Nigeria’s tech ecosystem is rejecting a bill put forward by the country’s ICT policy-implementing government agency, but the unrelenting agency is somehow pushing the bill forward—amid contentions and ecosystem cries of foul play.
A controversial bill that seeks to ascribe new powers to the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Nigeria’s governing body for information and technology, has passed a public hearing at the Senate and will soon make its way to the presidency.
About a year ago, TechCabal broke the news that Nigeria’s Federal Executive Council was considering a new bill put forward by NITDA. This bill would repeal the NITDA Act of 2007, and enact a new NITDA Act that provides for “the administration, implementation, and regulation of IT systems and practices, as well as the digital economy in Nigeria and for related matters”.
The proposed bill aims to grant NITDA the authority to regulate and oversee technology and communications companies. Under the bill, NITDA would be responsible for issuing permits and licences to these companies, as well as establishing and managing a fund. The fund would be financed by collecting a standard 1% profit before tax from companies with annual turnovers exceeding ₦100 million ($216,000).
This move means that NITDA, mostly known for its work as a digital development agency, is seeking to punch its weight as a super regulator of the tech ecosystem. This would give it regulatory control over startups, tech hubs, telecommunications companies, and everything else in between. To this, the ecosystem disagreed. But an unrelenting NITDA pushed the bill into the National Assembly, where it is now completing a favourable run.
Several ecosystem stakeholders have decried the bill, with the Association of Licenced Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) labelling it as an incoming “bundle of chaos”. But this has done nothing to stop the bill’s advancement. The present situation is that NITDA is on its way to becoming the prime regulator of “operators in Nigeria’s information and technology sector”, raising concerns about what this portends for the Nigerian tech ecosystem.
For stakeholders, the NITDA Bill is unnecessary
Most stakeholders who have expressed their discontent with the bill hinge their reasons on the resulting duplicity of functions between NITDA and other agencies. According to the Computer Professionals Registration Council of Nigeria (CPN), the bill will arrogate more powers to NITDA, including the ability to fix licensing and authorisation charges, collect fees and penalties, and issue contravention notices—all of which are presently handled by separate government agencies. “The proposed NITDA Bill is an usurpation of the statutory powers of other agencies of government that had been in existence before NITDA, and have been performing their statutory roles,” the body said. ALTON, another stakeholder present at the Senate public hearing where the bill passed, maintained that the bill would both turn NITDA into a super regulator of the whole ICT/Communications sector and unnecessarily duplicate the regulatory powers of some existing government agencies in the country, particularly the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).
Babalakin and Co, a leading commercial law firm in Nigeria, pointed out that the bill confers powers on NITDA which transcends beyond being a regulator. According to them, section 9(i) of the bill proposes that NITDA functions as a “coordinator” and “supervisor” over the activities of incorporated entities which are wholly or partly owned by the government—-and this is not in line with global best practices. “In a situation where NITDA is the coordinator or supervisor of entities wholly owned or partly owned by the government, there is a real likelihood of bias where there is any issue or dispute between such entities and wholly privately-owned companies. This will be against the principles of natural justice which is constitutionally guaranteed,” the firm’s representative, Boonyameen Babajide Lawal, shared at the hearing.
Big tech companies including Google and Meta have also decried the levies and ambiguousness of the bill, asserting that giving NITDA the position to “issue permits and authorisations” to tech companies is not in line with global best practices. Meta raised concerns about the punitive measures drafted into the bill, maintaining that criminal liability for offences emanating from non-binding documents such as regulations, guidelines, and circulars is contrary to basic criminal law principles. For context, the bill contains strong punitive measures to ensure compliance, including hefty fines and/or imprisonment of operators.
Ecosystem players suspect foul play
Three stakeholders in the tech ecosystem who spoke to TechCabal on condition of anonymity shared that the NITDA Bill is being pushed by government officials close to the presidency. A brewing concern is that these government officials are seeking to insinuate themselves as key stakeholders in a promising tech ecosystem.
Gbenga Sesan, the executive director of Paradigm Initiative, an organisation that supports digital rights for Africans, told TechCabal that the probable reason for the bill’s advancement despite ecosystem clamours can be linked to the willpower of Nigeria’s minister of communications and digital economy.“ [It is] probably because the minister, Isa Ali Pantami, wants it done. There is no other logical reason for NITDA to exhaust its near-zero goodwill and seek to do what NCC already does,“ he said.
The executive secretary of ALTON, Gbolahan Awonuga, told TechCabal that the bill is being set up for selfish interests by a few parties. “Stakeholders are saying they don’t want this bill, but some people keep pushing it at all costs. Does that not prove that they are representing themselves?” he asked. “Besides, I saw the favourable report from the senate committee on ICT. That report is a lie. A lot of the parties who supported the bill are filler organisations that were brought in to force the bill on Nigerians,” he added. Sesan shares similar thoughts on this, asserting that some names of some of the supporting organisations “are suspect and don’t show any relationship with the [technology] sector”.
TechCabal can confirm that in the aforementioned report, 17 institutions were listed as supporters of the bill. But out of these, three organisations were repeated in the list, which corrects the number of supporting institutions to 14. This presents the possibility that the majority of stakeholders are, in fact, not in support of the bill, contrary to the summary of the Senate report, which claimed that 17 out of 31 stakeholders supported the bill. Some of the institutions that supported the bill include Youth Against Disaster Initiative, Mothers and Marginalised Advocacy (MAMA) Centre, and Heroic Discovery and Community Development Centre.
When TechCabal asked the contact person for MAMA Centre (as listed on its website) about its position on the NITDA Bill, the response was: “What bill? We don’t know of any NITDA Bill. When was the hearing? We did not support any NITDA Bill.” Some other institutions like the Youth Against Disaster Initiative proved difficult to contact, with an online footprint that seems to have trailed off in 2013.
Boonyameen Babajide Lawal, the partner who represented Babalakin and Co at the public hearing, described his experience to TechCabal. “I am not surprised the bill was eventually recommended by the Senate committee. The body language of the minister and his constant re-explaining of the bill while questioning those who were against it proves he was the one championing the bill. At some point, he challenged me, asking me who I was to challenge a bill that a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN)—in the person of the attorney general—had seen and approved.”
“Most institutions present at the hearing of this bill kicked hard against it. Now, I’m wondering why the report claims most stakeholders were in favour. That’s not true at all. ln fact, this all looks like an agenda,” Lawal added.
What happens if the bill is passed?
The NITDA Bill, if not amended, portends a new phase for the technology and communications ecosystem in Nigeria. What this phase would look like can’t be known fully now, but many ecosystem players seem to imagine the dawn of innovation-crippling regulations. For Gbenga Sesan, it signifies a future where NITDA can “enter premises, inspect, seize, seal, detain, and impose administrative sanctions”. But for NITDA, it might represent the dawn of a well-regulated technology ecosystem, with them as the super-regulator and enforcer.
TechCabal has gathered that ALTON, CSN, and some other telecoms associations and civil organisations have formed a coalition against the bill, and have written to the minister of justice and attorney general to ensure the bill is killed before it lands on the table of the president. What could fruit from this move remains to be seen, but if we’re to go by Lawal’s experience at the hearing—which includes the information about the attorney general’s approval of the bill—then it becomes more difficult for the concerned parties to hope.
NITDA did not respond to TechCabal’s inquiry at the time of publishing.