GSM networks in Nigeria: Legalised robbery – 1

GSM Networks in NigeriaIt [is] beautiful and simple as all truly great swindles are”. O. Henry, 1862-1910; slightly modified. (VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS p 239).

Nigerian GSM network owners are swindling Nigerians and smiling all the way to the banks – whose ATM machines also rob depositors mercilessly. If the government of Olusegun Obasanjo had planned to take Nigerians to the financial slaughter house, it could not have done it better than by introducing the GSM and licensing companies based in Nigeria, Asia and South Africa as the major carriers. High ethical standards are in short supply in those countries; that is certain.

By the way have you heard the story about the study to determine the country with the worst ethical standards? Three finalists emerged representing continents: USA, Italy and Nigeria. Each sent a business mogul who was supposed to wade through a pond. The corruption index was determined by how high the water reached on his body.

First, the American went in and sank up to his knees; then the Italian who was covered up to his chest. Then it was the turn of the Nigerian to enter the pond. Everyone was astonished when Nijerman sank only up to his ankles. Before they could ask questions he whispered to them “Shoo, I am standing on an Indian”.

When it comes to sharp business practices Nigerians are light years behind Indians. Back in the early 1990s, when I ran a course, at the Nigerian Institute of Management, NIM, on CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY, that was the opening story. Till today, the story has not changed.

The minute a company or product carries a Made In India label, I instinctively move away – unless there is no alternative. So, I never touch their GSM network in Nigeria and I will never buy a Made In India car. The only exceptions I have made is DANA Airlines, because it is sometimes the only airline going my way at a particular time and day; and KIA Motors, because they are not made in India. I remain to be convinced that anything from that country is for real.

Unfortunately, the Nigeria-based and the South Africa based operators appear to be doing all they can to surpass the Asia-based network in swindling Nigerians – while providing increasingly poor quality service.

Nigeria is probably the only place in the world where a network can tag on to your calls music, messages, jingles etc, and charge you for calls not completed while you listen to the rubbish they tagged on to calls. All the three biggest networks, MTN (South Africa), Globacom (Nigeria) and Airtel (India) — are guilty of this practice. I have also been told that others like ETISALAT  have resorted to this sharp practice.

Americans and Europeans largely invented the mobile telephone systems and the operators were more ethical when they were based in those continents. One of the unpleasant repercussions of globalization had been the acquisition of controlling shares in communication networks by Asian and African countries which very quickly bring in corrupt practices.

Yet nothing promotes the rapid growth of unethical practices in poor countries, like India, South Africa and Nigeria more that the failure of institutions to regulate the operators in the private sector. Allied to that is the failure of the people to organize and fight their exploiters.

Nigeria is a particularly a sad case. We continue to put up with atrocities committed by “elected” government officials, as well as, scandalous practices by the private sector swindlers. Two organizations deserve our attention in this regard – the first is a government agency, the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, which has practically surrendered “Fellow Nigerians” to the slaughter house of the GSM network operators.

Just as the Department of Petroleum Resources, DPR, had handed over motorists to filling stations to be wickedly exploited through “doctored” pumps and adulterated products, NCC officials have adopted a “See no evil and hear no evil” approach to the affairs of the networks – as if they are somehow excluded from the pervasive poor service and exploitation.

The second is civil society group which claims to be monitoring the networks on behalf of the rest of us. Since, I don’t know how this organisation operates, it is difficult for me to decide whether to commend their efforts or to condemn them. We had seen positively spirited movements in the past which had degenerated into paid mouth organs for the business sectors they were supposed to be monitoring.

About thirty years or more ago, late Mr Akintunde Asalu, started a one-man crusade to monitor closely the activities of companies quoted on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, NSE. In the beginning, Asalu was a thorn in the flesh of the directors of companies in which he had even very few shares. He attended every Annual General Meeting, AGM, and tried as best as he could to serve the interests of small shareholders.

Later, a Shareholders Association developed around him and, while he probably remained true to the mission, the others in the Association discovered that they could make easy money by pretending to champion the causes of shareholders while allowing themselves to be bought off by the companies.

Today, there is probably no honest Shareholders Association left.  So, I hope those who have undertaken to monitor the networks will not soon succumb to the enticements of the sector. Trillions of naira are at stake. These people are killing us. Let me list a few ways by which we have been led to the slaughter house.

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