The aftermath of unveiling the Digital Economy Complex built by Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) has been the negative commentaries in the public space over the seemingly frosty relationship between the Minister of Communication, Dr. Isa Aliyu Pantami and the Executive Vice President of the NCC, Professor Umar Garba Danbatta.
The event in mention was to showcase facilities in the complex and announce the coming into full operation of the newly established Emergency Communication Centres (ECCs) for responding to distress calls on security challenges, health problems, and even the spread of the deadly Coronavirus in Nigeria.
In the presence of President Muhammadu Buhari, the Minister allegedly broke the protocol three times, while attempting to stop the NCC boss from mentioning the Commission’s achievements in a speech. There is also the allegation that a day earlier, at the pre-conference briefing as part of the lined-up events, Dr. Pantami had cautioned Professor Danbatta to remain silent while he (the Minister) was speaking about his academic qualification, among others. There are several other allegations pertaining to misunderstandings on policy issues due to the deteriorating relationship between the Minister and CEO of the Commission that are too disturbing to be discussed here.
While there are instances where master-servant relationships exist between some Ministers and the heads of agencies under their supervision, however, there are relevant laws that define what the relationship between ministries and the parastatals under them should be. As for instance, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) are organisations under the direct or indirect supervision or guidance of the Ministers of Finance, Petroleum, Justice and Information respectively. Still, these establishments enjoy independence from the ministries under whose oversight they are.
It is even shocking to realise that Dr. Pantami and Prof. Danbatta are Northern intellectuals and academics, not politicians, whose relationship ought to be devoid of partisanship and political sentiments. While Professor Danbatta, from Kano State, obtained his B.Eng and MSc degrees from the Technical University of Wroclaw in Poland, Dr. Pantami, from Gombe State, obtained his BTech and MSc qualifications from the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU) in Bauchi.
Danbatta obtained a PhD from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) and lectured in Bayero University Kano for more than 30 years, where he taught courses in telecommunications engineering and electronics and held the academic positions of Head of Department and Dean of the Faculty at different times.
Pantami, on the other hand, obtained his PhD from Robert Gordon University in Scotland and lectured for 10 years in ATBU, where he taught courses on multimedia and software engineering, before his appointment as Head of Technical Writing at the Islamic University of Madinah in 2014.
Apart from other positive innovations in the telecommunications industry since his appointment as NCC boss, Professor Danbatta ensured the completion of Emergency Communications Centres across the country to promote and enhance public safety through a toll free three-digit number, ‘112’, as the Universal Emergency Communications telephone number in Nigeria. The toll-free number can help distressed persons access help from the Police, Road Safety Corps, Civil Defence Corps, Fire and Ambulance Services and emergency responders.
Prior to his present duty call, some of the major successes of Dr. Pantami had been on his beat as Director-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). There he had not only been at the fore of organising strategic capacity building initiatives for the information technology sector, but he had equally been responsible for enforcing the Nigerian Guidelines on Local Content Development and Data Localisation Regulation. This remarkable feat had resulted in an unprecedented increase in the patronage of locally assembled devices, IT service providers and the repatriation of substantial data assets of the Federal Government, which had previously been hosted outside Nigeria.
Immediately, on his appointment as Communications Minister, Dr. Pantami had, among other things, tasked the NCC to link Subscriber Identification Number (SIM) cards, with National Identification Cards (ID cards) and Bank Verification Numbers (BVNs) as a means of checkmating criminal and terrorist activities in the country. This action drew the ire of the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, who threatened to kill him.
While one may appreciate the burning desire of public officers to enable the provision of needed positive impacts in the lives of citizens, they also need to be aware that the public office is a position of trust, which is usually transient. One may be a Director today and become a Minister tomorrow and vice-versa, just like the current Minister of Youths and Sports, Sunday Dare was simply a Commissioner under Professor Danbatta in NCC, only last year, before his elevation into the Federal Executive Council. Public officers should keep finding ways of reconciling their differences, without exposing their acrimonious antagonisms to the public glare.
Meanwhile, the idea behind the Emergency Communications Centres was mooted in 2003 when the National Assembly enacted the Nigerian Communications Act (NCA), with Section 107 of the legislation mandating the NCC to promote and enhance public safety through the use of a particular number, while also facilitating the prompt deployment of reliable end-to-end infrastructure for emergency communications needs throughout Nigeria.
Yet, due to the bureaucratic red tape, political bickering and egocentric behaviour of major actors in the sector, this dream could not be realised over a long period. I recall from my time as a spokesperson at the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in 2009, the failure of the then Minister of Information and Communication, the now late Professor Dora Akunyili to reconcile the positions of the incumbent Director General of NEMA, retired AVM Mohammed Audu-Bida and the then NCC boss, Ernest Ndukwe on the modalities for the operation of the Emergency Communications Centres. The disagreement had eventually hindered the realisation of the project at that time.
As the nation deals with the emergency situations arising from the global Coronavirus pandemic, the Presidential Taskforce inaugurated by President Buhari, as the central coordinating body on the COVID-19 response in Nigeria, need to painstakingly coordinate the activities of responders on the levels of security, logistics and mass care, in support of the anti-Coronavirus campaign.
With regard to this, the Emergency Communications Centres could be activated to process and attend to the distress and emergency calls from the public in this most crucial of national tasks. And, since NEMA is statutorily empowered to educate the public on disaster prevention and control measures, as well as to coordinate and facilitate the provision of necessary resources for curtailment activities, the agency and other critical stakeholders should be co-opted into the endeavours of the task force.
With NEMA currently under the supervision of the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Sadiya Faruk, the existing National Disaster Response Plan (NDRP) could also be activated to manage and respond to the Coronavirus epidemic beyond just phone calls.
The NDRP, which serves as a policy guideline for disaster management in Nigeria, is a multijurisdictional, multi-sectoral, multi-disciplinary and multi-resource initiative, has aspects that can be implemented through the Emergency Communications Centres. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has done so well in providing updates on the health status of Nigerians, availability of testing and other facilities, alongside contact tracing of infected persons, it should not be burdened with other components of crisis management, which are information, security and logistics related.
The presidential task force and other important stakeholders involved in seeking a resolution to this epidemic need a structure for the systematic, coordinated and effective delivery of federal assistance, and other levels of support to address the consequences of the current emergency. As such, the newly established Emergency Communications Centres, with its easy to memorise toll free 112 number, could play vital roles in this regard. Hence, the need to swiftly douse any brewing controversy around this vital information structure among the sector leaders, and quickly bring the operations of the Centres up to the presently required speed in enabling disaster response at this crucial period.
Yushau A. Shuaib
Author of “Award-Winning Crisis Communication Strategies”