NIGERIA’S DISCONTENTED TELECOM CONSUMERS FIND A VOICE

6 September 2002

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As African telecoms cease to be state-owned, pressure for change will increasingly come the new private companies’ consumers. By any standard, Africa’s telecom customers are badly treated: they often have to put up with long queues to get a landline service, billing is often erratic and unclear, there are no transparent service obligations and even with competition, little evidence of a "service culture". As one of the continent’s largest markets, Nigeria is a case in point.

 

The continuing pressure to lower GSM tariffs may yet put the operators on the back foot. Senate President Anyim Pius Anyim has backed a call to reduce charges but crucially has warned against doing so by legislative fiat. John St. Claret Ezeani of the Telecommunications Services Consumer Organisation of Nigeria (TESCON) explains how and why it tackle issues like GSM tariffs.

 

As in various other spheres of socio-economic development, the telecommunications industry in Africa lags far behind that of other regions of the world. Aggressive efforts are now being made to remedy this situation and ensure that Africa leapfrogs into the new millenium. The cardinal pillar for the economic structure being erected for the new Africa is the wholesale adoption of the policy and philosophy of free enterprise and the corresponding dismantling of all structures that would suggest any form of government control of the economy or any segment thereof.

 

While there is no debate anymore as to the preferability of a climate of free enterprise over the regulated economy, especially in the new economy defined and essentially characterised by informstion snd communication technology, recent developments in the telecom sector in Africa tend to indicate that African telecom services consumers are in for a rough ride in a deregulated telecommunications environment.

 

The introduction of digital mobile telephony in the GSM spectrum in Nigeria in 2001, for instance, quickly exposed the danger of approaching the issue of telecom development in the continent from the angle of investor-attraction and investor-pampering masquerading as incentives, motivation and encouragement.

 

When after many years of being severely deprived of basic telecommunications services, Nigerians were exposed to GSM telephony, they rushed in large numbers to acquire the long-awaited, much-desired accoutrement of economic advancement and social interaction. This made them easy prey for network operators whose primary, if not sole interest is the immediate enjoyment of returns on their investment. The ebullient and over-eager Nigerian subscribers never bothered to obtain a proper understanding of the terms, conditions and hidden costs of the services they were snapping up. The networks took advantage of this and offered their subscribers terms and conditions of service delivery which had they applied where they operate, they would have had their licences withdrawn, or even been prosecuted for economic sabotage. For instance, the networks actually charged fees for retrieval of voice mail messages. When the din of outcry against this blatant and outrageous exploitation began to rise, they quickly stopped such charges and cheekily began to tout their retreat as a concession to their subscribers!

 

Thus, the loudest songs one hears in connection with GSM telephony in Nigeria now, one year later, are all complaints about high and questionable tariff, erratic services, sharp practices, and total absence of consumer protection from the government. The Nigerian song is of course the same song heard all over the African continent in the various languages, with slight variation in the wordings of the lyrics.

 

Because of the inability or unwillingness of the governments to protect the people, it has become imperative that the people must protect themselves. If ever there was a sector of the African economy that required the establishment of non-governmental organisations committed to protecting the interest of the end-users, it is the telecommunications industry. The sector is too crucial to the socio-economic advancement of the people, and too addictive once subscribed to, to leave in the hands of governments and private enterprise.

 

One such non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation was established in late 2001 to begin to respond to the yearning of Nigerian telecom subscribers for a voice to address, promote and defend their perspectives and interests in the national discourse on telecom development. The organisation was called the Telecommunications Services Consumers Organisation Of Nigeria (TESCON). Basically, the declared objectives of the organisation are to represent and promote the interests and perspectives of the telecom service consumer in all forums where the agenda for telecom development in Nigeria is being set and issues affecting the sector are being discussed; and to serve as a pressure group to encourage both policy makers and operators to put the interest of the consumer above all other interests and considerations.

 

So what will such a body do for telecom consumers?

 

The organisation will serve as a central clearing house for collating and articulating consumer sentiments and grievances. Apart from collating the complaints of consumers, the body will also directly monitor the activities of operators to identify abuses not easily identifiable by the less-focused consumer. It will also monitor international trends and developments in the sector and assess the extent to which the policies and practices of local (national) operators conform to international best practices.

 

Essentially, a substantial component of TESCON’s programs will be in the area of public enlightenment. There is an urgent need to create awareness and provide information and education for the people. Enlightenment is necessary for such purposes as educating the consumers as to their rights as well as the corresponding duties and obligations of operators and service providers; educating the consumers as to their own duties and obligations, for they too have defined obligations to both the service providers and to the sector in general; alerting the people on the hidden pitfalls of the terms and conditions of the services of operators which would invariably be buried in the tiny prints in the contracts; alerting the people on the half-truths and blatant lies contained in the advertisements of the operators’ products and services; enlightening the people on the various ways in which their telecom rights may be infringed, the remedies available to them when their rights are infringed, and where and how to go about obtaining redress, etc.

 

Besides the role of educating and informing the people, the organisation will take the lead in proposing consumer-friendly policies to national legislatures for necessary enactment, and when the need arises, the Organisation will lead the charge as we head to the law courts to challenge particularly unpalatable policy initiatives of the government and practices of the operators.

 

Recognising the fact that a cardinal requirement for effective consumer protection in the telecom sector is the existence of an independent and vibrant regulatory body, the organisation will be very active in agitating for the establishment of a truly independent regulatory body, neither tied to the political and economc strings of the government, nor in any way beholden to or afraid of the network operators.

 

In the final analysis, the organisation as conceptualised will be a clearing house, a lightening rod, a watch-dog, a whistle-blower and a battering ram for telecom services consumers. The question therefore, is not what such an organsiation can do for telecom consumers, the question is whether the organisation will find adequate empowerment to fulfil its amorphous mandate.

 

It is imperative that organisations like TESCON be established in as many African countries as possible, and equally crucial that a continental network of these national bodies be created to facilitate inter-exchange of information and campaign strategies. Essentially, it will be the primary mandate of this network and its component units to make the case, and make it forcefully, that meaningful development of the telecom sector in Africa can only be achieved if the real income of the African consumer is taken into consideration in determining prices to be paid for telecom services, and that whatever progress that seems to be made in the sector in the continent cannot endure unless and until the interests of the end-users of the telecom services are placed at the very top of the priority list when setting the agenda and implementing policies for telecom development in Africa.

 

It is quite unfortunate that the tendency among Africa’s telecommunications policy-makers and policy implementers is to view the sector essentially as a profit-making enterprise. What one hears primarily is that the telecom sector is a cash cow. Nobody seems to ever consider the interest of the cow. It lies in the province of non-governmental organisations to speak out for the hapless cash-cow.

 

TESCON’s Co-ordinator John St. Claret Ezeani can be contacted on: tesconmail@yahoo.com