Number Portability And 12 Years Of GSM Telephony In Nigeria: Matters Arising

Olusola Adegbite

Nigerians welcomed GSM Telephony around the turn of the new millennium. For a group of people who partook of the nightmare called NITEL, the sole state-owned telecommunications company of that time that once flourished, it was only normal that their yearnings would sooner than later reach up to the heavens. And then heaven answered, or so it seemed.

Save that the lines were not distributed for free; the entire birth of the new policy was celebrated with exaggerated pomp. The government of the day declared it at home as the best thing to ever happen to the people, equally noising it abroad as the best dividend of democracy any vote can buy.

Though the people turned out again as the grass on which forces in government and their private sector collaborators traded mere sheets of papers- styled GSM licences for billions of naira, the then rulers went about beating their chest, arrogantly saying their enemies should head for the wilderness and bury their heads in shame. Expectedly, for a people who had long salivated for simple telephone services, it would matter less to them that they had to empty whatever was left of their savings as at that time to acquire just a tiny apparatus referred to as “simcard”, while all shades of mobile phones with cut-throat prices from hitherto Imperialist economies unrestrictedly found their way into the Nigerian market.

So began our bitter-sweet GSM revolution (or so we thought), first signposting itself as another avenue for class distinction, and then a Nigerian Company came with its per second billing thereby rocking the class boat. Though it was embarrassing to later discover that the same technology our government had camouflaged as the greatest telecommunications invention of that time, was merely something that other lesser nation had long forgot they had, the people cared less. Yet government’s noise did not abate, they pleaded with the people to persevere as their days of suffering will all soon be over, once free market competition sets in.

However, even with 12 years of free market competition, the expected Eldorado is nowhere in sight. The only thing it has provided is overnight billionaires in the telecoms industry, who continue to leave the subscribers to lick their own wound. And then they suddenly tell us a new story – number portability.
The over-advertised free market competition did come, but without the expected comfort. That the government of then chose to employ the tactics of free market economics in unbundling that sector wasn’t itself a bad idea, but that it was totally left bereft of strict regulations is our quarrel.

Those familiar with the temperature of capitalism-driven free market enterprise everywhere in the world, verily would agree that there is no economic policy better sound in apprehending the menace of ruthless businessmen and their profit aspirations, however, as the story has always been, where anything so simple is easily practised to a resounding success in other climes, the reverse is sure to be the case upon its arrival here, to the extent that even the inventors of the idea would end up totally shocked by our frightening tendencies.

Such is the story of GSM Telephony in Nigeria 12years after. Free market has thrown up stinkingly-rich GSM companies declaring billions of naira in profit annually, leaving subscribers who thought they had arrived the Promised Land running helter-skelter from one bad service provider to another, only to return to where they previously left, all in a cycle of grief. No one can tell for sure what economic gain has arrived the stable of the Nigerian state in the last 12 years; save for the supposed 30million subscribers who are stuck to several providers, clutching three to four phones individually all in a ghastly search for efficient service.

The last two years has being the high point of the emptiness of our GSM crusade. Despite the unending cries and lamentations of millions of subscribers, who remained the victim of the sterile system, government via the NCC and the GSM companies continue to pretend, preaching that all is well. Service delivery continues to nosedive, while the attempted crisscrossing from one provider to the other in search of salvation ends up being a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
Then out of the blues, a way out was brokered, something now celebrated as number portability. No publicity heralded it, no education of any sort was marshalled perhaps to prepare the minds of the expected users, rather another policy that would necessarily govern the people’s affairs and ultimately re-structure their telephony aspirations was simply dumped on them, as if it didn’t matter whether they accept or not. Did I hear someone say after all that is not new? Of course, I cannot agree less. Has there being any policy of this government that was not made to gate-crash into the peoples’ consciousness? That is something that can only come from rulers who believe that whatever they vomit, the people must swallow. So, the new word now in town is “port”. Nigerians are suddenly advised by their government to start porting. Porting from what to what, I ask? Besides the words that perhaps appear new in our vocabulary: Has the people not been porting in the last 12 years?

Take the notorious example of our friend, Mr. Nigeria must rise again. Mr. Nigeria must rise again; a hardworking and honest Nigerian was one of the multitudes that were converted by the GSM gospel. Consequently, he started out as one of the premier subscribers of ECONET; however the romance did not last. Upon the demise or differently put, unending metamorphosis of ECONET that saw it masquerading under different names, our friend was forced to pack his bags and migrate to the yellow-land of MTN. Funny enough, it took him a long 4years before he beheld the truth and after what seemed like an initial smooth journey, he was to discover that contrary to all that he was made to see on TV, MTN indeed wasn’t everywhere you go. Again, this optimistic Nigerian gathered all that was left of what MTN reduced him to, departed the yellow-land in search of a greener pasture. He did not search for long, he located the home-grown green-land called GLOBALCOM and there he felt he had finally arrived. Perhaps, all the goodies he initially tasted were all calculated to simply welcome him and not serve him, for he wasn’t long in discovering that his world was far from glowing, save for some celebrity ambassadors, who appear to be the only ones smiling. And then in an all-out attempt to take a final gamble, this good friend of ours decided to try the newly-arrived family of ETISALAT.

But two years down the lane, he is yet to have a blazing testimony, while all of his flexing does not go beyond the metropolis where it all started 12 years ago. The above narration captures without room for any query, the truth of our matter, which simply is that all our friend, Mr. Nigeria must rise again has been doing in the last 12 years, is nothing but “porting, porting, and porting”, even before the now-celebrated term ever crept into the minds of those charged with the management of the current state of things? Suddenly, it is this stale move that the people are being wooed to embrace through the backdoor. Mediocrity appears an abundant commodity amongst those who found our leading in their hands.
If all said above is supposed to be a matter of commonsense for any government, perhaps we should invite this government to a more serious intellectual contest. It is needful to call to question the reasoning of government in electing these same GSM providers with rickety services to be the same allowed the liberty of calling more unsuspecting subscribers on board via a dud policy called porting. Yet, these are the same providers whose networks have consistently remained jammed by reason of their years of complacency and foot-dragging in the area of systems upgrade, aided and abetted by a government that seem not to bother as long as the billions in profit come in.

What manner of service can they meaningfully provide upon porting, if not the same that has been their hallmark prior to now? Is it not trite that as a matter of right-thinking, any government superintended by people strictly focused on procuring long-term solutions to serious national problems would rather prefer to articulate policies aimed at erecting and consistently fine-tuning the necessary infrastructure to support such a sophisticated telecommunications move, than lazily descending to the same arena of putting the cart before the horse as always.

What about asking why this same government did not choose to invest the billions being pumped into number portability in resuscitating the GSM sector and go a step further by mandating the GSM companies to do likewise? To probe further, is it not proper to ask some of these GSM companies that are corporate entities of foreign nations if the tight fiscal regulations in their home country would ever permit them to make half of the money they make here? This we should follow up by asking if they can by any stroke of imagination attempt half of the service misdemeanours they commit here in their home country?

These are critical enquiries we must table on the desk of this government. It cannot be gainsaid that the three that are foreign amongst the lot, certainly operate under very strict regulations and compliance mechanisms in their home country, which when breached is met with heavy sanctions and crushing fines, however given their perfect understanding of the corrupt nature of the Nigeria system, they know too easily that they can always get away with whatever it is they do, as long as they grease the right palms.
As a country, we stiffly refuse to depart from the name others laughingly call us. We are all too known for glowingly romancing very empty but grandiose schemes, all in a bid to appear as if we are on the same page of progress with the rest of the world. Where in other environments, subscribers can simply activate porting on their phones and in the comfort of their homes, the Nigerian people are today told that they have to go queue up in providers’ offices and then wait 48hours. Even after the so-called porting is activated, we are told no further re-porting can be done until 90days later, even if the subscriber’s business and other concerns remain grounded under the epileptic service of that provider. Indeed what marginal benefit or differential quality does one GSM provider have over the other that would ginger a Nigerian to move from one and port in the other? Are they not all birds of a feather, save that they don’t flock together.

It is respectively to my mind that perhaps we simply got embarrassed that Ghana had introduced number portability a few years back making it appear as if we are always left behind in everything? Sadly, the truth we always choose to run away from is that Ghana did not introduce number portability as an escape from their GSM problems; rather it came as an innovation geared towards building on a hitherto working system. All the reasons formulated by the NCC for this venture are not only supine, but unconvincingly falls short of the peoples’ expectation of the government of a country that should be showing the way to other smaller nations.

It is a tragedy that at every time that mattered, this government cannot intelligently find the people, interact with them by engendering meaning public conversations geared towards collating their views, with the ultimate aim of transporting it into impending government policies. A wise government tarries always, avoiding the temptation of its own whims and caprices, preferring to lean on the people’s will at all times. I shudder to imagine if the people will ever seize the opportunity to deliver themselves from this government too familiar with mediocrity.





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