Journalism in the service of society

USSD: What happens to anarchy deferred?

By Okoh Aihe

ON this bright Monday morning, as I put my materials together for this Wednesday column, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami, is holding a crisis meeting with the various stakeholders of the telecommunications industry in trying to ward off a USSD misunderstanding that is threatening to obscure most of the good things happening in the industry.

In an article last week, titled: USSD CODE, CBN, Banks, Telcos and the coming of anarchy, we drew attention to a troubling development in the telecommunications industry which was capable of incapacitating operations in some areas of financial transactions, and again put more pressure on the ordinary Nigerian for whom there is little prospect of redemption from a malfunctioning democratic system.  

Goaded by a Central Bank whose leadership is reeling in power drunkenness, the bankers, in spite of previous Determination by the Nigerian Communications Commission on the use of Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), have refused to pay for the service, thus massing up over N42bn in debt to telecoms service providers. Add the debt to the contempt in which they were held, the operators had had enough by last week and arrived on the decision to unplug the banks from their networks by Monday.

A statement signed by Engr Gbenga Adebayo and Gbolahan Awonuga  for ALTON, the industry body, titled: Withdrawal of USSD Services to Financial Service Providers due to Huge Indebtedness to Telecom Network Operators, traced the genesis of the problems and concerted efforts that were scorned by operators. While the Determination forbids the operators from charging the end-users who are the subscribers, it however requested telcos and the banks to go into negotiations and resolve all lingering issues in order to protect and sustain the financial inclusion policy of the current administration. That has not happened, prompting the telcos to tell their story.

“During this time, Mobile Network Operators (MNO’s) have continued to provide access to USSD infrastructure and our members have continued to pay all Bank charges and fees to access the Banking industries assets and customers, despite the fact that obligations due from banks to telecoms companies for USSD services has reached over Forty-Two Billion (N42B) Naira.

“ALTON members have continued to provide these services because our primary concern is that the millions of Nigerian customers who access financial services through USSD infrastructure everyday should be able to continue conducting their transactions. This was given greater importance when customers’ became further reliant on these services due to COVID movement restrictions. Unfortunately, as it has been impossible to agree on a structure for these payments with the banks that do not involve the end-user being asked to pay, the government has been forced to intervene to ensure that a sustainable cost-sharing solution is agreed, that does not disadvantage the consumer in the long-term.

“We deeply regret that we have reached a point where the withdrawal of these services has become unavoidable, however, we remain committed to working closely with the relevant Ministries and regulators to resolve this issue as quickly as possible. To minimise the disruption to customers, and with the concurrence of the Honourable Minster of Communications and Digital Economy and the Nigerian Communications Commission, on the huge debt to the Network operators; Mobile Network Operators will disconnect debtorFinancial Service Providers (FSPs) from USSD services, until the huge debt is paid,” ALTON said last week.

The ALTON statement was released on Friday morning. Within a few hours the Minister has reacted, putting the ALTON line of action on ice. “The Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, FNCS, FBCS, FIIM has directed that the impending suspension of USSD services by the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) be put on hold. The suspension which was to take effect on Monday, 15th of March, 2021, was due to the lingering debt owed MNOs by commercial banks for the provision of USSD banking services …..,” the Minister said in statement signed by Dr Femi Adeluyi, Technical Assistant (Information Technology).

Dr Pantami also called for an urgent meeting of the various stakeholders, including the Central Bank, Telco CEOs and regulator of the telecommunications sector, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). When there is trouble in the house, there has to be somebody to take the lead otherwise, there will be a descent into extreme hugger-mugger. Pantami has taken the lead and deserves our encouragement. Much like what happens in the farm. You know this story if you grew up in the village, like I did. When a snake appears from the shadows, it doesn’t matter who kills it, the man or woman. The ultimate is for the snake to be neutralised and prevent it from doing harm.

The USSD does not present a good story. Most of the people who responded to my article last week were desirous for the controversy to be resolved urgently. But since we are not in a village setting I am of the opinion that we shouldn’t let some important particles drop unnoticed.

Plus the carryover from my observations last week where the CBN was holding meetings with telcos without the NCC, is the language of communications in recent statements. ALTON says, “….and with the concurrence of the Honourable Minster of Communications and Digital Economy and the Nigerian Communications Commission…”. While the statement from the Minister’s office says: “The Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, FNCS, FBCS, FIIM has directed that the impending suspension of USSD services by the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) be put on hold”.

Much as I appreciate the enthusiasm of the Minister and also with respect to his foresightedness, the point at issue here is that there is only one regulator for the telecommunications industry as per the contents of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003, which is the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). The NCC should be allowed to play lead role in regulating the industry and resolve any issues arising therefrom. While working for the health of the sector, the Minister, with his enthusiasm, should not be seen to be sowing chaos or engage in actions that can inadvertently invalidate the potency of the regulator and diminish investors’ confidence on the industry.

  • Okoh Aihe writes from Abuja
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