March 14 and need to protect Nigeria’s telecoms Infrastructure

On Thursday, March 14, 2024, many Nigerians were thrown into a frenzy as they experienced untold difficulty accessing the internet. Having become a huge part of our lives today, the loss of internet access that day badly disrupted our lives. Bank transactions were not going through or were too slow. Online trading ceased for the greater part of the day causing much worry and uncertainty among the people.

It took the messages from some of the telecommunications services providers to their subscribers for Nigerians to know that the service disruption was caused by a damage to the multiple undersea telecommunication cables. Further reports explained that the incident, which happened near Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, affected such the West Africa Cable System (WACS), the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE), MainOne and SAT3 submarine communications cables. The disruption was not limited to Nigerians alone as nearly 17 million subscribers across several West and Central African countries lost internet access as a result of the damage.

It should be noted that, although such damages do not occur every now and then, this is not the first time it has occurred. In 2009, before the laying of the MainOne undersea cables, the SAT 3 cables, which were the only such facility that Nigeria had then, were also cut, throwing its customers into similar difficulty.

Analysts have said that the repair of the current damage and subsequent restoration of full internet access as it used to be could take weeks and would cost over $1 million. While the jury is yet to be fully out on the cost ordinary Nigerians – individuals and corporates – will have to bear as a result of this singular incident, NetBlocks has said that Nigeria lost ₦273 billion ($593.6 million) in the first four days of the disruption. These costs may have prompted Ben Roberts, the Group Chief Technology Officer at Liquid Intelligent Technologies, to posit that this incident would potentially reshape how countries invest in data links in the future.

Mohamad Darwish, the Chief Executive Officer of IHS Nigeria, is of the opinion that the humongous costs associated with the damage of the undersea cables lend credence to the calls of stakeholders in the telecommunications sector for the federal government to declare and treat telecommunications infrastructure as critical national assets that would be protected with the force that it deserves. According to him, “this measure will, at least, discourage the willful damage of telecommunications infrastructure and, in the event of occurrence, help mobilize resources to bring about the needed urgent remediation.”

Darwish says such calls have gone on for too long with little or no headway and informs that, at some point, the Buhari administration announced that it has declared telecoms infrastructure as Critical National Infrastructure and directed that necessary physical protective measures be put in place to safeguard all telecommunications infrastructure deployed across the country. Unfortunately, this declaration is yet to materialize as no tangible effort seems to have been made towards the protection of these assets. The non-implementation of this all-important declaration has led to the continued theft and vandalization of telecoms infrastructure in the various parts of the country.

Listing telecommunications infrastructure as Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) has become an increasingly important advocacy everyone across all sectors of Nigeria’s economy must undertake. CNIs are the assets, and networks that are crucial for a nation’s functioning communication, security, and welfare of the people. These infrastructures are considered vital because their disruption or destruction would have a severe impact on the country’s social stability, economic prosperity, and national security.

The significance of these CNI, like the telecommunications infrastructures, lies in sustaining a functioning society and economy, safeguarding public safety, and supporting national security. Disruptions like what we experienced recently with underwater fiber optic cable can lead to cascading effects, impacting multiple sectors and causing widespread disruption, economic losses, social unrest, and vulnerability to external threats. The protection and security of critical infrastructure are thus essential for maintaining societal order, ensuring the well-being of citizens, and safeguarding national interests.

Gbenga Adebayo, Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) has been in the forefront of calling the Federal government to protect telecom infrastructure and designate it as Critical National Infrastructure to deter vandalism and ensure its continued operation. To Adebayo, “the government must deliberately do more to protect infrastructure, and that goes again to speak to this issue of Critical National Infrastructure that we have been talking about. Will it stop willful damage? Yes, because we will now be mindful that there will be consequences for actions when they happen”.

On the local front, apart from the international waters, the nation’s telecoms sector lost equipment worth over $66.5million to theft in six years (2016-2022). Just like such theft and vandalism, attacks on staff of telecom operators and vendors are also on the increase with a large number of them being kidnapped and only released on the payment of huge ransoms. In some regions of the country, militants, terrorists and unknown gunmen repeatedly taken over sites, disrupting telecom operators.

Apart from costs incurred as a result of theft and damage of telecoms infrastructure, the sector is far too important to be left to the operators to safeguard. Yes, to a large extent, the infrastructure is owned and managed by private business entities, but the happenings in the sector have the potentials of affecting many other sectors including governance as experienced during the internet downtime last week. It could also have serious national security implications.

The telecoms sector also contributed immensely to Nigeria’s macroeconomic development in the past two decades. According to the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the sector contributed 16 per cent to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), valued at N2.593 trillion. It is also a major source of direct foreign investment (FDI) to Nigeria with an investment profile of $75.6 billion as at 2021, according to the former Executive Vice Chairman of Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Umar Danbatta.

In a similar vein, the sector also accounts for a huge revenue chunk for the government. In the first quarter of 2023, the government realized a total of N119. 87 billion in taxes from the sector, according to the NBS. This is in addition to the over 600,000 jobs that the sector has created in Nigeria.

These statistics, which show the importance of the telecom sector in very clear terms, should prompt the government to, as a matter of urgency, declare our telecoms infrastructure as critical national assets. As a country, we need to show that we have learnt lessons from these undersea cables cut by heeding the calls of stakeholders to treat Nigeria’s telecoms infrastructure, both within our shores and in our territorial waters, as critical national assets and provide them with the needed security to minimize the possibility of incidences of theft and vandalization. This will also ensure that the disruption we experienced last week will not reoccur in the future.

David writes from Abuja