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.

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