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MultiChoice: Who Did This to Us?



Multichoice DStv GOtv

Oluyombo Sokoya

Who did this to us?” is a frequently asked question in the Nigerian social media space. It is asked when Nigerians are unable to make a sense of the situation at a given time. The question, I think, has its roots in the belief that some evil force is behind every unfortunate occurrence, something that we have condensed into “no be ordinary eye”.

I am bewildered and I am asking: who did this to us? I am asking because I have reached a conclusion that Nigerians’ default reaction to MultiChoice, the subscription television company, is beyond “ordinary eye”. MultiChoice, of which I quietly stopped being a subscriber to its DStv last year, recently announced tariff increases with effect from 1 May. The company cited the rise in the cost of business operations as the reason for the adjustment, the same cited by all businesses that have increased prices. It was MultiChoice’s third increase in eight months or thereabouts.

What followed, as we say in street lingo, was the “tearing of pant”, the type you did not see when fuel subsidy removal and naira floatation instantly ripped through the finances of everyone, pushing the vulnerable straight to the cliff edge.  But over MultiChoice, Nigerians went berserk, tearing their hair out over services they are not compelled to use and, in fact, used by about two per cent of the population. It was apoplexy at its most apoplectic.  It is a miracle that there is yet no report of someone suffering a stroke.

Social media platforms have heaved with a witches’ brew of adversarial comments, de-marketing campaigns and xenophobic threats. In the regulatory sphere, a Competition and Consumer Protection Tribunal (CCPT), a purely administrative court, issued an interim order restraining MultiChoice from increasing its tariffs. This followed an ex-parte motion moved by one Ejiro Awaritoma, counsel for the applicant, Festus Onifade, who had a similar case dismissed by the CCPT in 2022. I suspect that many Nigerians took what the tribunal did as a judgment and went into self-congratulatory mode. It must also have delighted Dr. Adamu Abdullahi, acting Vice Chairman of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), who should-justifiably- think that he and the commission are entitled to lavish kudos for deflecting public attention from the failings of the government. Rather than hold the government accountable, Nigerians have sunk their teeth into MultiChoice and are unwilling to let go. It is not a new thing, as you would find out.

Before the tribunal ruling, Abudllahi said on television that the commission got a document from MultiChoice in which the pay television firm gave reasons for the tariff review. “At a glance, we saw things like the cost of electricity, running generators, the cost of dollars for spare parts and so on. We’ll go through these items individually and find out how they have affected their operations,” Abdullahi promised.

Bizarrely, he also pledged to involve the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) in the proposed price review. The NBC and NCC have no business with price regulation in the broadcasting space. The NCC is actually telecommunications industry-focused. But anything would do when you are desperate to divert attention from your employers’ failings and you have an unquestioning audience.

But that is a small matter. The big matter is why is it only when MultiChoice increases prices that the FCCPC gets its knickers in a twist and goes about stomping in rage? The commission should just be renamed Federal Commission for MultiChoice subscribers. Inflation is approaching 34 per cent, with prices of essential items shooting through the roof. Yet, the FCCPC is in snooze mode. As Dr Yemisi Bangbose, Executive Secretary of the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON) asked: “Where was the FCCPC when the Bakers Association increased the price of a bread loaf by over 200 per cent in the last one year?”

This year, Nigerian Breweries Plc has increased product prices three times. Soft drink bottlers have raised prices. Air fares are way beyond reach, with cement prices leaving most people scratching their heads. The cost of education, including in federal government-owned institutions, is spinning out of control.

The FCCPC does not think, I believe, that MultiChoice prices are more important than those of items crucial to everyday living. It is only cleverly inciting Nigerians against MultiChoice as a way of shielding the government from scrutiny. The FCCPC is wilfully one-eyed. Two years ago, under its previous leadership, a much more forward-looking one, the CCPT dismissed a similar case brought by the same applicant, but not before first acting in the way it has acted. According to Dr Babatunde Irukera, Abdullahi’s immediate predecessor, the FCCPC is no price regulatory agency.

“So, we’re not a price regulator. Nigeria is a free market economy with only one limited provision in the FCCPC Act. It even allows the government to get involved in price. That is based on a lot of work, studies, research, a report and a recommendation to the president by the FCCPC for a limited time of controlling price in a specific sector, based on competition issues, not just increasing prices. Then, that decision when the president accepts the recommendation and adopts it, it will be gazetted. It will only be for a limited period of time. Other than that, we don’t regulate price,” said Irukera in an interview published by Premium Times on 18 April, 2022.

This is the message that Abdullahi should be communicating to bodies like the tragi-comedy troupe erroneously called National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), which has called on the Federal Government and the National Assembly to stop MultiChoice. It threatened to stand firmly against the pay television firm. NANS did something similar last year when it threatened to picket MultiChoice offices nationwide.

That was the year the naira was floated (to spectacularly disastrous consequences) and fuel subsidy removed, causing prices of goods and services to leap as though on steroids. It was in the same year that federal universities hiked levies and fees, including for accommodation. That year, the economic policies of the Federal Government NANS is calling on more than halved the disposable incomes of its members’ parents and guardians, who now fare much worse.

NANS has also called on the National Assembly to get involved in regulating MultiChoice prices, but not in the fees paid to access education, soaring healthcare costs, food inflation nudging 50 per cent or transportation costs. NANS, obviously, is inviting arsonists to come act as firefighters. I am shocked that NASS is yet to get on it. It usually does not wait for an invitation. It acts exactly like the FCCPC by diverting public attention from its own failings as a legislative body and the avarice of its members. It  regularly issues resolutions on prize freeze to MultiChoice, but not to any other business. It is a clever way of acting like it cares about the people it parasitizes on. Let us face it: National Assembly members are having a ball at our expense. Still, we think they are fighting for us because they set up ad-hoc committees in both chambers every time MultiChoice increases prices. It is beyond ordinary eye. National Assembly members earn plaudits from those who should lay into them for screwing up their lives, including cruising around in N57 million SUVs when most  of their constituents are in desperate need. It appears that there is an industry built or being built around attacks on MultiChoice.

Apart from those already mentioned, players in the industry include lawyers/ “patch-patch” activists, who either want to be sugared or desperate for social crusaders’ accolades. There were two lawyers who, in 2015, mounted a legal challenge to the right of MultiChoice to increase prices. The Federal High Court dismissed their case. You have to wonder if I could go to court to challenge their rates if I hired them as my solicitors. The two clowns had no history of challenging any price increase prior to the time and have not challenged any since then.

There is also Sina Bilesanmi, President, Association of Telephone, Cable TV and Internet Subscribers of Nigeria (ATCIS-Nigeria). For one who heads the association of subscription television customers, he is a bit ill-informed. He has, as it is his wont, called on the Federal Government-the same one whose policies have asphyxiated everybody and has just raised electricity tariff-to stop MultiChoice from raising prices because the country is going through economic hardship. It is beyond ordinary eye.

He does not know what free enterprise is. He also appears to have no knowledge of the pay television ecosystem, with his relentless demand for “Pay-As-You-Watch tariff system”.

At about the time an ad-hoc committee of the House of Representatives was investigating the adoption of pay-as-you-watch billing model in 2020, Dr. Irukera, then FCCPC boss, dismissed the model as fantasy in an interview on Channels Television’s Sunrise Daily.

“My challenge with what sometimes is the discussion around pay-as-you-go in pay TV is that there is a disconnection and we’ve been through this. We have conducted some investigations and we have done some surveys in different parts of the world. The pay-as-you-go model in telecommunications is not necessarily applicable and so we confuse it sometimes with pay-per-view. Pay-per-view is not that you pay for what you view from the point of when you turn your television on. That is pay-per-view, but we confuse it with pay-as-you-go. What people are asking for in pay-as-you-go is when you turn on your television and you are watching, you pay. When you turn off your television and you are not watching, you don’t pay. It is difficult because the content has been created, what you are paying for is access. How you use the access is entirely discretionary and up to you. Unlike the telephone where the clock starts and the airtime goes down, you have paid for content,” Irukera said.

Four years later, Bilesanmi is still bleating about pay-as-you-watch, deliberately misleading Nigerians. It is the same thing the National Assembly does. It has duped Nigerians into believing that MultiChoice is shafting them. Curiously, those shafting Nigerians are in plain sight, but Nigerians do not see them. Who did this to us?

Sokoya writes from Lagos

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