achieved.

The Koreans are threatening to take the federal government through the NBC to court to recoup the money invested in the business worth over $24 million Dollars.
Basically, after the switch from analogue to digital broadcasts is complete, analogue TVs will be incapable of receiving over-the-air broadcasts without the addition of a set-top converter box.

Consequently, a digital converter box – an electronic device that connects to an analogue television – must be used in order to receive digital broadcasts. In most climes, the government subsidises the purchase of such boxes for their citizens.

Indeed, Since 2008, it has not been an easy journey for Nigeria to lead the Digital Switch on for Terrestrial television. Several efforts were made to realise the migration without success. Nigeria had to move the date from 2015 to June 2017. This is 2020, with the prevailing circumstances which has surrounded the digitisation process, there is need for more commitment on the part of the federal government and NBC.