Thursday, June 18, 2009

Akunyili and the road less travelled

THE recent controversy surrounding the sale of spectrum bands by the Nigerian Communications Commission, (NCC) and the principled stance of Professor Dora Akunyili, the Minister of Information and Communications for due process signpost the future direction of the re-branding campaign which is about reforming institutions and individuals. She saw an opportunity in the NCC to show how re-branding can resonate and she seized it. She saw a process that was flawed, lacking in due process, and transparency and violating the rule of law. She sought to find out what happened, but got rebuffed. She checked the laws, did due diligence and when she perceived that economic crime was being committed, she reported the matter to the appropriate institution and authority.

She had several choices. She could have cuddled Ndukwe as her brother and tribesman and tell Nigeria to go to hell. She could have in the process made millions and curried more favour and made questionable friends. She could have looked the other way. But she chose the road less travelled. She decided to dig deep. She asked questions. She checked the books and the Act setting up NCC, she wrote letters demanding for explanation, she wanted the rule of law to prevail. She was bent on protecting the national interest. At the risk of great personal loss she stuck out her neck. But see what she got - mostly rebuke and attempts at character assassination. But she was undeterred.

First, it was the fact that she had an interest and a company seeking for the licence. But it never stuck. They were unable to prove that allegation. Then they tried to make her look incompetent as a minister. Again they flew the kite that she wanted some favours. This last straw they clung to broke because it could not stick. In the face of all the attacks, she held forth. She remained steadfast and doggedly laid a case before the relevant authorities. She stayed out of the media fray which Ndukwe and NCC used to the hilt to shut her up.

But that failed. She has obviously committed herself to the new Nigeria envisioned in the rebranding campaign, one in which tribe and tongue does not matter; one where the doctrine of fairness, due process and rule of law reign supreme. This has been at great cost to the minister. Her name, reputation and all that she holds dear were assaulted by hack writers and jaundiced columnists, who threw the concept of balance and fairness into the dustbin.

Then there was the attempt to cause conflict between her and the President, by linking her to a campaign for the gubernatorial bid in Anambra State. The President had earlier banned all such campaigns, especially of members of his cabinet. In Abuja and her home state of Anambra, posters of the Minister surfaced announcing her supposed interest in the gubernatorial election of her state. This was a barefaced lie, and the minister quickly dismissed it as such. Every thinking person could easily discern the sponsors of the subtle attacks against the minister and what they were meant to achieve: distract her from her goal of ensuring reforms in the telecoms sector.

All these are however intriguing and reinforce what I have always known: change does not come easy. It is often resisted, and people will give all kinds of reasons, some seemingly intelligent and legitimate, why it can't or shouldn't happen. But it is because of the converse, the fact that Nigeria has taken the easy road, that is why we are trapped in poverty and underdevelopment. It is the reason corruption is endemic and, according to statistics of the United Nations, about 70 per cent of Nigerians live below the poverty mark. Because no one is willing to stand up to be counted for due process and take the high road of honesty and integrity.

Akunyili did in the case of the sale of the 2.3 GHz by Ndukwe's NDDC. When she got the petition from one of the aggrieved companies bidding for the spectrum bands , she summoned the Executive Vice Chairman and instructed him to halt the process. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, she could connect with those who said the process of auctioning the spectrum as announced by the NCC was unfair and not transparent. For instance, the NCC gave the biding companies just five days to pay the required N1.368 billion and have it cleared in its account . In this age of meltdown, raising that kind of fund was next-to-impossible for genuine companies interested in acquiring the bands. Secondly, on further investigation, the minister discovered that the NCC should not have even announced the sale of the frequency bands in the first place as it has not been officially released by the National Frequency Management Council, which is authorised by law to do so.

She found out through several correspondences between the NFMC and the ministry on one hand, and between the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, another major stakeholder that the NCC's auctioning of the spectrum bands was illegal. And she told Ndukwe to stop. He didn't comply with the minister's directive, going ahead to announce the completion of the deal through the media. This was disrespectful to the minister, and eventually led to the cancellation of the whole deal. If Ndukwe had complied with a simple directive from the minister, instead of resorting to media war, all the problems associated with the cancellation would have been avoided in the first place.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the matter first came up, and passing blame at this point would not help much. But that is exactly what some critics are trying to do. Surprisingly though blaming the one who is standing for due process and integrity! I have even read articles in the newspapers arguing that Akunyili is being too tough on her 'brother ' from Anambra State. That is, she should have placed tribal consideration above national interest. That would have been against the spirit of the Re-branding Nigeria Project, which the minister has pushed with gusto.

The crux of the campaign is that Nigeria needs to reposition her image by projecting a healthy and positive brand to the world. Akunyili argued that rebranding is more than sloganeering, and involves changing some of our negative attitudes through deliberate actions. Actions like obeying traffic law, honesty, regard for due process and rule of law.

This is what Akunyili demonstrated on the NCC matter, not minding the fact that the EVC in Nigerian context is her 'brother, not minding the endless assault on her reputation which she has spent years to build, not even minding the fact that her political career was as put on line. What matters to the Minister is that the right thing is done, no matter whose ox is gored. Now, that is walking the re-branding talk!