OLATUNDE Ayeni is a man with a herculean task of resurrecting and bringing back into the market this April a dead, anachronistic brand that belongs to the relics of Nigeria’s telecommunications past where it once held sway as the monopolistic market leader.
As recent as 1998, Nigerians were still in telecommunications Dark Ages, far away from the telecommunications revolution that was engulfing the whole world. In Nigeria’s telecommunications Dark Ages, there was only one god named Nigerian Telecommunications Limited or NITEL. It was a god with a massive phallic symbol shooting high into the Lagos sky, overlooking the Lagos Marina. A monolithic deity who everybody was compelled to worship at its telecoms shrine, if they wished to make external telephone calls.
In those ancient times, ironically not too long ago, Nigerians had to wait in long queues to be able to speak to one another and to people outside our shores. Telephone in those jungle days was an elitist symbol which only the rich could afford. Telephone ownership then was the parameter separating the rich from the poor in Nigeria. It was a social status symbol. If you had a telephone, you were high on the social ladder. You were seen to be a “Big Man” and among the “oppressors” of the land. The thing got so bad to the point where the communications minister in the military government of the ‘80s, David Mark, was widely reported to have declared that telephone was a luxury not meant for the poor, a statement he later denied when he became the Senate President, saying he was quoted out of context.
In those days, for you to own a telephone, you had to know somebody very high up in NITEL. You needed somebody to be your guarantor before you could be trusted with a telephone line. As in every situation of scarcity, the process of acquiring telephone line was shot through with massive corruption as potential subscribers most times, were forced to go through layers and layers of middlemen who claimed to represent powerful bureaucrats deciding on allocating telephone lines. In most cases, you needed to bribe your way heavily to get a sympathetic ear in NITEL. It was at a time when monopoly held sway in our telecoms arena. It was not just civilized monopoly but a monopoly where the government was in charge. And government has never been known to be efficient when it comes to running a commercial activity.
Every Nigerian who went through that era has a NITEL nightmare story to tell. To Dr. Osar Emokpae, a management and marketing consultant, the few years of GSM in Nigeria makes the pre-GSM world look like a century ago. “You can’t really believe it is the same Nigeria we were in,” he says.
Another marketing consultant Dr. Ken Onyeali Ikpe vividly recalls that in 1997, he acquired his first Multilink telephone line at a huge cost of N120,000 at a time the going price for a fairly used Mercedes Benz V-Boot model then very popular in Nigeria was going for N110,000. “Then, if you had the Multilink phone or the 090 mobile phone, you were like a king,” he recalls. “It was a status symbol. The difference between then and now is ancient and modern.”
To cut a long story short, NITEL was privatised and bought over by NATCOM, a company which Dr. Olatunde Ayeni owns with other partners and he is the chairman. “From the ashes of the fallen telecommunications behemoth, NITEL and its late kid brother, MTEL, has arisen a world-class brand that promises to take telecommunications services to the next level in Nigeria come March this year,” writes Ademola Adedoyin in a recent article reported in BusinessDay and some other papers, including the online media. He added: “Welcome to the world of ntel, the brainchild of NATCOM, the corporate vehicle that acquired the telecommunications assets of the NITEL and MTEL, under a guided liquidation process supervised by the Bureau of Public Enterprises, BPE.”
I met Dr. Ayeni who is leading his partners to bring back NITEL as a new brand called ntel. He is a man who has experienced so much and has a lot to say about the acquisition.
“One day, I will tell the story of NITEL,” he told me. “Because what belongs to everybody belongs to nobody. Everybody wants to climb on you to get to the next level. Even after the thorough process we went through, people still continued to write petitions and all that. Nigerians can write in such a way that you can almost disown your parents. All in the attempt to cause pain. Government has been straightforward in all this.
“I can say that over 90 percent of my investments are in this country. I have never held any public office. I believe so much in this country. The experience I gathered from the acquisition of NITEL has been amazing. Lots of tantrums have been thrown on our way but we are grateful to the Almighty God. In all the acquisitions, no one has taken NITEL to the level we have taken it. For the first time, we have a volte call, a voice call on 4G.
“By the grace of God, ntel has come to stay and it will work. Nigerians will be proud of what we are doing. Because it will deepen the market. We are not coming to challenge or take the market of any company. It is coming to give more opportunity for choice to Nigerians.”
I asked him: Why acquire NITEL? Why not a brand new telecoms company like the massively popular Nigerian brand Glo owned by the audacious billionaire Mike Adenuga?
“It’s an option,” he replied. “I am sure some of those companies too attempted to acquire NITEL at one point or another. We also tried to acquire it. Some succeeded half-way. They couldn’t carry it through. They returned it to government. Some succeeded but they couldn’t raise the money. So the transaction fell by the wayside. But here we are. We give glory to God.”
So, what edge are you bringing to the market?
“It’s not a matter of edge. NITEL has no edge. What edge would you when telephone density is over 90 percent? We have no single customer. All the equipment that we took over, are all obsolete. NITEL hasn’t worked since 2008. Most of the core assets have been sold. Hundred percent of the non-core assets had been sold in 2007-2008.
“People still believe that NITEL is the NITEL of those days where NITEL is seen as one of the foremost companies in Nigeria. What principally we acquired are the licence and the spectrum and a little bit of what is left. What we have is the shell. The liquidator revealed to the House (of Reps committee) that in the inspection of some NITEL assets that were seen in some sites, they were imported into this country in 1976 but had never been installed. Tell me. Equipment of 40 years ago, what value will they offer in these days of high technology? What we are doing is installing a complete, hundred percent modern and new equipment. Our technical partners are PCCW of Hong Kong. We acquired the company a little above $252million. Nigerians should expect the best from what we have to offer. We are doing our best to ensure that we delight the market. We will hit the market by the grace of God this April.”
As we approach Easter, there couldn’t have been a better story that this story with the theme of death and resurrection. It takes a miracle to resurrect from many years of death and abandonment. But then, in Nigeria, we have a lot of faith in miracles and miracle workers. A miracle therefore is still possible. With NITEL coming back from the dead to find a space in the competitive Nigerian telecoms market as ntel—the baby born into the world again.
Next week, a new series will, by the grace of God, debut here: 100 Nigerian Heroes and Mentors— a book for real achievers. If you work harder and make your mark, you will be featured.