Transforming Nigeria’s Telecom Sector: Danbatta’s Remarkable Journey

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Prof. Umar Danbatta
The executive vice chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission, Prof. Umar Danbatta.

In the midst of political turbulence and challenges, there emerges a tale of remarkable progress within Nigeria’s telecom landscape. This story is not just one of accomplishment, but also a beacon of hope in a time when despair seems widespread. Leading this transformative journey is Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, a professor of telecommunications engineering and the executive vice chairman (EVC) of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).

The numbers tell an impressive story. Since the introduction of GSM and the expansion of broadband infrastructure, Nigeria’s telecom sector has witnessed an astounding $77 billion in investments. What’s even more remarkable is that $39 billion of this total flowed into the sector during Danbatta’s eight-year tenure as the regulator. Furthermore, the sector now contributes a substantial 16 per cent to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), a remarkable increase from the 8 per cent it contributed in 2015 when Danbatta assumed the role of EVC.

This meteoric rise in the telecom sector is a testament to the surging demand for telecommunications services across various sectors of the Nigerian economy, ranging from agriculture and commerce to education. It demonstrates the industry’s resilience and adaptability, having weathered global challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recessions while maintaining its robust stance.

Danbatta attributes this remarkable journey to the “sustained regulatory excellence and operational efficiency” upheld by the NCC. Telecom has become a prime example of local content development, fostering significant growth in digital innovation, human capital development and skills acquisition among Nigeria’s youth. This has empowered them to compete on a global stage, earning recognition from multinational corporations and international agencies.

From a financial perspective, the telecom sector continues to make a significant contribution to the national economy. According to a report from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), telecom and information services added a substantial N2.508 trillion to Nigeria’s GDP in the first quarter of 2023, representing 14.13 per cent.

One of the sector’s forward-looking strategies is the adoption of 5G technology, positioning Nigeria as one of the early adopters in the global digital economy. This bold move paid off handsomely, generating $820.8 million for the Federal Government from 5G spectrum license fees paid by operators like MTN, MAFAB and Airtel.

But there’s more to the story. The recent launch of Starlinks broadband services, a satellite-based wireless broadband offering with nationwide coverage potential, is another achievement to Danbatta’s credit. This service, made possible by the NCC’s issuance of a license to Elon Musk-owned SpaceX, is already available in various parts of the country.

Under Danbatta’s leadership, the number of telephone users in Nigeria has surged to 218.9 million, while internet subscribers and broadband users now stand at 159.5 million and 88.7 million, respectively. These figures, combined with the creation of direct and auxiliary jobs during a period when other sectors were contracting, have earned Nigeria the respect of international bodies like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The sustained growth of the telecom sector, evident in its consistent 16 per cent contribution to GDP, underscores its resilience against socioeconomic and political challenges. This prompts us to inquire how much growth was achieved in an environment marred by erratic electricity supply, ethnic and religious divides, Right of Way (RoW) disputes, fibre cuts, high capital requirements, multiple taxations, infrastructure vandalism, and regulatory hurdles. The answer lies in Danbatta’s unwavering commitment to innovation and active stakeholder engagement, all for the betterment of the sector and the nation’s economy.

Nigeria can draw inspiration from the telecom sector’s success story. If the objective is to elevate Nigeria into the ranks of the world’s top 20 economies, the federal government must replicate the triumphs of the telecom sector in other industries. Danbatta’s leadership has demonstrated that with vision and dedication, Nigeria can indeed achieve greatness.

In the broader context of economic transformation, the telecom sector’s journey under Danbatta’s stewardship has been awe-inspiring. Beyond its indisputable contributions to GDP and job creation, it has paved the way for significant advancements in entertainment, banking, agriculture, e-commerce, and various primary sector frontiers. The consistent rise in quarterly GDP contribution, now at an astounding 16 per cent, means that the telecom sector has effectively shielded itself from the socioeconomic and political challenges that have hindered growth in other sectors.

So, how did Danbatta and other stakeholders in the telecom industry accomplish this remarkable feat? This question merits a more thorough examination. How did the telecom sector transition from kilobytes to terabytes in growth, market size, and innovativeness in an environment plagued by erratic electricity supply? How did it transcend divisive forces such as ethnicity and religious affiliations that have hindered the nation’s discourse? The telecom sector’s resilience in the face of challenges like Right of Way (RoW) disputes, fibre cuts, high capital requirements, multiple taxations, infrastructure vandalism, and complex regulations warrants closer scrutiny.

The answers to these questions are found in Danbatta’s unwavering commitment, along with his team, to finding innovative solutions and actively engaging stakeholders for the greater good of the sector and the broader economy. They have demonstrated that a robust regulatory environment and visionary leadership can lead to extraordinary growth and prosperity.

Nigeria now stands at a crucial juncture. The success of the telecom sector serves as a blueprint for what can be achieved in other industries. If the vision is to propel Nigeria into the exclusive club of the world’s top 20 economies, then the Federal Government must replicate the achievements of the telecom sector across various sectors. Danbatta’s leadership has shown that Nigeria can become a global economic powerhouse with dedication, innovation, and visionary leadership.

Johnson Ademola 
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