By Olubunmi Adeniyi
Lagos. October 14, 2012: Bashir Gwandu, the Executive Commissioner (Technical Services) of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) may be sanctioned by its Board of Commissioners over alleged misconduct, in a new twist to the row brewing at the nation’s telecoms regulatory agency.
Technology Times learnt that Gwandu may be the target of punitive actions over alleged misconducts ranging from unilateral reopening of Cobranet, an ISP shut down over illegal frequency occupation and connivance with GSM operators to persuade them against payment of service quality fines imposed by NCC a few months ago.
Other allegations include that the NCC Executive Commissioner was smuggled into the NCC Board as he was not reconfirmed for a second term and that he was promoting positions that were in conflict with Nigeria’s interest at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), among others.
Gwandu is returning to the centre of another storm after a major battle to succeed the immediate past Executive Vice Chairman, NCC, Ernest Ndukwe, a move that resulted in a bitter feud that pitted both men against each other over the succession bid.
Reacting to the allegations, Gwandu told Technology Times in an interview at the weekend that he was not aware of decisions to sanction him by the NCC Board but confirmed he was being targeted for blowing the whistle on alleged frequency racketeering by the leadership of the telecoms regulator.
Over the last few weeks, reports have appeared in the media about alleged frequency racketeering that was said to have favoured Smile Communications and a sale of frequency slot belonging to the Nigeria Police to a private firm, Open Skys.
Another bone of contention raised by Gwandu was that NCC had recommended a waiver of frequency debt totaling over N1 billion in favour of MTS First Wireless, a company in which current EVC of NCC, Eugene Juwah, was a Director.
Meanwhile, Juwah at the weekend denied the all the allegations citing that they are being motivated by unnamed mischief makers while noting that he was never CEO of MTS and was not in any way personally responsible nor was NCC responsible for the waiver.
In his defence, Juwah said that though he worked at MTS prior to his appointment as EVC of NCC, he was never an owner, CEO nor did he at any time recommend a waiver for the telecoms company under the current dispensation.
Juwah said he joined MTS as a Consultant in 2001 and was subsequently invited to become Executive Director of the company but he was at no time the CEO. By the time he was leaving MTS, a major investor, Lulu Briggs had pumped funding into the telecoms company to become virtually the sole owner of the business.
According to the EVC, the ensuing crisis over alleged frequency racketeering and MTS waiver makes it “obvious that there is a motive and agenda by some unscrupulous elements who are enemies of this administration and who are bent on stopping us from excelling.”
“First was spectrum, now is MTS, Nigerians are laughing and waiting for what next from this same people”, he said in an interview published today by ThisDay.
“I never ran MTS for one day as CEO. I never obtained or signed for any loan of MTS and I challenge anyone to bring me a document showing where I signed for a loan on behalf of MTS. I never, because I was never the CEO. Even technical purchases and services under my purview were never signed by me”, Juwah adds.
He says that unnamed persons recently went to his alma mater to crosscheck if he actually obtained a PhD there with the obvious intention to discredit him while noting that he has over 30 years experience in Engineering and Management while adding that, “I am not a neophyte.”
Juwah said that, “MTS took loan from a number of banks in order to operate but I was never a signatory to those loans. The people who owned MTS liked to sign the loans and make their own arrangements. I was never an owner of MTS although I was given a very small shareholding for “sweat equity” adding that the company soon went bust, “so the shares were worth nothing.”
Meanwhile, for the first time, Gwandu has admitted that he is the whistleblower in the alleged frequency slots sale allegations when he confirmed in the interview with Technology Times that he had intimated Vice President, Namadi Sambo, on the developments surrounding the alleged frequency sales.
Gwandu, who said that he first made the disclosure on the alleged allocation of the Nigeria Police frequency to Smile Communications to the Vice President about 40 days ago says that the substance of his disclosure was that a 4G (Broadband) spectrum in the 800MHz band has been allegedly sold under the table without competitive-bidding as required by law to Smile Communications, which is not yet licensed by the commission, for less than one per cent of the price other countries are generating for the allocation.
However, Reuben Mouka, NCC Head, Media and Public Relations, had in the wake of the report on the allocation of frequency to Smile Communications absolved the leadership of the telecoms regulatory agency of any underhand deals in the transaction.
Specifically, Mouka said the transactions predated the assumption of office by the current Executive Vice-Chairman of the commission, Eugene Juwah about one year prior to his assumption of office in July 2010.
“The Current Executive Vice Chairman of the Commission, Dr. Eugene Juwah, did not initiate the allocation of the aforesaid frequencies, having resumed in July, 2010, while the process began since 2009. Even after resumption at NCC, Dr. Juwah has strictly followed the due process of issuance of licences and frequencies,” Mouka adds.
NCC says further that to obtain its UASL licence, Smile Communications paid N320,250,000 on June 26, 2009; for the PNL licence, it paid N46,830,000 on February 26, 2009 and for its Spectrum Licence with 10 years’ validity from July 2009, another N2,154,600,000 for the Federation Account and also paid N718,200,000 for the additional 5 MHz frequency.
Meanwhile, Gwandu may be the target of fresh punitive measures that could in the extreme lead to his removal from the Board over allegations against him bordering on alleged conflict of interest, people conversant with the situation told Technology Times on condition of anonymity.
One of them is the alleged collusion with executives of GSM companies to persuade them against paying the N1.17 billion fines imposed by NCC.
Gwandu admits his opposition to the fines imposed on the four GSM networks noting that, “whilst I do not claim that Quality of Service (QoS) today is in any way acceptable, I opposed the sanction against the operators imposing a penalty of N1.17billion, because I believe that the way and manner the fines were applied was not in conformity with the QoS Regulations. I have made my position clear in a Memo.”
According to him, “it is important to note that as the main arrowhead of the Quality of Services (QoS) Regulation, I made provision for the penalties, and was not prompted by anyone to include them in the Regulation. Thus, it is clearly improbable that I will include the penalties and the tight rules if I do not want them to be used. I insist that NCC has no power other than what it derives from the law and therefore NCC must not work by intimidation but by compliance with the rule of Law. Please note that following the law is a key indicator of regulatory excellence. I remain convinced that the N1.17billion fine was not strictly in conformity with the QoS Regulations and that there is need to ensure that the Regulations are applied properly.”
Gwandu also dismissed the allegations as diversionary and irrelevant. “Look, I had never seen or spoken to Dr Juwah until he came to NCC as the EVC. I have no reason to fight him,” he says adding that, “some may say the man came programmed. These types of allegations have been levelled against me by the same circle of people over many years because I am standing in the way to stop them from undermining the country for selfish gains.
According to him, “When people want to conceal main issues, and facts, they resort to cheap blackmail. I am part of the leadership of the commission. It is a Regulatory Commission with commissioners given statutory independence (even from ministers) to take decisions and execute their functions. There is good reason for that, as the commission is sitting between powerful interests. We must withstand pressure and do what is right for the country. No one commissioner can decide for the commission and call it decision of the commission.”
Gwandu similarly dismissed another allegations with a wave of the hand: For instance, nothing about MTS should be directed to him. It should be directed to Juwah, he said.
On ITU representation of the country, he said that, “It is unfortunate that I am being persecuted for bringing benefits to Nigeria…. I was also able to deliver results for Nigeria which has never been matched by anyone in the 145-year history of the ITU. My interventions have resulted in Nigeria getting spectrum that should generate billions of dollars in revenue (part of which is now being sold at ridiculous prices), and I worked to ensure that Nigerians were elected to ITU positions that we merit as a country.”
On being smuggled into the NCC Board, he cited the relevant sections of the law which says initial confirmation must be by the Senate. But renewal is solely the prerogative of the President. “I have never for once thought it would be difficult to secure a Senate confirmation. I have confidence in our Senators and as long as they are looking for people that will serve this country well in the area of my expertise, I will for the foreseeable future, qualify and meet the required standard to be an independent-minded regulator,” he adds.
On the allegation he reopened Cobranet because he was bribed, he said, “This is simply blackmail and I am hearing it for the first time from you, 12 months after the incident. It is instructive to note that the allegation is only coming after I exposed a major fraud at a meeting with the Vice-President.”
On the closure of Cobranet, he alleged that an “overzealous junior staff” who went on the rampage and shut it down.
“The law requires us to issue written warning, notice, or direction to our licencees for any breaches, and licensees are required to be given fair hearing. The law also requires NCC to consider the consumers who might have made pre-payments to the company, and take step to migrate them.”
According to him, the junior staff ignored the Legal Department of the commission and went ahead to close the company.
Finally, he said if the NCC board unilaterally chose to impose sanctions against him without fair hearing, it would be unconstitutional violation of his rights: “If any such board meeting was held without any input from me, it will be in clear breach of the Constitution of the Federal Republic which provides that every citizen of Nigeria has a right to receive fair hearing before any punitive action can be taken against the citizen.
Meanwhile watchers of developments within NCC believe the fresh crisis in the telecoms regulatory agency is a throwback of the intrigues that trailed the last lap of departure of the immediate past boss of the agency, Ernest Ndukwe.
Ndukwe, whose 10-year tenure as head of NCC ended April 3, 2010, was then irked by unnamed people who have resorted to what he cited as a media campaign to secure the position lashed out at them as “desperate lobbyists attempting to use the media to achieve their selfish motives.”
Part of the controversy arose over the Ndukwe’s second tenure that began April 3, 2005 which saw NCC denying what it cited as “insinuations” surrounding the terminal date for Ndukwe’s tenure as the agency’s boss.
“Our attention has been drawn to news reports insinuating that the second term tenure of the Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Commission, Engr. Ernest Ndukwe, ends today, February 18, 2009”, NCC had said in a statement at the time denying reports that his tenure expired on February 18, 2009.
NCC also expressed concern over, “the unusual attention directed on this issue in the media, and the level of propaganda, sentiments and insinuations attending these reports, some of which have no basis or reference to the position of the law guiding the appointment of the chief executive of the Commission.”
According to Ndukwe at the time, “the frequency of these damaging speculations has become very suspect. The Commission wishes to dissociate itself from these wild speculations and insinuations which may have been fuelled by some desperate lobbyists attempting to use the media to achieve their selfish motives.”
He also clarified that, “for the avoidance of doubt, it is the prerogative of the President of the Federation to appoint the new chief executive officer for the Commission at the appropriate time. We are confident that such decision will not be based on sentiments and insinuations sponsored in the media.”
NCC had then flayed the speculation noting that, “this report is false and should be disregarded by the public.”
“For the avoidance of doubt, Engr. Ndukwe’s second tenure of five years as the Executive Vice Chairman of the Commission commenced on April 3, 2005 as conveyed in his letter of appointment signed by then Minister of Communications, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, following confirmation by the Senate”, the telecoms regulator said at the time.
NCC added that, “it must be stated that it is the sole prerogative of Mr. President to decide when a new head of the NCC will be appointed. Declaration of vacancy and appointment to the position of the Executive Vice Chairman of the Commission should not be a matter for speculation.”
The battle to become the agency’s next boss had then attracted interest of a number of NCC insiders including current NCC Executive Commissioner, Technical Services, Bashir Gwandu; Director, New Media & Information Security Dept., Sylvanus Ehikioya; Secretary of Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF), Funso Fayomi as well as former Executive Commissioner, Stakeholder Management, Stephen Bello, among others.
Technology Times had on January 28, 2010 reported exclusively that the Board of Commissioners of NCC recommended the names of a former top shot of privately-owned phone company, MTS First Wireless, Eugene Juwah and two others officials of NCC for consideration to government for the EVC position.
The second nominee by the NCC Board was an ‘insider’ and Vice President (Academics & Student Affairs) in Kano, Digital Bridge Institute (DBI), Umar Garba Danbatta, a professor at the institution set up by NCC.
The third nominee was another NCC ‘insider’ and former Executive Commissioner, Stakeholder Management, Stephen Adedayo Bello. Hitherto, Bello, who was appointed Director of Engineering of NCC in 2000 and Executive Commissioner, Engineering and Standards, in 2005 was the Executive Commissioner, Licensing and Consumer Affairs.
Editor’s Note: Report updated for byline