For Ndukwe, the clock is ticking

Source: Jacob A. Duomo -
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From afar, Ernest Ndukwe has a clean image. A lot of Nigerians credit him with the GSM revolution in Nigeria and believe he has conducted the affairs of the Nigerian Communications Commission with integrity. 'He is a good man', they say, and commend him for ensuring that Nigeria is one of the fastest growing telecoms industry in Africa . The fact that he has lasted this long, one of the few heads of a government commission who has almost completed two terms and has survived no fewer than five ministers, suggest that Mr Ndukwe is doing a good job.

That is the impression one gets from a distance. I was almost duped by this picture of Mr Ndukwe until a few months ago. That was when I had reason to have close interaction with the NCC and some telecoms operators. The inside view of the Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC is a sharp contrast of the public persona of the man. The real Ndukwe is a man whose secret deals appear to undermine the industry he superintends, and who is more comfortable defending the big names in telecoms industry and frustrates the effort of several ministers to ensure real reform in the sector. The real Ndukwe is a adept at covering allegations of sleaze and skilful in using the media to foist an holier than thou image.

Ndukwe has done a good job of hiding his real self in the closet. Until now. The controversy surrounding the sale of Spectrum 2.3 Ghz licenses appear capable of demystifying the EVC, especially so since the person he has crossed this time is Professor Dora Akunyili, who is no small fry and incorruptible. And of course he thinks he can take the Nigerian people for a ride.

Here are the facts of the matter. Ndukwe, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission, announced through adverts in newspapers bidding for the sale of spectrum 2.3GHz licenses. These licenses are very vital for the telecoms industry as they give operators access to so many communications functions. The spectrum bands are limited, internationally regulated and are considered scarce national resources. Therefore, there was a rush to grab the licenses offered by the NCC, with over 60 companies bidding for the offer. The idea usually is for the winners of the bid to re-sell or lease out the spectrum bands at mouth watering profits to telecom operators.

Then came the snag deliberately put in place by Ndukwe's NCC to frustrate genuine bids. First, bidders of the multi billion naira frequency spectrum only had five working days to pay for the spectrum band in case they win and have it cleared in NCC's account . This is almost an herculean task, considering that this is a season of meltdown when banks are reluctant to give credits. So It was almost impossible to raise that kind of funds because of the shortness of time. This suggests that those who supposedly paid for the spectrum band had prior knowledge of the deal. My investigations show that such unethical conducts have characterized Ndukwe's tenure at the NCC. Until now nobody had been bold enough to call him to order and several petitions against him have been swept under the carpet.

Not this time. One of the aggrieved bidders of the licenses petitioned the Minister of Information and Communications, Professor Dora Akunyili. He alleged that the process was not free and fair, that the time giving for bidders to pay for the licenses was too short and suggested that Ndukwe, who supervised the whole deal, had pecuniary interest in the matter. It was this petition that threw light on the matter for Akunyili, the supervisory Minister of the NCC, as she has been kept in the dark. This infuriated Akunyili who ordered the Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC to stop the sale of the spectrum bands a day before the deal would have been concluded. Reportedly , she tongue lashed Ndukwe in her office , before telling him to stop the controversial deal immediately. But Ndukwe did no such thing. What guts! He went ahead to announce the completion of the sale through a front page newspaper story the next week.

This should have been unheard of – head of a government agency, refusing to comply with the explicit order of his supervisory minister, but it is a common attitude with Mr Ndukwe. I gathered that he had disobeyed previous ministers ' instructions with no qualms; and possibly because the ministers had compromised their high office, none of them could stand on a high moral ground to challenge him. A case in point were the two queries issued him by the former Minister of Communications , Cornelius Adebayo. The former Minister, I learnt, was frustrated by the attitude of the EVC to the National Rural Telephony Programme and had cause to complain about it in severally. The man got so fed up with Ndukwe that he issued him two queries on the matter. But he did not bother to respond to any!

It was the same attitude he displayed with the current Minister when she ordered him to stop the controversial sale of the spectrum band and yet went ahead with it. He has got a query for this. But for me, I think Ndukwe should have been sacked at this point. If he had no interest in the deal, why was there a rush to conclude it? Why was the process not open and fair? Why did he disobey the instruction of the minister to stop further action on the matter?

All this suggests to me that Ndukwe is not as clean as he would want us to believe, and it is obvious that he is working at cross purpose with the minister. Putting this in context, it becomes understandable why the lofty goals the Minister wants to achieve in the telecom sector are late in coming. Goals like reduction in airtime charges, tariffs, number portability, infrastructure sharing and others. In fact, with someone like Ndukwe in the saddle of NCC, I very much doubt that Professor Akunyili can rework the kind of magic she did at NAFDAC in the telecoms sector. And we shall continue to live on the glory of the past and not move to the next level. Sad, so sad.

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