Nigeria joins list of African countries threatening prison sentences for mobile operators

Nigeria, Africa’s largest telecom market, has joined the list of countries on the continent that will impose prison sentences on officials at mobile operators that continually fail to deliver quality services to customers.

Tanzania and Zambia are among African countries imposing prison sentences on mobile operators who do not provide quality telecom services.

The Nigeria Consumer Protection Council (CPC) has warned mobile phone operators that it would soon start filing criminal charges against them as a way of whipping them to order. The consumer watchdog, supervised by the Nigerian government under the Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment, said lack of strict punishment for erring companies had led to a situation where consumers no longer get value for their money in the West African country.

Dupe Atoki, CPC director general, said in the country’s telecom sector, consumers are still contending with dropped calls, unsolicited texts and calls, and credit wipe-off.

Poor service provision by operators in the region is generally considered to be a result of lack of investment in networks and has become a source of concern in many African countries where consumers are losing money on uncompleted calls.

Last year, the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) imposed a ban on operators, stopping them from adding more subscribers to their networks until their networks were improved.

Over the past four years, mobile operators in the region have been engaged in a price war that has resulted in cheaper communication services but also in serious network congestion as an increasing number of subscribers take advantage of low rates. Quality Assurance tests (QAT) that have been carried out by telecom regulators in several countries in the region have shown that all operators that were tested failed to meet service quality levels specified in service level agreements.

Despite several warnings to improve networks, mobile phone operators have failed to do so. Even heavy fines have not helped improve the situation.

Consequently, regulators have resorted to threatening to take the operators to court on grounds that poor service delivery amounts to theft of customer money.

“In order to enforce consumer rights and ensure compliance with CPC’s enabling law, CPC has adopted a strategy of criminal prosecution of recalcitrant businesses or litigations to achieve satisfactory redress,” said Dupe Atoki, CPC director general.

Edith Mwale, telecom analyst at Africa Center for ICT Development, said Nigeria, being Africa’s largest telecom market by both subscription and investment, is expected to influence the way other African countries handle complaints of poor services by operators.

“Nigeria’s decision to start slapping operators with criminal charges will closely be followed by many other countries in Africa because not only is Nigeria Africa’s largest telecom market but also the region’s largest economy,” said Mwale.

In Zambia, the Zambia Information and Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country’s telecom sector regulator, has already dragged Airtel, MTN and Zamtel to court for failing to meet the minimum standards of quality of service. In Tanzania, operators can be fined up to $3,000 for poor quality of service and can be sent to prison for at least six months for network failures without proper explanation.

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