The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Pantami, in this chat with a delegation of Blueprint’s senior staff led by the chief operating officer, Malam Salisu Umar, which paid him a courtesy visit recently, speaks on the 5G controversy and other issues.
What do you have to tell Nigerians about 5G?
Hmmmm…this issue of 5G; the allegation came up this year that 5G was one of the major reasons Covid-19 came to Nigeria. Firstly, what is important for all of us to recall is the fact that as we are talking now there is no 5G in Nigeria, but there is Covid-19.
By the time the allegation was ongoing, there was no Covid-19 in Comoros Islands but Mauritius had 5G. Only two countries so far have 5G in Africa, Mauritius and South Africa. By the time they were making the allegations there was 5G in those countries, but there was no Covid-19. So, this is an example that if Covid-19 came just because of 5G then those countries should be the first to have it in Africa because they already had 5G.
Secondly, as a government, we know our major responsibility is the protection of life and property. When we say protection of life it includes the health of the citizens. This government has been voted into power by the citizens. It is our major responsibility as enshrined in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, as amended, to ensure that our top priority is to protect them.
It is also our responsibility as minister to look into what we can do within our sector to support Mr. President when it comes to protection of lives and property. He has appointed me as a minster to play a constitutional role and the Constitution in Section 148 empowers me to serve as an adviser to Mr. President. So, the ICT sector is being used in protecting the lives of our citizens and their property.
Whatever we feel that will endanger their lives or their health conditions we must fight against such. It is because of this that when the issue of 5G in Nigeria came up in September 2019, while I was just one month in the office, NCC as the regulatory agency started the process of licensing, and I said ‘no, stop it, please.’
Engaging stakeholders, personal sacrifice
Stakeholders’ engagement is key; since it is a trial let us unite major stakeholders to come and witness the trial; after the trial there is going to be a report. The report will be presented again to the stakeholders to look into it and government will come up with a policy either to allow the deployment of 5G in the country or not. Because of that we delayed the trial from September till November 25. We invited security institutions because then the allegation was on security. I personally signed a letter to the minister of defence; minister of police; minister of interior; inspector-general of police; director-general, Department of State Services; director-general, National Intelligence Agency; national security adviser to the president including anti-corruption agencies like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and other stakeholders. We invited all of them for the trial of November 25, 2019.
I personally did the trial; so if there is Covid-19 in Nigeria because of that, I should be number one because I did the trial not somebody else. So, throughout the trial of over one hour, if there was going to be a victim, I should be the victim; with all sense of humility, I grateful to the Almighty that not only me, all my family, nobody has contracted coronavirus.
The reason I personally did the trial was as a leader, you should lead by example. There were many allegations against 5G, so I said it is not good for me to assign somebody to do the trial. Even if there is any negative effect, let me sacrifice myself to do it.
So after the trial, a report was submitted to me officially. 5G is an integration of 4G, it is not a completely new technology; it is just an improvement on the existing one. That report was positive about 5G, but I said it was not enough. It is in my nature in leadership I don’t ignore complaints no matter how irresponsible they are, I always listen and I always consider them in making decisions. I have been under pressure by stakeholders to allow 5G to be deployed, but I said no, you are only looking at the business aspect. In governance, we look at even the interest of our citizens and we don’t do anything that will draw suspicion and if there is any, we want to reduce it to the barest minimum if it cannot be eliminated. Since the report is open let us invite more stakeholders to review the report.
I directed the NCC to place an advert which they did. So, we invited experts again from the ICT sector, telecoms, environment, health, and many more.
They came up with a template with a timeline of all the engagements. So, we are now in the process of engaging stakeholders about the report. If there is any allegation they will discuss with us intelligently and scientifically, because science is not just a fiction, it is real. So, if you have any concrete evidence why 5G should be deployed or should not be deployed based on fact, figures and evidence you can say it.
Now, we are in an advanced stage of doing that. That was why I said even the process should be made public so that citizens will know and be part of it. There is engagement even in our local languages. There will be programmes in our local languages, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Kanuri, Fulani and any language that we feel has at least five per cent of our citizens.
Since most of the institutions we supervised are regulatory bodies. We came up with a standing committee that will be engaging citizens in our local languages. Content is being deployed in our local languages because we have many citizens that do not speak English language, so we said okay, let us come up with a programme that will be engaging them. Now, we are in the last stage.
During that 5G trial, the leadership of our committees in the National Assembly were invited, both Senate and the House of Representatives. All of them were there with me during the trial because we could not neglect stakeholders.
Let me give you a simple example, around 1818 in the United Kingdom when the government was planning to install street lights, there was a very serious resistance. Their religious leaders resisted, they said they would not accept that. They said in our scriptures the Almighty said he has created the day and the night. During the day time there is sun and the night time usually is darker. So, when you install streets lights you are trying to bridge the gap between day and night that the Almighty has created. You are trying to change the night to be like the day. I believe they are all late now. If they could be brought back from their graves alive to see the world today they would have a different view. If you talk to their children or grandchildren they would just laugh because it does not make sense. At that time it was normal, but now it is not.
The same thing happened when mobile technology was introduced; they said the radiation causes cancer. As a result, there was resistance in Nigeria about using mobile phones. If I am to expose myself, I also resisted mobile phones for six months as a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science then, but today people that resisted mobile phones, including myself would feel isolated if you take their mobile phones from them. Let me take your phones for 24 hours, you will feel like your life is not normal. But there was resistance and now it is over.
So, actually when it comes to technology we are used to it. There will always be resistance. 5G is nothing but imagined technology. It has been deployed in the United States and many developed nations. In the US, the argument is not about 5G, but on which company should be used. 5G is in many countries around the world. It is in the US, it is in South Africa, it is in Mauritius, in South Korea, etc.
I want to emphasise that our priority is the protection of lives and property and by extension the health of our citizens. Whatever we do, we are under an oath. An oath before the Almighty, an oath with our citizens that any decision we take will be in their interest.