Monday, January 09, 2006

Somaliland Telecommunications industry torn between Government incompetence and lack of Capital Investment

As those of us who follow events back home on a regular basis may have noticed by now, several articles concerning a company called TDI have been posted on various websites.
Allegedly, the government of Somaliland has signed an agreement with this company recently and my understanding is that TDI will procure and install a new telecommunications system which will enable the current Somaliland telecoms systems to talk to each other. This sounds good, doesn’t it? As we all know, a Telesom’s customer cannot ring his next door neighbour if the latter is Soltelco or STC customer. So why this big fuss if this new system is going to solve that problem?

Before I try to explain what’s causing the problem, there are two fundamental questions that we need to ask ourselves.
a) What should the role of the government be as far as telecommunications sector is concerned? b) Why is there an uproar whenever the government procures something?
I’ll try to address the first question first. To my opinion, the answer to this question is that the government’s role in the telecoms sector should be a regulatory one.

Contrary to what a guy called Yabarow suggested in his article titled Ali Gulaid is barking on the wrong tree, I do not believe for a second that our telecoms companies are curtailing and, therefore, taking the consumers for a ride. In fact, the competition in Somaliland’s telecommunications market is a cutthroat one. All of them [telecoms companies] are trying so hard to increase their market share by cutting their prices and it is because of this market-driven and aggressive competition that, today, we have the cheapest international calls any where in Africa.

Having said that, we know that there is a major systems’ incompatibility problem between the systems used by the current companies. This, obviously, causes a great deal of frustration among customers.

To resolve this incompatibility problem, all the government has to do is to form a telecommunications regulatory body with a clear mandate to safeguard the consumers, the environment and the safety of the public. Failing that, the Ministry of Telecommunications (although I don’t believe that there should be such a Ministry) can do the job so long as what they are doing is transparent to the public. Whoever the regulator may be, what they should be doing is to call the telecoms industry in and set them a deadline by which they have to make their systems compatible. After all Somaliland is not the first country that faced this problem.
What the government is doing is that they are just introducing another layer of complication to an already difficult situation.

Story has it that the current companies will be forced to use the facilities of the new company which will drive prices up not down. One doesn’t has to be a rocket scientist to guess who is going to foot the bill – the end users of course. The consequence of this is that our infant telecommunications sector will not grow healthily but will instead die of malnutrition. Don’t forget that this is the most successful of all of our economic sectors.

Moving on to the second question, clearly there can be no smoke without a fire and I don’t think that many reputable Somalilanders would have raised their voices if they didn’t think that there was a case to be brought to the attention of the public.

The root of the problem is that there is no government procurement policy and that is why cronyism and backhanding is a common concern among all Somalilanders. The government needs to have in place is a clear and transparent procurement policy whereby any purchase of services or equipment is done under competitive tendering. All potential suppliers should be given the opportunity to express their interest in supplying services, equipment etc. These suppliers are then shortlisted on the basis of clearly set criteria. Seeking references and verification of the existence of any given supplier, their bank and business details are all integral parts of the selection process. It goes without saying that any one who cannot satisfy the set criteria should not be considered at all let alone giving him a contract.
Finally, we know that this is not the first time a similar irregularity takes place in our country. There was the issue that was associated with the Television which I don’t know if any one has ever got to the bottom of it.

The worrying thing is that we can write articles and make all sorts of noises but if no one is taking any notice of what we are saying then all of our effort will be fruitless. Although this time, I must admit, I am a little hopeful as we have our elected parliament whose primary mandate is to make the government accountable. Otherwise our efforts will be wasted. As they say in Somali: Dadaal keennu waxa uu noqonayaa hal bacaad lagu lisay!

Ahmed Yussuf

London - UK

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