Hijack of Nigeria’s Digital Switch Over Programme

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Livinus Acholonu

Recently Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information of Information and Culture, who many industry players have alleged has usurped the role of the NBC as the regulator as the driver of national digital switch over (DSO) process, issued a directive to the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) for current pay terrestrial operations of GOtv and StarTimes to migrate to the Free TV platform. This, according to the NBC, is in line with the guidelines of the Federal Government Whitepaper on the DSO.

However, this directive and many more actions of the minister point to a larger attempt at using the DSO to effectively take over the Nigerian broadcasting market and place it at the disposal of certain political actors in preparation for the 2023 presidential election.

Starting from last year’s controversial Broadcasting Code Amendment, which has continued to draw heavy criticisms from industry players, including the NBC Board, for its lack of stakeholder input and rush to pass through such a major industry code amendments to the recent ministerial directive for StarTimes and GOtv to handover their digital infrastructure to the fledgling Free TV platform, which currently has very limited service in only six states, there are valid grounds to suspect that there is a design to capture the broadcasting regulator for political objectives.

The Minister’s regulatory capture strategy, as widely believed within the industry, is the brainchild of the promoter of a failed pay television venture, who is deemed as his de facto special adviser. The failed pay TV promoter, who is close to Mohammed’s political benefactor, is a member of the Ministerial Task Force on the DSO and he is in charge of Free TV, NBC’s vehicle for delivering DSO; the middleware company providing conditional access to DSO as well as that of the one providing video-on-demand service on the DSO platform.

Effectively, these put him in control of the national television system by virtue of his position in Free TV, which has pay television service written all over it.

It is important to note that the simple objective of the DSO is to convert analogue Free-to-Air TV services to digital, not to create a pay television service. The adopted architecture for the DSO is one that is at variance with the cardinal principle of DSO and has the appearance of an attempt to use government funds and infrastructure to set up a private pay television service.

Given that the Minister and his de facto adviser have the same political family roots, the capture of the regulator and digital broadcasting infrastructure will present the Minister’s political platform with a full deck of cards as the control of the media is known to be a powerful ammunition in electoral campaigns.

The DSO, as it stands, lacks a legal framework, as the Whitepaper is no law. This fact has been noted by the National Assembly Ad hoc Committee, which wondered why such a huge national undertaking has no effective legislative framework guiding it.

The absence of a sturdy legislative framework has also inhibited public accounting of funds spent on the first stage in the six pilot states. This should have been done in accordance with International Telecommunications Union (ITU) guidelines for DSO implementation, as it outlines the level of implementation based on the following criteria: Legislative, Policy and Regulatory Goals Undertaken, Infrastructure Roll-out/Digital Penetration and Spectrum Utilization, Level of Consumer Buy-in, Communications and Customer Support, Digital Content Proposition (new channels available compared to analogue) and Budgetary Spend.

As it stands now, the entire process is fraught with mis-steps, lack of industry buy-in and opacity, leading many to suspect other motives in addition to the political. Like many others familiar with the process and the N2.5billion corruption scandal that blew an NBC Director-General out office, via suspension, and into the prosecutorial hands of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), I am worried that the N9.4billion recently approved for outstanding payments to service providers such as signal distributors may be mishandled, leading to a derailment of the programme.

Since the start of the DSO process in 2016, the Minister, who has shunted aside the NBC and DigiTeam in driving the process, is yet to provide any detailed report or breakdown of expenditure of the amount spent so far on the process or a comprehensive report on the status of the DSO implementation in the six states where the digital switch on has been launched, without effective coverage.

The Minister’s takeover of the financial mandate for the DSO is viewed by many industry stakeholders as ministerial over-reach, with a potential for avaricious conduct that could derail the DSO programme. The DSO, as currently constituted, has the look of a disaster-in-waiting because of its hijack by the Ministry of Information and Culture, which has no institutional memory/data on the DSO project. Despite the promise to switch on Lagos on 30 October, companies being owed for years of services provided have continued to provide platforms, but are unsure of being paid, as the ministry’s plans appears to be the creation of ancillary but unnecessary services that will gobble up the money released by the Federal Government.

Suspicions of the Minister’s aversion to autonomy of the NBC are not new. Last year, Professor Tonnie Iredia, a former Director-General of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), currently a broadcast management and media law lecturer in a university, accused the Minister of robbing the NBC of autonomy and deploying it for a political end.

“Everybody expects a broadcasting commission to be an autonomous body that has no place in politics. If you listen to the news, who has been speaking? The minister of Information! Is he the Director-General of NBC? When the minister is speaking, there is no way broadcasters can see that the regulator is speaking. He is not a regulator. He should leave the broadcasters in NBC to do their professional duty. The law gives him the right to supervise, but not to take over the job. The moment the minister is speaking, no matter how well-intentioned he may be, the people become suspicious because he belongs to a political divide,” the media reported Iredia as saying on the controversial amendment of the National Broadcasting Code.

As yet, views like Iredia’s have been treated with studious indifference.

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