Thursday, November 16, 2006

How much is a male organ worth?

Published 11 Saturday, November 2006 in Awesome World
The Daily Independent and The Sun had two interesting stories on Tuesday. The incidents the papers reported happened in two different Nigerian cities, but a common thread runs through them both.

In the first case, a man walking along the road at Olodi Apapa in Lagos was approached by two men on a motorcycle and requested to change some amount of money for them. The man obliged the strangers. Immediately one of the two men, the rider, shouted that his manhood had been ‘stolen’. Before the ‘good Samaritan’ realized what trouble he had just walked into, street urchins and passers-by had descended on him with fists.

“Restore his ‘thing’”, they shouted at him as they beat him. More ‘sympathisers’ joined in the beating of the ‘thief of male organs’. Sticks and rods were employed to drive home their point that he was facing imminent death unless he quickly returned what he had ‘stolen’.

A policeman walking past was attracted to the scene and attempted to rescue the man but met a stiff resistance in the madding crowd already baying for blood. The ‘thief’ would not be released unless he returned what he had stolen. The policeman called for a search of the alleged thief. If he stole something, then definitely, what he stole must be in his possession. Abi?

They searched the alleged thief’s body down to his pants, and found that he had no more than what God gave him to propagate his kind. No extra was found on him or in his bag. There was also no charms or amulets. But the crowd would not agree to let him go with the policeman. They argued that he must have mystically transferred what he stole to a spiritual coven somewhere in his village or some place where he would later go and convert it to cash! They resumed beating the man in the presence of the policeman to force him to restore what he stole. Now convinced he was going to die, an idea came to his mind. He cried out that he had restored the stolen member and brought out money for the alarm raiser to go to a nearby brothel to verify his claim.

The okada man reportedly first declined on religious grounds. He was not one to go and be cavorting with a prostitute under any circumstances whatsoever. He was a pious man with high degree of moral rectitude. But the sympathisers soon emerged with a sex worker, perhaps one with eye-popping vital statistics, and the story changed.

The pious okada man hurried into the brothel with no further encouragement. The man reportedly ravished the prostitute for longer than his initial reluctance would suggest. He and his emergency consort later came out fanning themselves profusely and smiling. The deed had been done more than satisfactorily. The crowd which waited outside for a report (the proof you need that there are too many jobless people in Lagos ) were pleased. They let off the good Samaritan to go and ‘sin’ no more.

The second incident in Owerri, unfortunately, did not have the same happy ending. A man probably feeling very happy that day greeted a stranger he met along the street, offering him his hand to shake. The stranger took the handshake and immediately started shouting that his sexual organ was missing. A crowd gathered quickly, beat the hapless man to a stupor, poured fuel on him and set him ablaze. Just like that. No attempt was made as in the Lagos case to verify the claim of the alarm raiser. No attention was paid to the cries of the victim that he knew nothing of the crime he was being accused of. The report said such an incident was a recurring decimal in Owerri during the ember months of every year. So the crowd has no time to waste. If you are accused of stealing a man’s member or a woman’s boobs, you are done for.

Now, these incidents as ridiculous and utterly embarrassing as they are, have been recurring in most major cities of Nigeria for as long as anyone can remember. They show how far our society has strayed from its lofty origins. They show how much of our authentic African values have been sacrificed on the alter of mercantilism. The concept of one being his brother’s keeper is long forgotten. Life no longer has any sanctity.

When people cry that the government sets very little store by the lives of citizens they fail to realize it is a general malaise. The life of a stray dog in Lagos , as in many other major cities in Nigeria today, is worth more than a man’s life.

Anyone leaving his house in the morning is lucky to make it back in one piece in the evening. Thousands of Nigerians daily leave their homes hale and hearty in the morning and ended up on cold slabs in the mortuaries by night fall. If they refuse to partake in air travels that are now claiming the lives of Nigerians in hundreds, they can be run over by a danfo with faulty brakes. If they steer clear of molues that routinely plunge into the lagoon, a poorly maintained lorry can squash them at the bus stop. They can be shot dead by policemen if robbers miss.

A mad man can maul them to death, or a live tension wire can fall on them. Their residences can just cave in and bury them alive. They can fall victims to adulterated drugs, get drowned transiting on rickety commercial canoes, be stabbed to death by an area boy. The list is endless.

If you escape all that, someone who wants to have a free ticket to sleep with a woman can accuse you of having stolen his ‘thing’. If you do not play your game well, you can be in a mortuary by nightfall.

Ours is a strange modernity that ruins all the good African values, imports the depravity of the West and yet somehow sustains the old monster of superstition. How we manage to achieve that will leave the best anthropologists scratching their heads.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The chickens of Ekiti

(Published in Awesome World column in Saturday Tribune on 28 October 2006)
I now have another thing to brag about to some of my cyber friends scattered around the globe. When next they go on about the splendour of their Eiffel Tower or the breathtaking sights of their Frankfurt, I can proudly chip in that the most expensive poultry in the world is to be found in my own country too. The poultry located in the South Western State of Ekiti cost a governor his seat, the comfort of the arms of his wife, and his freedom for good measure. The Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and the Third Mainland bridge constructed over the Lagos lagoon collectively did not cost that much.

Unfortunately, that is the only thing I can brag about to my foreign friends about the sordid happenings in a state that is called the fountain of knowledge. The entire impeachment saga has rightly or wrongly portrayed the state as an abode of the alejefenunule bi adiye. Literally that phrase means someone who wipes his mouth on the ground like a chicken after a meal, ready for another. The Yorubas reserve this phrase for people who are insatiable and unscrupulously greedy.

Throw grains of corn at local chickens every 10 minutes for an entire day and they will attack the grains each time with the same ferocity as if they have never eaten anything in the previous 24 hours. They would scramble over each other and trample their young in order to be sure of pecking more of the grains than their neighbours.

The character of the people prominent in the Ekiti debacle would baffle many Lagos residents who had previously watched on television the Ekiti government-sponsored advertorials on the state every week. The advertorials, the last of which were aired a few days to Governor Ayo Fayose’s impeachment showed mammoth crowds praising and hailing the governor and practically throwing themselves at his feet to do as he pleased. A couple of those featured in the programmes, while giving accounts of how well the governor had performed shed happy tears. One was tempted to believe they were genuine.

The camera men involved in the recordings deserve commendation for their skills at capturing the sea of heads that gathered at the numerous commissioning ceremonies, party rallies and other such gatherings. They zoomed in and out on the crowd to give viewers no doubt as to the kind of wide acceptance Governor Fayose was supposed to be enjoying. The cameras captured the crowds go into frenzy as soon as the convoy of the wonder man arrived the venues. When he set foot on the venue grounds with his wife in tow, old women and men, youths and children jumped up in sheer happiness. It seemed to viewers that they counted themselves unworthy of this super performer. They were lucky to have this one governor, you were wont to say.

Governor Fayose basked in the glory of it all, beaming with broad smiles, waving gleefully at the cheering crowd, holding the hands of some, shaking hands with some and hugging others. It was always a spectacle of someone who loved and was genuinely loved and appreciated by his people. He talked tough and made his points blatantly and forcefully. The crowds cheered him, regardless. They, in fact, loved it. It would seem this governor could do no wrong.

But then, just a couple of days later, the state House of Assembly sat, impeached the same ‘super’ governor and his deputy and installed one of their own in his stead. First surprise was that the heavens did not cave in. Apparently not many people felt a grievous harm had been done them. Neither did many people feel that a leader who meant all the world to them had just been cheated out of his rightful place.

But a more shocking development was to unfold. Tumultuous crowd stretching all the way out of view were welcoming the usurper of Governor Fayose’s seat. What manner of people are these in Ekiti? Or maybe the question to ask is, how do politicians and power mongers always manage to perform this type of magic on the people they wrong? How do they brainwash the masses they violate to do their bidding sometimes even before they ask?

Television cameras captured people jumping up for joy and hailing the erstwhile Speaker as his convoy drove to the governor’s office. Channels Television captured youths jubilating in the streets and some, there and then set upon the task of defacing any poster of Fayose’s in town. It was unbelievable.

Is this a very bad case of AGIP (Any Government or person In Power) syndrome or is it that the poverty in Ekiti is so bad that anyone who can promise a plate of eba with a skinny chicken leg can hire a huge crowd to shout hosanna to him? Or again, is it that the masses are so chicken that they cannot afford to be seen not offering enough support to any brute in power?

But of course, maybe one is a little too hard on Ekiti. There can only be very little difference between Ekiti and any other part of Nigeria. The mass unemployment in the country means there is a ready pool for the recruitment of thugs, hangers on, peaceful or violent demonstrators, temporary well-wishers and supporters. Just like a handful of grains are enough to assemble a band of fowls, a few naira notes, or an indefinite promise of some future gratification is enough to get many jobless and starving people to do anything from drying themselves in the sun to committing blue murder.

The salient lessons to draw from this all by political office holders are two: one, there is no supporter anywhere. They probably do not need anyone to tell them that. Those members of the Ekiti House of Assembly who impeached Fayose were once solidly behind the erstwhile governor like the rock of Gibraltar. But squared up against the ferocious men of the EFCC and given two unpleasant choices, they chose to save their own skin and roast their governor.

Two, there is no better job security than leading honestly, transparently and conscientiously. Rather than renting crowds, if a leader goes all out to make life really meaningful for the people he leads, they will stand up for him in his own hours of trouble.
Mr Ayodele Fayose fought and won many battles in office. Few people could have imagined that mere chickens would trip him.

There goes the first casualty of a different type of bird flu!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Funny things happen!

Locked up in a toilet

(Off the Cuff column of 28 April, 2005)

Locked up in a toilet

It would probably be right to say that a majority of mobile line users in Nigeria carry phones they cannot use, so to speak. Phones that are receive-only. Phones that have no calling credit, texting credit, or flashing credit. Phones that are not virile, that are impotent. That are as dead as Mungo Park if nobody calls them.

But then having an impotent mobile phone can be very costly. And very embarrassing too.

Take this case. A man last week was attending an international seminar at a five-star hotel in Abuja. According to the version of the story told by the Nigerian Tribune, the man needed to use the toilet and went in search of one. He found it and did his business. Then it was time to go back into the seminar room, but there was some unholy connivance between the door latch and the door frame. Result? The door wouldn’t open. And you know, the toilet doors in these hotels open inwards, and so it is of little use trying to kick them open should they decide you deserve a temporary imprisonment.

Now, the poor man tried all the tricks he could, and had to resort to banging the door and shouting in the hope that someone would hear him. Very sadly, there was no one nearby to hear all these. One whole hour went by. The man probably took a seat on the covered toilet and decided to meditate over the problems of the nation, Nigeria.

He had no other choice than to resign to his fate, abi? He was so unjustly imprisoned for 90 hours during which time he missed all the meat of the seminar he went to attend in the hotel. Maybe he travelled all the way from Lagos to attend the seminar only to end up studying the graffiti on the walls of a toilet room. And to think that all his colleagues at the seminar would think he had a very bad case of constipation. 90 whole minutes!

All the while that he was going through this ordeal, the gentleman had a GSM phone with him. But there was no credit on it. No texting credit. Not even flashing credit!

Now, do you realize that the course of the story would have been different if there had been even flashing credit on the gentleman’s phone. He could have just very easily kept on flashing somebody until that one would get annoyed and call him back. He would have just then very easily explained his predicament to him and a rescue operation would have been carried out earlier.

But there was no credit on his phone. Not texting credit. Not even flashing credit..
Can you see what lack of credit can cost? Can you imagine what would have happened if Governor Ngige had no credit on the GSM phone he used to contact the outside world when he was being abducted that first time?

Of course it is understandable the way credit flies off phone accounts. Admittedly, insisting on having abundant credit on a mobile phone in Nigeria at all times can be a licence to grinding poverty, especially if you are one of those who cannot keep their fingers off a phone when it is full of credit. At the current tariffs being charged by Nigerian operators, no credit is sufficient for all the calls that one is required to make from time to time.

But people should learn the culture of minimum balance. It is used in the banks. However broke you are, there is a level below which you cannot go. Begin to consider a level below which you cannot go in depleting your credit balance. You can, for instance set as low as N100 level as your minimum credit balance. Once you get there you consider yourself to be out of credit. But then should there be an emergency the N100 credit is enough to call someone and say “please help!”

A man who is the head of the home must never put himself in a situation that he cannot reach anyone when his household is in distress. A friend said he found that it was simply impossible for him to keep his hand off his phone if there is any credit on it at all. But then he fashioned out another way to take care of unforeseen circumstances. He has a N500 recharge card stashed in a corner of his wardrobe exclusively reserved for emergency situations when there will be no access to call centres or recharge card vendors.

That solves some of the problem, but not the sort of problem that confronted the man who was locked in the toilet. The sure solution is that your phone should never be completely drained of credit at any given time. Even if it is flashing credit, retain it. It may save your life.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Starcomms- Customer care or Customer scare

Last Off the Cuff published in Tribune

Starcomms is clearly the market leader in the fixed service segment, with about 300 000 subscribers.

But apparently a curse comes with leading the market in Nigeria’s telecommunications market. It means you cannot get your customer care right, however hard you try. What happens if you do not even try? You have Starcomms!

Starcomms has no time for pretences. The space the operator provided for caring for its customers looks more like jankara market, only that it is much smaller. When you are trying to concentrate on the serious business of having your problem solved, another equally distressed customer rubs her breasts against your back while trying to squeeze past.
Well, if you have a thing for women, that may be all the antidote you need against the anger welling up inside you about your miserable phone that is not effectively picking up signal. You may pick up a whole different type of signal yourself!

Anyway, you get back to the business of having your problem solved. The officer is really interested in listening to you, but there are two others he needs to listen to first. One of them seems to have a complicated problem from all the time it is taking. So you keep moping and wondering about all the things you could have done to make some money with all the time being wasted.

You then suddenly remember, you know someone in the PR department, ke. Why don’t you enlist her assistance? So you go over to the receptionist who was surprisingly more polite than you would expect from someone in a security uniform.
You ask to speak with the PRM. She asks if you have an appointment, you say no, but that you need some assistance with a service problem. She mumbles into the phone again, puts it down and says: “She is in a meeting”. That is just great!
So you return to the customer cell, and find regrettably that three other customers had joined the queue that does not seem to be moving. There are only two unbalanced, torn seats to a corner. And they are both taken. You curse your decision to leave the queue in the first place.
But ever wondered why Public Relations Managers in Nigeria are always too busy to relate with the public? Ever wondered why CEOs who hire PRMs to see the public on their behalf turn out to be more accessible than the PRMs? You are more easily likely to see Starcomms CEO or Marketing Manager five times for instance than to see the company’s PRM once.

You resign to fate. With some more patience and standing, it is your turn. And this very tall, light-complexioned staff is all very courteous and attentive. And surprisingly can recognise faces and names from previous encounters. This is an excellent customer care attribute. But he has an appalling environment to work in. This guy should be in the MTS’ comfy Customer care office while all the smartly dressed girls in the MTS office should be thrown into this dungeon! If only I had any supernatural powers.

Anyway, it turned out the solution could very much have been received through a phone call. Trouble is, when you are a subscriber of a leading telecom operator, you are sentenced to having to stay long minutes waiting on the phone to get a customer care executive to speak with.
And then there are foul-tempered people who are under pressure to take calls from all manner of people as quickly as possible. When you do make it to talk to one, you end up shouting at each other.

In the end, you pack yourself in the car, risk running over a couple of recalcitrant okada operators, curse a few danfo drivers, just manage to escape a murderous Molue driver, beat LATMA extortionists, dodge the vicious VIOs and gluttonous policemen and find yourself at the customer scare, I mean care centre of your operator. Not a nice prospect, just to think of it.
This is the last off the cuff you will read here. I am moving on. I thank all you readers who have been faithful over the years. Merci. You can read select past writings at So long!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Starving in the midst of plenty

While the mobile service operators are declaring eye-popping profits, their fixed service counterparts are groaning under debts. A few have closed shop altogether. JOHN AWE has been investigating the problem and now reports.

(Cover story, Infosystems, Nigerian Tribune, Thursday 15 2006)

The office was a cynosure of all eyes a few years back. Situated just before the head office of Zenith Bank on Ajose Adeogun Street, in high brow Victoria Island, the edifice was painted in bright colours. During working hours expensive cars were parked in every available space in its front. Smart security officials mounted sentry at the gates. Beautiful ladies in smart business suits welcomed visitors at the reception.

That was the corporate seat of EMIS, the most promising and clearly the most aggressive of the earliest entrants into the telecommunications race post deregulation in 1996. The company was a big advertiser. It left no one in doubt that telecommunications was going to be the next big thing in Nigeria after oil and gas. Young men and women rushed over themselves to be employed in the company.

Fast forward to 2006. You cannot find EMIS in that prime location again. Neither can you find its adverts anywhere in the press again. Inquire from the very street where EMIS reigned in its royal opulence a few years back and people stare at you blankly. They have no idea what you are talking about.

Mobitel was another of the pioneers with a lot of promise. Its office surroundings were filled with choice branded cars. It filled the papers with creative adverts and commanded a sizeable portion of the total number of fixed line subscribers in Lagos once.

But by 2005, after seven years of operation and investment in plant and equipment of over N2 billion, Mobitel had less than 10 000 subscriber lines, whereas mobile operators were counting their subscribers in millions. Mobitel had bank borrowings in excess of N1.6 billion and creditors liabilities of over N1.6 billion, including unpaid interconnect obligations of over N600m.
A trip to the offices of a couple of other early entrants in Lagos revealed that all is not well with many of the operators. What used to be glittering office environments now bear horrible signs of wear and tear. Most are lagging behind in interconnect obligations and a couple are being threatened with disconnection by the more prosperous operators.

The kingpin of fixed service provisioning, NITEL is in total distress. Salaries have not been paid for about four months, culminating in a workers’ strike that has grounded the company’s operations.

“The truth is, things have not been easy for fixed service operators in Nigeria as their mobile counterparts” said Adenrele Ariyo, a lawyer and consumer rights activist with a bias for telecommunications. “Forget about all the glitz and glamour they display, most of the fixed service operators are in trouble.”

“Apart from Multilinks and Starcomms, others are struggling” said a telecom chieftain who has been there from the very beginning. “This may appear somewhat difficult for people outside the telecom sector to comprehend, but that is the truth.”

Starcomms Marketing Manager, Mr Oman Lababidi sheds light on the signs that show that a company is in distress:

“When a company is not able to meet its obligations to its bankers, its staff and customers, it is clearly in trouble. It is not simply that a company has borrowed from a bank. You cannot do this business without borrowing. But the moment you are not able to manage your debt portfolio well, or you begin to default in the servicing of the debt, you are going down”.

So why are some operators prospering and others are fighting for dear life? Executive Director of Multilinks, Chief Ezekiel Fatoye voted for management and the operating environment. “The operating environment is actually difficult for local players, especially fixed service operators, but certainly, the way and manner the specific company is run determines whether it succeeds or not”.

A source within Intercellular argues that lopsided interconnect agreement between fixed and mobile operators is part of the problem.

“They (mobile operators) generate more traffic, yet we pay them more per call than they pay us” the source complained.

Mr Lababidi thinks management matters more than other factors.
“Apparently, many did not do enough due diligence before entering the market. You need to know exactly what you are going in for. Then you can be prepared for the challenges. But where this is lacking, you will be in trouble”

The regulator of the sector puts it down to corporate governance challenges. Mr Ernest Ndukwe told Infosystems that every one of the operators that has run into trouble had shareholders’ squabbles.

“I am not saying that times are not hard. But it is also possible that people survive based on their corporate plans, how they change with the changing times and how they position themselves in the industry” Mr Ndukwe said. (Read full transcript inside).

To the Minister of Communications, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, there is no distress anywhere, there are only poorly managed companies. Reacting to Infosystems’ suggestion that the local operating environment might be contributory, he said:
“Can you cite specific instances?”
“Inability to secure financing with long term repayment tenor for instance”
“Yes, you may be right there, but this is not a problem with Nigeria alone. And again others are facing the same problem and are solving it. This has nothing to do with the government. And of course you are aware of a number of things the government has done to make things better for these operators. And you can see that many are doing very well. We will continue to put in place the right environment for the operators to survive”, the minister said.

Beyond what government can do, is there any other immediate solution or way out for the distressed? Is merger one of the options?

To Chief Fatoye, the answer is emphatic no. “Merger can work in banking, but certainly not in telecoms. If you want to buy a company, there must be something you plan to gain from that company. In telecoms, the biggest asset is subscriber. And as you know, it is not fixed. Subscribers can shift from one operator to the other. If you buy a company, banking on its subscriber base, what if more than half of the subscribers move on to other operators even before you finish the deal?”

To Mr Lababidi, merger is not an option. “There are technology issues. Then, there are a whole lot of other issues, relating to corporate governance culture among other complicated issues”.

So what is the option? Many of those interviewed think the opportunity provided by the new licensing regime can be exploited by some of the fixed operators to turn their fortunes around.
“If some of the fixed operators can muster some funds to acquire the universal licence and deploy, they will be in a better position to compete with the mobile operators” said Adenrele.

For operators that still cannot get their act together, Mr Lababidi has an answer. “They should fold up and allow those who can play come in. That will be in the interest of customers and the industry”.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Guardian Student Media Awards 2006

Deadline: 07/07/2006

Annual awards, organised by the Guardian, that will honour outstanding reporting by media students. To be eligible to enter all work must have been published in the student media during this academic year, September 2005 to June 2006.
Categories include: Student newspaper, student reporter and student columnist.
Prize: Six-week work placement at the Guardian and Guardian Unlimited, with a subsistence allowance of £1,200 for the duration of winners' placement.
Address: Guardian Student Media Awards 2006, PO Box 415, St Albans, AL4 0YW
Telephone: 01727 898141

Monday, May 29, 2006

Nigerians in the eyes of our Southern brothers

By JOHN AWE, Lagos

Flying into the Johannesburg International Airport (JHB) at night has its rewards. You get presented with a breath-taking sight of a mega city spread out below you in millions of tiny, bright lights.

Household and street lamps of various hues combine to convey a pretty picture you wish could linger longer.

From thousands of feet above sea level, an eloquent testimony is borne to a painstaking enforcement of town planning rules and regulations.

You can figure out the long, straight stretches of major roads from the patterns of lights clearly visible below. You could hazard near accurate guesses as to where the estates are, judging from the cluster of lights.

"While the continent generally is not lacking in kleptomaniac rulers and
self-centred public officials, Nigeria was frequently used as a reference point
by many of the resource persons when the discourse was about graft and scam on
the African continent."

Of course Nigeria’s Power Holding Company is not reigning here. And so, there are no dark patches. Only an even distribution of what seems like an endless sea of Christmas lights.

But the joys of a beautiful view weigh very weakly against the reality of the risk of entering one of the most dangerous cities on earth at night, unarmed, unaccompanied, and with the wrong currency. The choice was not mine, anyway. The only flight I could find a seat on on the desired date was the Kenyan Airways flight entering Joburg well after midnight.

The Kenyan Airways’ Boeing 737 that flew us from Nairobi touched down smoothly and emptied us into the waiting hands of the Johannesburg’s vicious winter cold. The organisers of the seminar I was to attend had indeed warned that it was winter in South Africa and could be bitterly cold especially in the morning and at night.

I thought I was well taken care of in a suit, a thick shirt and tie. I was wrong. But the cold could only be a secondary worry, given that I faced the unsavoury prospect of traversing what seemed to me to be the entire length of the very violent city of Joburg to access my hotel that silent night.

From the advance map I got, the route cut right through the notorious Hillbrow, haven of hijackings and muggings; where, it was estimated, one percent of residents were murdered yearly! I was the last of 10 journalists expected at the two-week training that was meant to hone our writing skills and improve our knowledge of the continent’s biggest self-help project, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). The rest had all arrived from various parts of the continent some four hours before me.

A driver was commissioned to pick all the participants from the airport and drop them at Hotel Devonshire, overlooking the famous Mandela Bridge. It hardly mattered to me what monument the hotel overlooked at the time, though. The terrible thought harassing me was the possibility of the commissioned driver forgetting that there was one last person sneaking in like a thief in the night, in which case I might be left at the mercy of the thieves of the night.

My fears seemed confirmed when I came into the airport’s lobby where a thin crowd waited for the new arrivals and realized none of the names held aloft by the wearied hands bore any resemblance to mine. Neither, it seemed, was anyone remotely interested in me. That spelt trouble.

The Johannesburg International Airport had abundant payphones. There were card and coin phones. That would be a blessing only if I had coins or phone cards. A quick scan of the lobby for bureaux de change revealed that they had all closed for the day. The hall was devoid of its usual vitality and menace of taxi drivers hustling for passengers. A few of the taxi drivers remaining were uncharacteristically quiet and less intrusive. A few airport officials hurried across the lobby now and again.

I stopped one that looked like he had been on the job long enough to have an inkling how to solve a problem such as mine. “Are you absolutely sure the driver is not among that crowd?," the official asked pointing at a handful of men holding aloft some names. I expressed doubt about the driver being there, since my name was not on any of the placards they held.

“Trouble now is, all the banks and bureaux (de change) have closed. I’m afraid you may have to wait till day break”, he said as he made to go. Then he seemed to consider something, paused and asked, “Where are you from?” I told him and it seemed to me that my answer made him change his mind about whatever it was he had considered there for a moment.

I was almost sure that if I had answered him with Namibia or Swaziland for instance, his reaction would have been different. I sauntered to the pay phones and hoped that someone might come there to use one of them. After some five minutes, it seemed to me that that was not going to work. I remembered some souvenir coins I kept from my last trip to South Africa. I dismantled my hand luggage literarily and fished out 16 rand in the denominations of five, ten and one rand coins.

I felt some relief and headed for one of the pay phones. The Telkom telephone bureau (call centre) had closed some two hours earlier. I put in the five rand first. The unusual happened. The money failed to register on the LCD display, and as such, no call could be made. A local call was less than five rand to the best of my knowledge, but all the same, I threw in the one rand coin to make up six rand just in case the tariff had gone slightly higher. It failed to register. Okay, could I use another payphone if this one refused to make itself useful? There was something apparently wrong with it. I punched the refund button hoping it would spit out my precious coins so I could try the next coin box beside it. None of the coins would come out. That was trouble. I tried all I knew, no dice. I could not risk putting in the last ten rand coin. I continued to punch the refund button, hoping no official would come and accuse me of trying to pry the box open for its coin contents, something some characters were fond of doing in SA at less conspicuous locations.

A Good Samaritan saw my frustration and walked over to offer me some assistance. The phone would not be intimidated by the two of us. It held onto the undeserved coins. The gentleman, who appeared to be an airport worker who had just changed into mufti after his shift, then offered me the use of his mobile phone. He was at that point in time my knight in shining armour. I dialled the number of the agency responsible for our airport transfer. To my relief, a sleepy voice picked the call after what seemed like hours of ringing.

The male voice insisted one of the agency drivers was there waiting for me. Just to be sure, he asked for a minute to double-check. I held on while he confirmed that the man was actually there. The trouble might be that he was not displaying my name, he said. I thanked profusely the kind black South African who lent me his phone and asked how much he would like me to pay for the service, even though I had no more than ten rand to give him. He graciously said anything I gave him was okay. I handed over the ten rand coin I had left in local currency and he seemed happy to take it. He smiled broadly and went his way. I sorely wished I had more rand to give him.

Lugging my load behind me I went in search of the remaining couple of tired looking men waiting for the last set of arrivals to come out. None of them was waiting for me. But just as I was turning back, I sighted a man by the wall near one of the glass doors coming towards me.

“You would be John?,” he asked. “Yes, of course. Where the hell have you been?” was the natural answer I would have given the driver if I had directly hired him. But I simply answered in the affirmative and asked a couple of questions to confirm that he was the person I was looking for. Sure, he was. I felt a relief akin to having a ton of cement lifted off me. If I had not seen that man, I would have had to sleep on a hard chair in the wicked winter cold with no warm clothing.

I could not have risked taking a taxi at that hour in Joburg for the life of me. I happen to harbour the impression that South African Taxi drivers are more dangerous than their counterparts in other parts of the world. I have had a number of experiences to validate and revalidate this view.

The first experience was in 2001. I had roughly 50 minutes to change some money, make a payment for a friend on the same premises and catch a flight to Namibia. I called a taxi driver at the hotel I was staying, explained the challenge to him and asked if he could handle it. He said it was okay if I could pay him a premium above what the hotel taxis charged to the airport. I agreed to give him. He took me to the bureau de change and while I was transacting business indoors, he took off with my luggage in his vehicle. I came out to find he was gone. I called his number and he mumbled something about another customer calling him for a short trip. He promised to be back in no time. I had my hand luggage which contained my tickets, passports and other valuables with me, but I could not leave without the big bag which contained all my clothes and some shopping.
The cabbie showed up some 30 minutes later, uttering excuses and not a word of apology. We made it to the airport some 15 minutes after the counter was to have closed. The chap felt no remorse and resisted my move to deduct 50 rand from his fare. He insisted and collected his full fare. I could not wait for the mediation of the police because I was still hopeful I might be able to convince the airline officials to put me on the flight. The hope was dashed. Reflecting on the incident, I felt strongly that the cabbie had actually meant to make away with my luggage if anything of serious value had been in it. I suspected he had ransacked the contents and concluded that the money he was to collect from me was of better value than the junk he made away with. To this day I believe that was why he ever came back.

Second time with another taxi driver, we agreed on a fee and when I made the payment the taxi driver deliberately zoomed off with my change. Another time, a taxi driver took me to a destination and when I made payment he refused to collect it, feigning he misunderstood my English. He insisted he heard me make him an offer that was double the amount I offered him!

By this time I had concluded that SA taxi drivers were mainly crooks who thought nothing of bare-faced robbery. Nigerian taxi drivers are still better than this. They may fleece you if you do not know the terrain, but an average Nigerian taxi driver will not change the agreement after it has been struck and he will give you your change. You could imagine how happy I was to find the official driver to take me to the hotel at last.

The driver introduced himself as Doug. He was an Australian married to a South African. He claimed to have been at the Airport 10 minutes before our flight touched down, but just could not be bothered to display my name. He said he just felt he would know me. That sounded silly to me because we had never met before and he did not have my picture. I did not tell him how it sounded to me, but I prodded how he thought he could manage to do that.

“I know you are a Nigerian” he told me. But was there a unique way Nigerian looked in the eyes of people living in South Africa, I asked him. He replied that he had a lot of dealings with Nigerians, and he had even lived in Lagos for a couple of months. And as such he just figured he would be able to know me. I let it lie.

The trip to Hotel Devonshire, like I expected took us through large portions of Johannesburg. Doug, though aware it was not my first trip to SA felt very free to run commentaries on the scenes we encountered as we drove through the city that quiet night. It was a little to 1am and the streets were bare of human traffic. Vehicular traffic was very light.

At the notorious Hillbrow, the situation was a little different. We came across a little more vehicles, presumably conveying fun seekers retiring home from clubbing and having a nice time. There were women of different ages and sizes draped in heavy winter coats and caps lining most of the streets. Most of them were in high boots, mini skirts or hot pants. They looked longingly at every passing vehicle, apparently wishing it would pull up and its occupant would beckon them. There was one I thought could not be more than 12 years old.

“Very bad place!," Doug commented. “This is the haven of drugs and prostitution”, he told me. He went on about how Hillbrow was an embarrassment to South Africans, and how they would rather not have their foreign guests see it.

“Sadly, your kinsmen are the lords of Hillbrow. And no matter what the government does, they are simply waxing stronger”, Doug said with his eyes firmly on the road, apparently to avoid my gaze. There was an awkward silence. Then, he added that he happened to think that the entire nationals of a country could not be dismissed as bad on account of the activities of a few criminals from there. “I am not one of those who think all Nigerians are bad. No. I have been to Nigeria. My Pastor is a Nigerian. He is such a wonderful person. I have known some very good people from Nigeria since I became a serious Christian. But, not all South Africans have opportunities to see these good ones. All they see are the Nigerian drug barons who live big, drive flashy cars and perpetuate fraud and prostitution”, he explained. From further probing I realized he was a follower of Pastor Temitope Joshua of the Synagogue Church of all Nations, whom he idolized. He credited his salvation to Pastor Joshua. He was not a devout Christian until the Nigerian miracle worker went to Johannesburg for a crusade. There he gave his life to Christ. Now he was already training to be a pastor in the South African branch of the church.

“Pastor Joshua is a wonderful person. Just look at me telling you! You should tell me, right?” he asked, suddenly excited. I was not a fan of Pastor Joshua, but I was glad that in spite of the evil reputation Nigerians had assumed in this rainbow country, there was a Nigerian that this man thought was next to an angel. I nodded vigorously.

“He is a wonderful person”, I said, praying silently that he would never have cause to change his mind about this lone star in the otherwise dark firmament of Nigeria’s image. The remainder of my stay in Joburg was to show me just how terribly Nigeria’s image had slumped in SA since my last visit.

The following 12 days of conference and interactions at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) were full of incidents that would make a Nigerian wish his home government would appreciate just how significantly Nigeria’s image had deteriorated even among fellow Africans and do something urgent about it.

While the continent generally is not lacking in kleptomaniac rulers and
self-centred public officials, Nigeria was frequently used as a reference point
by many of the resource persons when the discourse was about graft and scam on
the African continent.

Even fellow participants whose country fared no better would gleefully draw instances from Nigeria when talking about humanity’s continuous slide into finance-related depravity.

For instance, midway into the conference, the organisers broke up the 10 participants into groups to simulate life experiences of practising journalists on the continent. One of the scenarios we were to act out in my group of three participants, a Ugandan, a Cameroonian and a Nigerian was how a journalist could tackle a corrupt government official in an interview. When the call was made for nominations as to who would play what role, the Ugandan blurted out: “John would be natural as the corrupt official. He can play Abacha!” I took exception to that and suggested he could play Idi Amin. An unpleasant situation looked set to unfold, but the more tactful Cameroonian opted to play the role while the Ugandan and I played journalists.

“Many people here see Nigeria as a country of fraudsters, and every Nigerian as smart and unscrupulous. They think every Nigerian is desperate to make money and will resort to anything to make it”, said a Southern Africa correspondent of a Nigerian media institution. “It was so terrible once that the Nigerian High Commission had to take out TV and Radio airtime and press spaces to debunk many bad impressions about Nigeria. Before then, when there was a robbery and a foreigner was involved, the authorities would go ahead and announce that a Nigerian was caught robbing people even before they found out where the person was truly from”, he said.

The writers of 419 letters from Nigeria have apparently not helped matters. At the rate people in SA receive these scam emails, they think it is all Nigerians do. And apart from the letters, a number of Nigerians were reported to have played fast tricks on some prominent South Africans, leaving them feeling like fools.

A local tale I picked up while there even has it that some smart Nigerians took advantage of a high-ranking SA government official in 2002 or so. Someone reportedly called the SA government, claiming to be Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. The caller said his son would be coming to South Africa soon and asked SA government to extend its hospitality to his boy. Not wanting to offend an African head of state - and not bothering to check the call - the officials reportedly went out of their way to look after "Obasanjo's son" and his entourage when they arrived. Having lived the life of royalty for a couple of days, the Nigerians vanished. The officials panicked and phoned Lagos - only to be told that the real president's sons had been in Nigeria the whole week. Stories like this abound in SA.

Consequently when anyone shows up at the JHB wielding a green passport, SA operatives would almost openly ask him what the game is all about this time. It is difficult for many of them to believe there is a dignified Nigerian. This probably explains the predicament of Professor Wole Soyinka who was detained at the airport for about five hours last year. He was invited to deliver a lecture, but the officials insisted his papers were irregular. Barely after surviving that humiliation, a South African calling into a live radio programme called the Nobel Laureate a moron on air simply because he expressed his views about the treatment Robert Mugabe was meting out to his own kinsmen in Zimbabwe.

In 2003, another distinguished Nigerian; Chief Emeka Anyaoku delivered a brilliant lecture in the memory of the Pan Africanist and ANC chieftain, Oliver Thambo at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria and received a standing ovation. At question time, a dreadlocked South African student stood to ask a question not remotely connected to the subject of discourse. He cleared his throat and asked: “How do you plan to restore the integrity of Nigerians”.

The guest speaker, monetarily thrown off balance recovered quickly to state that he was not aware the integrity of Nigerians had been stolen, and as such there could not be a talk of restoring what was not lost.

In both instances, it was not about the distinguished individuals insulted. It was about the country they came from and their fellow country men. A report by Mark Shaw, Research Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs, entitled “Towards an understanding of West African criminal networks in Southern Africa” as far back as 2001 acknowledged “apparent strongly held xenophobic views among ordinary South Africans for people from West Africa”. And as the researcher pointed out elsewhere in the report, ‘people from West Africa’ is a diplomatic way of referring to Nigerians by SA crime researchers.

“What exactly is it with Nigerians that they generate so much animosity?” Bridget, a bespectacled, elegant white South African at the front desk of a travel agency in Pretoria asked me as we struck a conversation after purchasing a ticket. “It beats me. They have to struggle for everything. They have to struggle for visas even to African countries”.

She said her company stopped processing visas for Nigerians many years back because when they took 100 applications of different nationalities to the embassies, 99 would go in smoothly, while the only Nigerian passport would be refused visa. “Why do Nigerians have to struggle for everything?”, she asked, not really expecting any answer.

Even if she was, I had none. Her question came to me as the Kenyan Airways flight that brought me back approached the Murtala Mohammed International Airport a few days later. Perhaps the answer lay in the chaotic distribution of built structures visible from a few kilometres above sea level; the rusty roofing sheets of the houses and the hideous yellow painted buses, cockroaching through gullied roads; the conveyor belt that would not work 30 minutes after passport control rituals; the trolley attendant that insisted you pay N100 to use a squeaky trolley when elegant ones you used in Joburg were free. The answer lay everywhere.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

MTS-Customer care or customer scare

  (Off the cuff, Nigerian Tribune, Thursday June 1, 2006)Keeping customers satisfied, obviously, is the hardest part of the business of telecoms. An operator with a flawless customer care culture is yet to be born in Nigeria. From mobile to fixed service, the operators are all still struggling to come near the world standard.

But I sometimes think the operators might have found it easier to achieve a commendable customer care practice if they had opened shop elsewhere. A flawless customer care tradition is hard to achieve in Nigeria. Some irreparable damage has been done to the culture of civility of Nigerians by long years of military rule. Add to that the daily frustrations that characterize our existence in Nigeria and you will understand the troubles of the companies.

There very simply are more rude people about in Nigeria than polite, cultured ones. And when it is time for entrepreneurs to hire people into their front offices, call centres, tech support centres, the odds are stacked against them getting people with the right attitude and disposition.

Customer care is a people thing. If you have the right people, you have it. If you don't, you don't. It does not matter how much investment you have made into technology.

Take MTS for instance. The new office of this up and coming operator at No 9 Kingsway road, Ikoyi, will blow your mind away. Inside the perimeter fence, the view is breathtaking. And when you make it into the customer care centre, you would just love to become a customer of MTS right away, regardless of how many other operators you are a subscriber to already.

The technology, decor, ambience and smart dressing of staff compare very well with what you would find in a similar outfit in London, US or any other part of the developed world. And a porter opens the door for you too!

But that is where it all ends, regrettably. You walk in and see all the colourfully dressed, beautiful ladies behind flat screen PC monitors who are as impersonal as your neighbourhood watchdog, probably just as vicious too when provoked, I don't know.

Everybody is busy; no one is interested in you. You find on the right an array of very comfortable, indeed very inviting cushion chairs, but your brain tells you that with no system of tracking new arrivals in place, taking a seat may mean that you will be there in the midst of the seated gentlemen for eternity without your needs being met. Everybody is just too busy to notice any new customer.

So you opt to stand just in front of one of the girls, who by the way is the youngest and one of the most beautiful. Not that this has anything to do with your decision, anyhow. She is on the phone, transacting what must be official business from the way she is carrying on. So you wait quietly, taking in the pleasant sight. After a while, you reconsider your decision. She doesn't appear like she will be finishing that conversation in this life time, so you try to shift to the next lady in line, who is stacking boxes of phone terminals beside her. You try to catch her attention, but she is too busy. There are still many more boxes to be stacked and checked against their entry, see?

You cast a look at the three other girls. Just don’t go there. These ones are dashing between the inner offices and their desks, checking out papers and filling forms and, well, dashing back into the inner offices.

A pretty woman who, who must be the top gun in this department can be seen from the glass wall working hard. She also dashes out once in a while and navigate what has now become a small crowd of eager customers and returns to her desk. You are tempted to ask her a few questions herself, but her carriage and speed show how seriously busy she must be. This work is killing her, see?

Then, the first lady on the phone surprisingly finishes and finally, graciously entertains your questions. You ask for five minutes to decide on what service to sign on for. When you return, she is on her feet, gathering some sheets of paper. It cannot possibly be closing time. You look around for a wall clock to confirm. Yes you are right. By the time you look back she is out of her desk and cat walking towards the exit. No word from her even as she passes very close to you on her way out. It turns out that she has gone to get more phones. "Please, give me a moment to get more phones" would have been normal. A smile and "Could you kindly take a seat there while I get more phones" would be world standard. Attending to me right away since all I needed was data service and going on later to get the phones would have been excellent customer care.

You turn to her neighbour and she is on the phone now. You are there looking at each other for about 10 minutes but you are not too sure she is seeing you. Finally, she finishes and says "Yes?" So she sees you! Thank goodness. But ‘Yes?’ That is not a language of a customer care person. Another thing, it would have mattered little to the MTS official at the other end of the phone line, if she had interrupted the long conversation and said to a standing customer, "Please I will be with you shortly". But it would have mattered much to the standing customer, cause then he would know she was conscious of his presence and appreciated it.

But you are happy you finally get a chance to say that you have this money you want to give to MTS in exchange for a service. She doesn’t appear particularly thrilled at this prospect, but it seemed there was nothing else she could do but to grudgingly facilitate the process. She wasn’t exactly frowning, but she was close to it as to make no difference. Come to think of it, none of these beautiful girls look cheerful. What is the use of a beautiful girl with a permanent scowl on her face. It is probably the work.

And that is the trouble. Customer care is not the papers and the computers. The work is the customers. Everything else is secondary. In Nigeria, the opposite is the case. Customer service workers are too busy with the paperwork and hardware. The customers distract them from concentrating on work!


Getting it right before Information summit

Caption:(L-r) Sunday Folayan, MD, Skannet, Theresa Swinehart, GM, Global Partnership, Kieran Baker,GM, Comm & Public Participation(ICANN)

For four days preceding the ongoing WSIS regional summit in Accra, Ghana, ICT journalists from key West African countries met to benefit from the insight of world authorities on the Internet medium, reports JOHN AWE.
(Infosystems cover story for Thurs 3 Feb 2005)

Journalists from West African countries gathered in Accra, Ghana in the tail end of January to receive new insight into the various issues that will define the emerging information society.

The critical issues of internet governance, internet access and the role of the media in midwifing the information society were dissected by various experts in a four-day workshop organised to prepare West African journalists for the challenges of reporting the information society.

The workshop was a collaborative effort of the International Institute of Information and communication Technologies (ICT) Journalism, Afilias, .Org and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Serious discussions opened with a presentation by Desiree Miloshevic of Afilias who broached the subject of Internet governance and introduced participants to a maze of issues surrounding Internet administration and content.

Her presentation delved into the limitations of ICANN duties, the upsurge in unwholesome cyber practices such as website hijacks, 'phishing', spamming and scamming, and the modest efforts of stakeholders to preserve the integrity of the unique information medium.

But, according to her, since no single entity is in charge of the internet, the job of making it safe and trustworthy belong to all stakeholders, which include the users.

Desiree noted that ICANN has made a major move to reduce prolonged disputes over Internet registry related issues by setting up a Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy. THis has solved a number of tacky issues that would have otherwise resulted in court actions, she said.

ROland Stanbridge, Director, Global Journalism, Stebro University, Sweden pushed for a change of news values in the media.

ROland canvassed the reportage of developmental issues not only from the point of view of decision-makers but also from the perspectives of the governed.

To successfully do that , journalists, according to him, must strive to understand ICT and discuss it in a way the local people can understand it.

Filifing Diakite, a broadcast journalist from Mali led a group discussion on the level of ICT growth in West African countries.

The Internet , according to Filifing has been on a steady spread in Mali since 1996. But there is currently some hot debate in the country of 12 million people, about the recent decision of the dominant telco to enter the retail internet market despite being the sole seller of Internet bandwidth to ISPs.

Day Two opened with a presentation by Sunday Afolayan, CEO of General Data Engineering Services, an ISP in Nigeria.

Sunday discussed the role of the regulator in achieving a pervasive Internet access on the African continent. He stressed that it was never enough for regulators to roll out rules, but must be strong enough and ready to enforce them. The alternative is anarchy, he said.

He canvassed a shift of paradigm, arguing that journalists should never be afraid to question established norm, tradition or ways of thinking .

He wondered why the West African submarine cable sat 3 was not being utilised to solve the communication problems of the sub-region.

For example the cost of calling Ghana from Nigeria would , according to him, drop drastically if the national carriers of the two countries would agree to use a little of the capacity of the cable for exchanging international traffic between each other.

Sunday called for the inclusion of Internet in the list of utility services that must be provided at the construction of a building.

Anne-Rachel Inne, Policy Analyst with ICANN dealt extensively with the issues involved in country code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) designation and redelegation.

She submitted that unlike the Generic TOp Level Domain (gTLD), ccTLD was left entirely in the hands of countries or whatever bodies any country might appoint to handle it .

She noted that ICANN would not get involved in the local dispute of who managed a country's TLD but would point out best practices around the world or direct such countries to similar cases that were successfully resolved.

The duo of Mouhamed Diop and Adiel Akplogan of the Africa Network Information Centre subsequently took turns to educate the journalists on the issues of Internet registries and the significance of having AFRINIC.

They submitted that the full recognition of AFRINIC by ICANN would save the continent money that had hitherto been paid to other Internet registries outside the continent.

Participants expressed satisfaction with the quality of resource persons at the workshop. Many of those spoken to particularly described the presentations of Sunday Afolayan and Rachel as the most interesting.

"Afolayan mixed his explanations with local proverbs and sayiings that elicited laughter and helped to keep his audience's attention. I think his was the best presentation," said Gerard Guedegbe of Education-Info, a news magazine based in Benin Republic.

"Rachel has an interesting personality. She was eager to receive questions from participants and answered them in such a refreshing manner. Well I think she was the most pleasant of the resource persons," said Segun Oruame, Editor of Nigeria- based IT Edge magazine.

The workshop closed on Monday.

OBJ’s sledge hammer and a yellow fly

(Off the cuff published in the Nigerian Tribune edition of Thursday, 5 May 2005)

I don’t know why it seems all so absurd to me that President Obasanjo did a personal letter to the President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki over a gift of N7 500 to members of the House of Representatives by MTN.

As hard as I try to justify this on the strength of the new anti-corruption breeze (make that whirl- wind) blowing across government corridors, I cannot shake off this image in my mind of our beloved president frantically chasing one hapless fly with a sledge hammer.

My friend Everest Amafule of the Punch in an email tried to sell me the trick in this Obasanjo’s presidential letter after I tested my views on technology writers’ discussion platform on the net earlier in the week. The point the president wants to make clear to the international community, according to Everest, is that he is very determined to fight corruption no matter who is involved.

That exactly, happens to be my grouse. The president is desperate to convince the world that he is averse to corruption. The operative word here is ‘desperate’. Desperate people do desperate things. Most of them absurd. Writing a personal letter to the president of South Africa to inquire about the corporate practice of MTN in their home country is one of them.

If anything, it is undeserved glorification of MTN, undue amplification of the issues and a crass attempt at playing to the international gallery. Sadly, the international community would see through it and all the president’s earlier honest efforts would seem like it is all play acting.

If I were to choose between a president who wants to be seen as fighting corruption and a president who is eager to fight corruption, I would choose the latter. Make no mistake about it. They are not the same thing.

A president eager to fight corruption would put in place needed structures to do the work ( as he has done with EFCC and ICPC) and let them do it. He will give them all the encouragement to do the job and carry on doing what presidents do. He does not need to show anything to anybody. When his structures run efficiently, the world will notice.

The president’s letter to President Mbeki dressed the issue in borrowed garment of importance. A gift of N7 500 recharge cards to reps members! What will the president do if we smell that MTN or any other company from SA built a house for a government official to get a licence or something? Summon Mbeki to Aso Rock?

In any event, how much of investigation have we done on our own in Nigeria to establish if this recharge card gift conforms to a pattern we can call the corporate practice of MTN here in Nigeria? Have we looked into the practices of other operators here to see if there is some consistency?

All the operators make a public show of presenting lines and airtime to government officials, public figures and others in key cities they launch. Till date, hundreds of handsets, lines and airtime have been publicly given out to different bodies, government agencies and institutions including the police, customs, national conference people etc. by all the mobile phone companies.
Millions of naira are expended regularly by these companies on handouts, branded gifts etc, sometimes to people in the street. And the operators do this for a motive: to win recipients, usually opinion moulders or influential people to prefer them to the next operator.

When is it corruption? When a recipient says so or when it can be established that there is a motive more dishonourable than the one stated above? Or when one of the beneficiaries is alleged to have sat on some of the PR largesse that they are supposed to pass around?

Don’t get me wrong. It is noble to fight corruption. But don’t get desperate for a scapegoat. Otherwise any sheep will do!
Mail me if you disagree.

Flashing as an epidemic on the West coast

(Off the cuff published in Nigerian Tribune, Thursday 3 February 2005)

Colleagues from other West African countries here at the ongoing WSIS preparatory summit in Accra Ghana have confessed to me that flashing is a sin their people are also guilty of.

From Ghana to Mali, mobile phone users demonstrate the active penchant for helping others squander their credit while conserving their own.

"There are Ghanaians who though are earning foreign currency in London, would still flash you sometimes, hoping for you to call them back,'' said Naa, a journalist with a general interest magazine published for Ghana from the UK.

The 'epidemic' has spread very widely in Cote d'Ivoire, according to an Abidjan-based ICT journalist, Theodore Kouadio.

Of course, in Cote d'Ivoire, they don't call it flashing. They call it 'bip', pronounced 'beepeh'.
In The Gambia, flashing is a way of life, especially among the youths.

"Yes, you do that (Flash) to let people know you are trying to reach them, said Bakare Muritala, a journalist for the Observer of The Gambia. In his argument it is not really because people are not willing to spend their own credit, but just because they are out of credit at the particular moment they need to make the call.

Ghanaians seem to have mastered the art of flashing more than everybody else though.
During one of the tea breaks at the pre-event workshop, a Ghanaian participant particularly turned out to be some kind of irritant to other participants. His phone was forever ringing once or twice every few seconds. He was determined not to call the caller back, but the caller was equally determined he would not let up until he was called back.

Well, yours sincerely taught him a trick he could use to take care of the situation.
Instead of putting his phone back in his holster after each flashing episode, I asked him to hold it in his hand and press the answer button as soon as the call enters. After picking the flashing a couple of times the phone remained silent for the rest of the day.

As for texting, this is not something that our compatriots seem to enjoy. Theodore tells me his people are textually inactive. He personally had never sent a text before. People would rather talk to you directly either by putting a call through or, forcing the other party to call you via flashing.

Also suffering from low text drive is Benin Republic, just a stone throw from Nigeria. Textual intercourse is prevalent among Ghanaians, but I would say they still have one or two things to learn from Nigeria where a number of incentives by operators have served as a textual aphrodisiac.

Many people who had never sent an SMS in their entire life recently began to bombard their family and friends with texts courtesy of 12 free texts per month policy of Vmobile and the two texts per recharge of Glo Mobile.

Nigeria is still their baba!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Peculiar problems dog telecoms development in Nigeria

Telecom operators in Nigeria battle challenges that are not listed in any business book anywhere in the world, reports JOHN AWE
(Cover story for Infosystems published in the Nigerian Tribune edition of Thursday May 11 2006)
As a branded pick up truck pulled up in front of the enclosure housing the cell site of one of Nigeria’s Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) operators at Idumagbo in the heart of Lagos Island, a couple of scuffled young men (known locally as area boys) leapt out of a shade and made for it.

They circled the truck a couple of times and confirmed their suspicion that the vehicle had brought three technicians who were to carry out maintenance work on the GSM operator's mast there. That meant business for them. They hurried to call more of their colleagues loafing in the area.

Soon the entrance to the cell site was swarming with unwashed, mean-looking young men with scary baritones. Their declaration was unequivocal. 'Owo ile' (grounds rent) must be paid to the boys before any of the technicians could be allowed to do the work they were there for..

The technicians, led by a Nigerian who had just been invited back to Nigeria from Europe where he had had a successful career run, could not understand what was going on. So he wasted time trying to find out which tier of government the boys were working for.

"Are you guys from the local government" the hapless man asked the boys who looked like they were getting impatient with the maintenance team.

"A bode lele yi. Talo wa lati local government. Ani ke sanwo le fa won boys on soro local government. Da wa lohun ka to bere sini si yin o!". Translated, it means, "Is this one a moron? Who is from a local government? Give us what we ask before we begin to rough handle you!" The statements were delivered with a menace that left the hapless technicians no doubt as to what trouble they were in. The remaining two technicians suspected to be expatriates hurriedly climbed back into the truck while the team leader and the driver tried to see if they could solve the problem. It was a misplaced hope.

He made some frantic calls to some people believed to be at the company’s headquarters. He consequently got educated about the antics of area boys who usually hinder any maintenance work at the site.

With more understanding of the kind of trouble he was dealing with, the team leader tried to coax the boys. He failed. At some point, the team leader also broke into what little pidgin he knew and threatened to call the police if the boys did not disappear. That was a mistake as the boys swooped on him. Before anyone knew what was happening they had dispossess him of his mobile phones and most of the tools they had meant to use for the maintenance work.

The team managed to get back to their head office where the matter was reported to the police and a few arrests were made.

But that is not the end of the harassments that staff of telecom companies encounter when they go round their installations to carry out routine maintenance or any type of work whatsoever in Nigeria.

It is even not the only unusual challenge telecom providers face in their bid to meet their obligations to subscribers and stakeholders in Nigeria. .

“Nigeria is full of unique challenges you will probably not find anywhere else in the world. As a business, not necessarily as a telecom service provider, you must fashion out ways to deal with these unique problems” said Fidel Otuya, Director of Corporate Communications, Intercellular, one of the pioneer private telecommunications operators in Nigeria.

Topmost on Fidel’s list of daily challenges that will probably not be found anywhere else in the world is the menace of area boys.

“Look, even this morning I had an encounter with some of the boys. As you can see outside, the road is being rehabilitated and motorists have to find ways of avoiding the blocked area. But then some jobless boys will pounce on you as soon as you either attempt to find a space to pass or park. They will demand for money. If you don’t give them you risk having your windscreen or side view mirror damaged” he said.

Fidel said some of these little problems that the government ignored had a way of adding to the overheads of a business.

“Take this scenario, you invite foreign technicians to come make installations for you, or conduct training and you have to go hire mobile policemen to escort them from the airport. You have to feed them for the number of days and accommodate them. It happened during the General (Sani) Abacha regime. You had to because you were apprehensive of the safety of the foreign guys,” he said.

The marketing Manager of Starcomms, Mr Omar Lababidi in an interview with Infosystems said each country had its peculiar challenges.

“Sure, Nigeria has its own share of peculiar challenges. It is left for operators to do enough feasibility study before launching commercial operation” he said.

He admitted that some of the challenges might escape due diligence, but emphasised that if the exercise was thorough, the surprises would not be enough to shock the operator out of business.

“Challenges like irregular power, for instance, we all knew that before launching service. It should not surprise anyone. But probably, many might not have expected it would get as bad as it has become today. But basically, it was a challenge that was anticipated and prepared for. I can say that, at least, of our operation” he said.

Other problems encountered in the Nigerian business environment include sporadic spells of fuel shortage, religious or ethnic clashes, inconsistent government policies, unreliable legal system, wilful vandalisation of equipment and plants and multiple taxation.

“This must be the only country where any agency can wake up and start levying all businesses in its vicinity, regardless of how many other levies or taxes they are paying,” said Adetayo Ayomikun, a staff of an Ikeja based PTO.

“The federal government will take its own tax. The state will take its own. The local government will take its own. Then one agency will come again to the same business to ask for its own levy. When you call their bluff, they just call up a few boys and come seal off your company, not minding how many people earn their living from there”.

Adetayo explained that the telecom operators recently had to come together to challenge some of the levies and charges being imposed on their masts by various agencies of government.

“The question is not about operators not willing to pay for the masts. But at the last count, six different bodies and agencies have imposed one form of levy or the other on the masts and towers apparently in their bid to raise money. But if it is allowed to go on, they will run telecom operators out of business” he said.

Of Bird and Nigerian girls

(Off the cuff column published in the Nigerian Tribune of Thursday May 11 2006)

Have you noticed that many young girls are now to be found with the brand of mobile phones called Bird? I personally couldn't help wondering what the craze is with Bird phones among our young ladies these days when I was privileged to be at a social gathering in Lagos recently.

Some of my pastimes at boring social gatherings, by the way, include mobile phone surfing, which entails checking out the mobile phone brands wielded by the people around me. Not so I could pinch one, silly! It's just something I do, sometimes unconsciously, okay?

At my table were three young women with their escorts. Lo and behold all three had different models of Bird. I couldn't tell if they were friends or relations. They did talk to each other once in a while, but more to their phones and their escorts.

Then a couple of days later, I got visited by an old friend who used to be a die-hard fan of Nokia and Motorola. She still had the Motorola, but she had replaced her Nokia with a flip model of Bird with built-in camera. Well, she had a complaint about the ringing of the Bird not being loud enough for her. Otherwise it was cool. It was a camera phone for God's sake. And one with high enough resolution to display impressive pictures of her little cousins and several of hers taken in daring moments of girlish naughtiness. And more importantly, it didn’t cost her an arm and a leg to acquire.

What's the big deal about girls going for Bird, you ask? Well the big deal is that when the brand first hit our shores, most young women I knew wouldn’t be caught dead with it. Nobody had ever heard about the brand. Buy it for a wife or girl friend and she would fling it at you in a fit of righteous anger. Couldn't you find Nokia, Samsung, or Motorola on the shelf?

The model of Nokia called pure water (because it is just as common) would be better received by most ladies at that time than any model of Bird. You might want to put it down to peer influence. The girls wanted their peers to see a recognized brand in their hands, not one they had to spell out its name letter by letter.

To complicate matters for the promoters of the brand then, the models being aggressively advertised had no particularly outstanding aesthetics value. One of the commonest ones then, a flip phone with silver finishing very much looked like it was made of corrugated iron and glass.

If the truth must be told, this brand has since undergone total reengineering. Some models I have seen lately suggest that the manufacturers are spending all the money they have to make the phones look more and more like Samsung products while costing a couple of thousand naira notes cheaper.

Many analysts would want to argue that this and unrelenting advertising have broken some of the sale barriers and are winning more members of the fairer sex into the Bird fold.

The prices of phones are crashing fast across brand distinctions, but then Bird is among the cheapest on the shelf at the moment. The promoters have realized that the price weapon is a winning weapon among Nigerian youths any day.

So maybe all that has simply happened is that Nigerian ladies have realized that a Bird in hand is worth two Samsungs on the shelf. Or maybe, it is all about like attracting like. It seems all so natural to associate chicks with birds, right? And one more thing, some of our ladies fly at night, too!