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!

Flashing menace

(Off the cuff, published in the Nigerian Tribune of Thursday 18 May 2006)

This flashing thing is getting to a crisis point. Once it was only your sons and daughters who flashed you. And for bachelors and bachelors at heart, the list included girl friends, who mostly are students anyway.
But the world has gone bananas, suddenly. Every-bleeding-body flashes. Your landlord, boss, Pastor, Yes o! Men of the cloth too flash these days. You can imagine the man of God with collar and all, ringing and cutting it before you pick. Jeez!
I hear even men seeking sexual favours from ladies go on to flash them! I have heard ladies complained of that many times. That is the height of it. Have men no shame any more?
I can just imagine that scene. You flash the living daylights out of the hapless lady and she decides to call you and you go “Sweet angel, thanks for calling back. I am the guy who collected your number yesterday. I think Angel Gabriel has sent you to earth to be by my side.Can I buy you lunch?” If I were the lady, I would switch off English and look for one serious curse in my local dialect and dash the stupid man.

It does seem sometimes that the world has gone stark raving mad. Where is integrity?
Granted that the cost of calling on the Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) in Nigeria is prohibitive, still, it is no reason for one to become a menace to his loved ones and acquaintances. People have abandoned the golden rules that earlier flashers abided by. I mean those unwritten rules prescribed by, well, common sense.

For instance, people generally knew you could not flash someone you wanted to beg for a favour, except it was your spouse or parents. This is a rule not written anywhere, but it is simply common sense.
These days, people will flash you and when you burn your own credit to call them will then go on to ask if you could be so kind as to send them credit. By implication, you will use your own credit to have them beg you to send them credit. Rather unfair anyhow you look at it. Most reasonable people would turn down the request.
An old colleague flashed me earlier this year. I had not seen her since she relocated to Abuja, so I did not have her name on my phone book and therefore would not have called back. But at that point in time, I still had the policy of calling any flasher back immediately so long as I had credit.(People abused it and forced me to change).
I called her back and all she had for me was that she wanted me to assist her obtain some information from NCC and relay it to her by phone in a few minutes.
To effectively run that errand, I would have needed to use my credit to call NCC to ask them to get the information for me. Since I would not be able to hold on, I would have had to call back to obtain it and then call this colleague to feed her back. In all, I would have required at least 5 minutes. At N39 per minute that MTN charges, I would have spent N195. That was okay to spend for an old colleague, but not one who could not spend N25 (business centre charge), or N39 if it is her own line, or even N15 text rate for me, an old friend she had not seen for a while. Of course, I apologised and told her I was not in a position to render the help at that point in time.
Apart from people you need to beg for a favour, other people you should not flash include your subordinate, your children, and your girl friends. There is such a thing as integrity. Okay?

And to legitimate flashers, learn to text sometimes. It won’t kill you. It costs only N15. Text more, flash less.