Nigcomsat: So Much For An Achievement – by Y.Z. Yau

1 Comment » November 28th, 2008 posted by // Categories: Nigeriawatch


November 28, 2008



Last month I had an opportunity to do a review of Nigeria’s Telecommunication Policy on the prompting of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) as part of its development agenda-setting project. The idea was to assess the policy and see what input Labour can make in the hope for an alternative policy.

The policy was approved in 2000. While most of its goals and targets have been missed, one particular goal had been reportedly achieved. This was the ambition to launch a communication satellite in space. Apart from the auctioning of GSM licenses, it was one of the most trumpeted achievements of the previous regime.

But even at that, the Nigeria Communication satellite was borne out of controversy; and surely could end up in such controversy. To start with, there was no any debate about what options were available for the building and launching of a communication satellite or event to its immediate desirability when the Government ran to China and commissioned the Chinese to built, test and launch the satellite for us. The mount of money spent on the project is mere speculation to the public, but it is reported to be in the region of 40 billion dollars.

Soon after its launch, in contradiction to other components of the Telecommunication Policy, the Government directed the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to issue a license to the Nigeria Communication Satellite (NigComSat) Limited for last mile bandwidth provision in the country. The regulator agency kicked against this in spite of the voice of a powerful president. In the end, irrespective of policy imperatives, government found a solution to make NigComSat sell its bandwidth.

To make this solution simple for the company, the Government fully seized the former Jigawa State Government owned telecommunication company, Galaxy Telecommunication Limited, re-incorporated it as Galaxy Backbone PLC and made it a state monopoly to provide bandwidth to all federal, state and local government agencies. Mild demands for the respect for federalism in matters of choices of clients were swept away but then the lower tiers of government responded by being lukewarm to the bandwidth of Galaxy Backbone.

In the arrangement, Galaxy Backbone which had bought and imported over 500 VSats, was to get its bandwidth from NigComSat. This way the two will sequence out the private sector operators from the provision of bandwidth and internet access to government clients. It becomes then government supplying governments, an anachronism of a private sector driven philosophy of the government.

The National Telecommunication Policy, which has still to be reviewed, was anchored on privatization, allowing for private sector to drive the process of service provision in the country. It was on this basis that the policy committed the government to selling off both NITEL and M-Tel. Over eight years now, the government has failed to do this. Instead, it has created two additional government-owned telecommunication companies with the hope of making them national monopolies. In a sense therefore, without telling Nigerians, the government has thrown away its own policy in the telecommunication sector. Do not, of course, get me wrong by reading me as an advocate of privatization. In fact on the contrary, I have an ideological pedigree that sees privatization as suspect. The point however is that government must come clean with its people: if it is privatization then let it be. It cannot eat its cake and have it.

All these of course are besides the point of this write up. My concern today is the collapse of the much trumpeted achievement of the Obasanjo regime in the telecommunication sector. With barely just five months and a year in space, NigComSat has gone AWOL and the prize is gone with the winds.

When the story of the loss of NigComSat initially filtered in the media, the authorities denied this possibility, replying that it was just some minor error that could be rectified in no time and assured customers that there was nothing to worry about. Later the story changed to admitting the possibility that the satellite could actually go missing but could be quickly located. Finally they became bold and told us not to shade the tears, that we can anyway launch NigComSat 2 to replace the missing satellite. So much so for an achievement that must appear a mirage to many Nigerians.

What are the implications of this misadventure? First, of course, there are the numerous subscribers who have suffered, and are probably still suffering the loss of communication, business and competition. They must have been naively patriotic, trusting all the nationalist mantra, to have signed up to what has now become our own toy.

But more fundamentally, what did the government want to establish by engaging in a turnkey launching of a satellite? You cannot transfer technology on the basis of turnkey project. We have since independence been doing this and have consistently ended up with nothing to show for it. Granted, we lack the technology, skills and the infrastructure to locally build and launch a satellite. Does this not tell us that the starting point is to establish the necessary conditions that can allow us to develop national capacity than simply turning to China (or any country for that matter) to build, launch and operate a satellite for us?

There are simple things to do toward building this local capacity but which government has consistently not shown interest in doing because that road does not involve contracts which rather than private sector, are the driving force and philosophy of governance in the country. The first step is to take our education system serious and begin to put it back in shape. We must re-establish our universities as centres of learning and not the sites of production of mere certificates.

Within the framework, we then have to create the conditions for our telecommunication programmes in our universities and other tertiary institutions of learning to provide the necessary skills that can see us design and build our satellite. With such skills, we can easily deploy the necessary infrastructure that can allow for the launching of the home grown satellite.

Of course this was not what government wanted when it declared the ambition to have a satellite in space for the country. It was merely eying the lucrative contract and is therefore not surprising that even before we finish shading the tears for NigComSat 1, the itching fingers are urging us to allow them go ahead with the launching of the second satellite by the same company.

Now that the facade has vanished, it is our hope that Nigerians will insist that we have a policy in the telecommunication sector that is articulated through a participatory, inclusive process that would take the interests, concerns and needs of the majority of Nigerians onboard and not just that of politician-contractors and friends abroad.

Nigcomsat: So Much For An Achievement

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One Response to “Nigcomsat: So Much For An Achievement – by Y.Z. Yau”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dear Editor,
    What is particularly striking is the duplicity of functions by a lot of these government agencies NITDA, NASRDA, CSTD, NIGCOMSAT often resulting in unending conflicts and waste of public funds. While strong policies are necessary, it is important to emphasis that what is required is a clear vision, transparency. Public-office holders must be held to account and we should stop giving excuses for failure.
    In the case of the Multi-billion naira satellite project, what is clear is that there is no functional earth-station (NigeriaSat-1 or Nigcomsat-1), no technical manpower (most left or sacked) and now damaged spacecraft (communications or remote sensing). The technical articles and summarises the pathetic waste and lack of foresight. We are a strong, diverse and resilient country and it is high time we had a clear vision and new direction.

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