By Kemi Yesufu
On Friday December 23rd 2022, stakeholders and the media witnessed a disappointing and upsetting display at the joint sitting of the Senate and the House of Representatives Committees on ICT and Cybersecurity held at the Senate wing of the National Assembly. Senators and members of the House clashed over the bill to repeal the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) Act No. 28 2007 and enact the National Information Technology Development Agency to provide for the Administration, Implementation, Regulation of Information Technology Systems and Practices as well as Digital Economy in Nigeria and For Related Matters.
The issues House members disagreed with Senators were fundamental and even rudimentary to enacting a useful and acceptable law. Lawmakers from the House announced that they didn’t have copies of the proposed NITDA Bill which they had come to discuss with critical stakeholders and interested citizens at the hearing. Rather amazing to the House team and others at the hearing was also the fact that the minister for Communication and Digital Economy, Prof. Isa Ali Pantami and the Director-General of NITDA, Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi were conspicuously absent.
As soon as the public hearing was called to order by Senator Yakubu Oseni, chairman of the Senate Committee on ICT and Cybersecurity, a member of the House Committee, Hon Nkem Uzoma-Abonta raised a point of order.
Abonta who is the member representing Ukwa East/West Federal Constituency of Abia State called for the public hearing to be postponed to January. He observed that only a handful of his colleagues in the House Committee on ICT and Cyber Security were in attendance. He also said that even those available for the meeting didn’t have a copy of the bill, while the minister for Communications and Digital Economy, Prof Isa Ali Pantami and the Director-General of NITDA, Katie Inuwa Abdullahi were absent.
He said: “This is a bill that will protect the integrity of Nigeria in the Internet space. But the drivers of the bill seem to be running on low gear. When the Senate President ably represented here spoke, he talked about people rumouring that we are holding a secret hearing. No, here there is nothing secretive about this, we are here in this hall.
“However, the needed ingredients for us to proceed are not available. I am speaking from the side of the House. We have conferred among ourselves. We have 36 members of the committee and how many of us are here?
“Critically too, we don’t have the required documents here. I can’t find the Director-General of NITDA, the minister is not here. What needs to done should be seen to be properly done”.
His position was swiftly supported by the member representing Ukanafun/Oruk Anam Federal Constituency of Akwa-Ibom State, Hon. Idem Unyime, who stated that he wasn’t sent a copy of the bill which needed to be properly scrutinised and understood by lawmakers due to its importance.
The Senate Committee Chairman, Senator Yakubu Oseni in his response said that members of the House were sent copies of the bill and the notice for the public hearing was properly sent out to members in both Chambers.
He said: “I want to put it on record that if there are anomalies or any documents that you didn’t see, that should be a fault from your side as House of Representatives members.
“As far as we on the other side are concerned everything is intact. The bill has been circulated, the necessary documents have been circulated online, that’s on one hand.
“On the other hand, even if the NITDA Director-General is here, he won’t be the one to speak, he has a representative, the legal person will speak on behalf of NITDA. I have not seen anywhere that representatives are not allowed to speak.
“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t go on with this public hearing. In our end in the Senate we are ready”.
Obviously Senators were not on the same page with their House colleagues, Oseni’s explanation therefore didn’t sooth frayed nerves as the complaints from the House team continued with another member from the House, Hon Isiaka Ibrahim, moving a motion for the public hearing to be adjourned based on the critical issues raised by his colleagues. Bowing to pressure Senator Oseni announced that the public hearing had been adjourned sine die.
Though House members had their way on the day, Nigerians should be worried that the proposed NITDA Bill with its many flawed clauses was passed for first and second reading probably in similar circumstances at the public hearing, i.e., scanty plenary sessions having majority of members voting without having read the bill. I make this argument as an experienced parliamentary reporter. The proposed NITDA Bill has different clauses that should either have been amended by the Red and Green Chamber or simply thrown out as the bill obviously will create confusion in the sector it is designed to govern. The bill should have been rejected by lawmakers due to its many clumsy clauses.
As a stakeholder in the ICT sector, Chibuike Goodnews said on the Saturday, December 31 2022 edition of Channels TV Sunsrise Show, it is quite obvious that the proposed NITDA bill is a poorly thought plan to make NITDA a regulatory agency with the main purpose of getting money out of tech firms, some whose high-figure transactions make them look profitable when they could actually be struggling to stay afloat.
Goodnews, the CEO of Dochase Adx and Founder of Scrola App was also frank in saying the bill will alienate industry players and make Nigeria less attractive to Start Ups and investors.
He said: “When NITDA organized events all of us are interested in coming. There was this Friday event that NITDA used to organize and all of us would be interested in coming. Now, can the police or SSS organize an event and all of us will be interested in coming? People have always looked at government from a distance, that if they are serious we will join them.
“NITDA has brought the ICT sector close to itself, saying, ‘hey, let’s see what you are doing, let’s encourage you’. People have been willing to go to NITDA to tell them this is what we are doing and NITDA to an extent has supported people and connected them. The day NITDA changes to regulation, you will see how people will react to them.
“We are already seeing reaction from industry stakeholders, they are talking and resisting the idea of NITDA as a regulator. Regulations in the ICT sector are around finances and making you pay bills and this is why some people may think that the idea behind this (NITDA Bill) …. let’s cut the chase, I think the reason behind this is for some payments to be made to NITDA”.
When asked if NITDA ought to be the clearing house for the sector, he replied in the negative, saying: “The ICT sector has different aspects…if you want to have a clearing house for the sector, first of all you have to do some kind of house cleaning, in terms of structurally organizing the system. There have been activities around this idea with even the private sector themselves trying to put up some structures to make things work. But the idea of a clearing house shouldn’t rest on NITDA because NITDA’s role remains that it should support the industry and build practitioners. The idea of a clearing house should be what NCC should also do or you can have a new regulator and then change some of the functions performed by NCC and move it to the new regulator, so we don’t have duplication of duties”.
Goodnews predicted that if passed to law, the NITDA Bill will cause a lot of damage. He said: “What is going to happen if the NITDA Bill passes is if you open a technology company, NITDA will hit you with bills, NCC will hit you with bills, all kinds of government agencies will hit you with bills. Now, these agencies may not even know if the technology company has survived or has some kind of trajectory. They only want the company to pay and if you pay all their levies, you will probably close shop.
“There is one thing about technology companies, some of them can run for three years without making profit and there will just be cash transactions, you will see a lot of these transactions but they are not making profit. Yet, you will have regulators seeing those transaction as reasons for them to implement regulations and in my opinion here in Nigeria, implementation of regulations is about money. They will ask you to pay this, pay that and you will probably decide not to open shop Nigeria”.
Indeed, Goodnews is just one of the many players in the industry worried about the NITDA Bill. The Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) has rejected the bill saying it will increase regulations even as telecom operators already pay 30 different levies and may not be able to pay yet another levy to fund the NITDA Development Fund as proposed in the bill. Another important group, the Association of Telecommunications Companies (ATCON) agrees with ALTON that any additional levy is a threat to the sector.
Obviously, Part IV of the proposed bill is seen by investors as another tool to introduce yet another levy. This is even as anti-corruption campaigners have rejected the idea of creating the National Information Technology Fund as proposed in PART IV of the NITDA Bill. Yet still, it is a fact that the new high levy on all digital services will lead to an increase in prices of ICT and other related services.
This Sub-section reads: (1) There is established a Fund, which shall be known as the National
Information Technology Development Fund (in this Act referred to as “the
Fund”) and shall be used for the advancement of the country’s digital
economy objectives and related purposes. (2) There shall be paid and credited into the Fund:
(a) a levy of one per cent of the profit before tax of companies
and enterprises enumerated in the Third Schedule to this Act
with an annual turnover of N100, 000,000 and above;
Section 15 is something anti-corruption campaigners are most agitated by. It gives the Director-General control of the NITDA Trust Fund. It reads: (1) There is established a Fund, which shall be known as the National Information Technology Development Fund (in this Act referred to as “the Fund”) and shall be used for the advancement of the country’s digital
economy objectives and related purposes. (2) There shall be paid and credited into the Fund:
(a) a levy of one per cent of the profit before tax of companies
and enterprises enumerated in the Third Schedule to this Act with an annual turnover of N100, 000,000 and above.
Section 17 Sub-Section 3 ( a-e) further exposes the intention to turn the NITDA Trust Fund to some kind of slush fund for the Director-General at a time when government must block loopholes, stop leakages and ensure that all income generated by government is deployed for development. Historically the National Assembly has severally kicked against MDAs not paying in money raised into the federation account, as agents of government, under the guise that the Act establishing them gives them the power to generate income and spend. This controversial section reads: (3) The Agency may, without prejudice to the provision of Section 13 (1) of this Act, apply the proceeds of the Fund established under Section
13 of this Act:
(a) to the advancement of the purpose of this Act;
(b) to the cost of administration and operation of the Agency;
(c) for the development and maintenance of any property vested
in or owned by the Agency;
(d) for investments in initiatives to attain the objectives of the
(e) to any other expenditure in connection with any of its functions
under this Act.
Beyond fears of creating a heavily taxed ICT sector, different stakeholders say it is highly unnecessary to create a large and unwieldy regulator which will regulate many aspects of people’s lives and cover various sectors since digital culture is all-encompassing. Section 5 of the bill titled “Functions of the Agency” gives the NITDA which is to be turned to a regulator from its government tech hub and instigator role to an agency with power to regulate consumer protection, roles which the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the Standard Organisation of Nigeria already perform. Specifically, Section 5 (22) of the bill seeks to “protect the interest and rights of consumers against unfair practices in collaboration with the consumer protection regulator.
Sub-section 23 of Section 5 goes ahead to give NITDA the power to “represent Nigeria at international proceedings and meetings of international organisations relating to information technology and digital economy”, whereas this role should be open to all relevant agencies in the Communication and Digital Economy sector. Other Sub-sections of Section 5 of the proposed NITDA Bill which stakeholders believe will create confusion as it gives NITDA Power to perform the functions of other regulators in the Communication and Digital Economy sector and security agencies include: Sub section 1 and 2, which says, “the Agency shall -(1) regulate the use, development, standardisation, research, and application of information technology, emerging technology and digital services practices, activities and systems in Nigeria. (2) regulate the use of data for business and security analytics and intelligence, subject to any other law on the subject”.
Section 5-Sub-Section 6 also seeks to empower NITDA to create processes and keep appropriate data to ensure effective monitoring of information technology and digital devices to support national security objectives”. This should be the job of the security agencies coordinated by the National Security Adviser, as directed by the President and Commander-in- Chief.
Worst still, for Section 5 Sub Section 9, NITDA seeks to be given the power to regulate NCC and the entire ICT/digital economy sector, by this aspect of the bill NITDA shall, “coordinate and supervise the activities of any entity incorporated, owned or partly owned by the government to provide information technology infrastructure and digital services”.
Even more troubling is Section 6 of the bill which lists Powers of the Agency: “The Agency shall have powers to –
(1) implement all Government policies on information technology and
(2) test, and approve the use of information technology infrastructure
and services before adoption in Nigeria;
(5) fix licensing and authorisation charges, collect fees and penalties
as may be necessary for the exercise of its functions under this Act;
(7) enter premises, inspect, seize, seal, detain and impose
administrative sanctions on erring persons and entities who contravene any
provision of this Act subject to the order of a court of competent
(12) issue and renew licenses and authorisations for the provision of
information technology and digital services;
If passed the above listed clauses from Section 6 of the bill will cause confusion as these roles are already being performed by Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and even the Federal Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy which coordinates government policy and agencies’ implementation of policies in the sector. To further emphasise that it will be in-charge of licensing in the communication and digital economy sector, despite Section 6 (5) which gives NITDA authority to fix licensing and authorization charges, collect fees and penalties, this new bill still detailed how NITDA will be the sole agency for licensing and authorization in the Information and Digital Economy sector in Part V. This part of the bill gives NITDA power for renewal, suspension, revocation. This bill if passed will cause a lot of confusion, starting with the duplication of the role of the NCC.
Beyond the strict confines of lawmaking, all policies and laws in a democracy ought to be acceptable to the people. Industry players and even everyday people who use ICT services products have taken to the social media asking why the Buhari Administration which has months to hand over power will allow this bill to make a mess of some of the progress it made in the sector. The Buhari Administration contributed to a Nigerian ICT and telecom sector which contributed 18.44 percent to GDP in the Q2 of 2022. Telecom alone contributed 15 per cent of that. Such sectors should be governed by laws which will promote growth and stability and not confusing legislations.
Still speaking on the Buhari Administration avoiding needless controversy, the minister of Communications and Digital Economy despite his controversial reputation as a religious extremist owing to dug up videos of his preaching in support of terrorism and his controversial professorship appointment shouldn’t add the NITDA Bill as one of his controversies as a government official.
The government is already distrusted by majority of Nigerians and should not allow Pantami, who is still struggling with allegation of having Boko Haram sympathies, to destroy the little goodwill left of this government with months to its winding down. Already, there are segments of the sector and political observers who have at different times expressed worry over the dominance of a section of the country in the Communications and Digital Economy sector especially as majority of the players in the sector come from the other side of the country. Minister of Communications and Digital Economy Isa Pantami (Muslim North), Galaxy Backbone Limited Prof. Muhammad Abubakar (Muslim North), National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) Engr. Aliyu Abubakar Aziz (Muslim North), National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) DG/CEO Kashifu Inuwa (Muslim North), Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) EVC/CEO Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta (Muslim North) and Nigerian Communications Satellite (NIGCOMSAT) Limited CEO Engr. Tukur Mohammed Lawal Funtua (Muslim North), only the Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST) has a southern CEO Hon. Adepoju Adeyemi Sunday as Post Master General (South West). Any law seen as squeezing a southern dominated ICT and digital economy sector should be stepped down.
It is easy to predict that should the postponed public hearing by the Joint NASS Committee on ICT and Cybersecurity hold in January, stakeholders and even the public will reject the bill. National Assembly should listen to the voice of the people and throw out the bill as it has been rejected by stakeholders.