By Ikem Okuhu
Three separate, yet connected stories attracted viral mass media and social media conversations in the month of May 2021. The first was about American crazy investor, Elon Musk, whose company, SpaceX was reported to be eyeing the Nigerian telecom market. Ryan Goodnight, market access director for Starlink, a SpaceX subsidiary, had visited Umar Danbatta, a professor and executive vice chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission, on May 10, 2021 in the first of, expectedly, many steps towards obtaining the necessary licenses to bring its internet services business into Nigeria.
The second bit of news was a research by Statista (www.statsta.com), which found out that next to the Philippines, Nigerians spend the most time on Social Media, burning a dizzying 3.42 hours (three hours, forty-two minutes) on Social Media every day! I do not know who found this statistic complimentary but if you consider that the average daily work time ranges between six to eight hours, a picture of how much time the country wastes on Social Media might begin its grotesquely frightening emergence. I will return to this shortly.
The third issue stemmed from a Facebook post by a friend and respected scientist, John Ogunlela. Drawing from an Editorial of Vanguard newspapers on the same theme, John had lamented the huge cost of rigging the first (and perhaps only) Nigerian satellite, NigComSat 1R into space and leaving it virtually unused for 10 of its 15 years’ lifespan. Yes, NigComSat that was trumpeted as a massive achievement during the Goodluck Jonathan era will dissolve in orbit by 2026 without serving any of the purposes for which it was designed.
If you have followed these stories as well as I did, it would be easy, and heartbreakingly so, to create a causal connection with the three stories and establish the shameful negligence and/or complicity by the country’s leaders in the long static journey of national retardation.
I will begin with the visit by Elon Musk’s Starlink crew to our NCC and then bring in the idle and soon to die NigComSat 1R before wrapping with the escapist Social Media residence by Nigerians that placed us disreputably second in the world’s idlest lot.
You see, SpaceX, like most businesses in Europe and America and, increasingly China, know in advance, the culpable foolishness of our leaders and smartly take advantage of this to make huge businesses out of stuff that should be routine income streams and comfort for Nigerians. What SpaceX or Starlink is bringing to the table is faster broadband connection and rural access given that the crop of mobile telecommunication companies operating in the country have not properly penetrated the remote sections of the country.
There is something that this company has seen that made Nigeria one of its first destinations outside of the United States. It is not normal for an American company to make Africa its priority soon after launch. Starlink, according to information on TechCabal, has only 10,000 existing customers globally, with another 500,000 people on its order log. This means the company is a startup in search of market. Across Europe, America and China, Elon Musk stands no chance of swinging to the top of the market. Broadband penetration in these markets is deep and Stalink’s services come at a significantly higher premium, even if it offers a tad faster experience.
Each time I look at the trending photo of the smiling Starlink delegation to Nigeria and their tunic-wearing, absent-minded hosts at NCC, spasms of pain rush searingly through me because I could see a smart foreign company positioning to take advantage of Nigeria’s corporate incompetence and despicable negligence. Starlink knows that Nigeria has a satellite ambling weightlessly useless around the orbit and was sure its quest for a license to bring to us (at cost) what that satellite should have been doing for us would be given red-carpet welcome. Afterall, they are foreign investors that Nigeria so desperately have been begging to come all these years.
When it was launched in 2011, the Nigerian NigComSat-1R was touted to live for 15 years and, according to the Vanguard Editorial, to support the country in the areas of communications, internet services, health, agriculture, environmental protection and national security. It was also hoped “that other businesses such as digital mobile operators and telecommunication companies that need satellite services would patronise the NigComSat-1R.”
But as Elon Musk and his team probably knew, this wasn’t going to be the case because Nigerian leaders do not believe in the country and would rather farm out opportunities to foreigners than allow it benefit their nation and people. They know, for instance, that we are a country wealthy in crude oil deposits, but generate employment in foreign countries where we buy refined petroleum products. If government agencies do not patronize the Nigerian satellite, who would expect the private sector to so do? As an Igbo proverb goes, if you describe your treasured gilded mug as disused, your neighbours would dump trash in it.
Only recently, Nigeria’s National Broadcasting Commission commenced a phased switchover of television signals in Nigeria from analogue to digital and, as is characteristic of most of our public sector institutions, chose to patronize French-owned Eutelsat at a time the country had (still has) a satellite that was mostly unused. And Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s information and communications minister, has an explanation – he said the Nigerian satellite had no backup!
That whoever funded the construction of the satellite spent $300 million and never thought of creating a backup support for such a gigantic project should ordinarily invite criminal investigations. But not in Nigeria where corruption and wasteful spending have become just another sport. Given this situation, Elon Musk would now come here and make tonnes of money, the same way refineries abroad and fuel importers are making money out of Nigeria because our government just cannot fix our refineries even when they gulp billions of naira in operational expenditure every year.
Between July to December 2020, Eutelsat earned a total of N372 billion in revenue from its 38 satellites and this is the pool that Nigeria will join in swelling with our Digital Switchover programmes at a time our own satellite is spending two-thirds of its life in space without doing anything for the country except roam in the pitch-darkness of the orbit. This was what Elon Musk saw and he arrived early to translate our foolishness into business. But he also saw a few other things. You can be sure that the American space enthusiast also noticed the length of time Nigerians spend on Social Media and believes that empowering the rural populace to swell this vanity community of “likers” and “sharers” will lay even more money-eggs for him.
I must say it here at the risk of equivocation that the unedifying stat of how long the country’s people spend on Social Media has a direct relationship with the psychological disposition of the ordinary people to stand far away from the harsh realities of everyday life. Social Media for Nigerians is mostly to escape, for cold comforts and validation. I know some textbook digital marketing experts will readily point to the worn-out argument about Social Media enabling businesses, allowing for expression of personal and group viewpoints as well as social and political sensitization. But if this fifth estate has such enabling powers, China, Germany and Japan, easily the most productive economies in the world, would have ranked far higher than Nigeria in terms of time spent on Social Media.
The average Japanese spends only 46 minutes each day on Social Media. This has to be so because they are busy producing Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Sony, Sanyo, Panasonic and the likes. The Chinese on their part, cannot leave their thriving beehive factories to spend three hours each day on Social Media. Even the 1.57 hours allocated to them must be quite generous.
Nigerians can afford such long time because all the platforms to create gainful employment for them have been rendered ineffective or outrightly non-functional. The NigComSat-1R was supposed to provide employment, enable agriculture and facilitate education and national security. But these items have become luxuries to everyone in the country, literally driving people to borderline insanity. So, rather than be a platform for business and constructive engagement, the Social Media in Nigeria has increasingly become a zone of high toxicity, a virtual private room for the incubation and propagation of hate, divisiveness, social and political discontent and rebellious behaviours of varying manifestations.
I recall a conversation I had with a British journalism teacher in 2015 during a workshop on Digital Journalism. This man was busy teaching us the best times of the day to make Social Media posts for best impact and I kept looking at him with my Nigerian, “eyes.” When he ended and I had the chance to talk to him, I made him understand that his advice wouldn’t work here to the letter because we really do not have “primetime” Social Media time. We do it all the time; morning, afternoon, night; because we have time all the time.
Don’t blame Nigerians; blame the government that has practically frittered every opportunity to better the circumstances of Nigerians while exposing us to opportunistic foreigners that sell to us what we already have but nefariously, deliberately refuse to harness ours for the good of the country.
Okuhu, a former Special Assistant to Governor Ugwuanyi of Enugu State, is a journalist, author, farm entrepreneur, whose most recent book is ‘Pitch: Debunking Marketing’s Strongest Myths’