NITDA Bill: Concerns over NASS’ Short Notice, Timing for Public Hearing

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In what has been described as ambush of sort for the industry, the National Assembly has fixed the public hearing of the ‘controversial’ National Information Technology Development Agent (NITDA) Act Amendment Bill to today, Friday.

The development followed a public notice put out by the NASS Joint Committee on ICT and Cyber Security yesterday, giving only a day notice to stakeholders expected to be at the event scheduled to take place by 9:00 a.m today.

However, while the notice was considered short for necessary stakeholders including representatives of Ministries Departments and Agencies, Civil Society Organisatons (CSOs), business community and the general public to make meaningful preparation to make inputs on the proposed Bill, the timing was also considered inappropriate, as NASS embarked on a recess as from today (Friday) while it resumed official functions on December 28, 2022.

A public notice by the Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Representatives in ICT and Cyber Security, inviting stakeholders and members of the general public to the one-day public hearing to discuss the NITDA Amendment Bill 2021 was signed by the Clerk to the Senate Committee on ICT and Cyber Security, Ayoh Ogon and the Clerk, House Committee on ICT, Mrs. Abosi Onyesikadi Lolo.

Specifically, the public hearing is on “A bill for an Act to Repeal the National Information Technology Development Agency Act No. 28, 2007 and enact the NITDA Act to provide for the Administration, Implementation and Regulation of Information Technology Systems and Practices, as well as Digital Economy in Nigeria and for Related Matters, 2022.”

However, it was gathered that upon the publication of the 24 hours public notice yesterday, stakeholders from MDAs of the Federal and State governments, the entire business community, especially players in the ICT/telecoms industry, as well as the general public have expressed ‘grave concerns’ on the rationale for the short public notice for an important assignment centring on a bill, whose provisions have become a subject of controversies arising from overlapping provisions in the Bill with functions of other existing government agencies.

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The stakeholders have kicked against the 24 hours public notice given by the National Assembly to host the republic hearing on the Bill, being championed by NITDA, the agency established in 2007 to see to the Information Technology Policies formulation and implementation across the country.

“The public notice was published in some newspapers today, inviting stakeholders to attend a public hearing slated for Friday, December 23, 2022 at the Senate Building, National Assembly Abuja by 9:00 a.m. We feel this is an ambush as the time is very short and also it is fixed at a time when the NASS would have been on recess,” a senior and concerned stakeholder in one of the federal MDAs told The Guardian on phone yesterday on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorised to comment on the issue.

An official of one of the major ICT body, which represents the industry, though planned to be at the hearing, however, described the move as a plan to ensure NITDA eventually usurps powers of other agencies of government.

“I will suggest that NITDA should focus on capacity building, which it has been known for and marshal it very well, instead of deviating from that. Deviation into looking for a regulatory power that inadvertently encroaches on the powers of some existing agencies could spell doom in the future.”

A telecoms expert, Kehinde Aluko is worried about the timing, saying that “the event is coming on the eve of Christmas and New Year when most stakeholders, who could have been in attendance, would have travelled for festivities, thereby excluding them from participating to air their views to address grey areas of overlapping or usurpation of other agencies’ statutory powers and authorities.”

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Checks by The Guardian from likely organisations, especially those within the ICT ecosystem that normally would be expected to be in attendance, revealed that they were not aware of the public hearing. For instance, the National Association of Telecoms Subscribers (NATCOMS); Computer and Allied Products Dealers Association of Nigeria (CAPDAN); Nigeria Internet Group (NIG), among others are not aware.

Earlier in the year, some industry associations flayed the proposed NITDA Bill, one of which was the Computer Professionals (Registration Council of Nigeria) (CPN), which condemned the proposed NITDA Bill 2021 in its entirety.

CPN in a statement, signed by its Registrar/Secretary to Council, Muhammad Bello Aliyu, had said it observed that the NITDA Bill 2021 “arrogates powers of several other regulatory agencies to NITDA, which is an infringement on the statutory powers of other agencies of government like CPN, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Galaxy backbone, Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), the National Universities Commission (NUC), among others.”

The computer professionals said that stakeholders, who attended an earlier meeting held by NITDA in February, 2022, were unanimous in their opinions that several sections in the proposed NITDA Bill was a usurpation of the statutory powers of other agencies of government that had been in existence before NITDA, and which have been performing their statutory roles.

“For instance, Section 6, 13, 20, 21, and 22, which talked about NITDA’s power, licensing and authorisations, offences and penalties, among others, raised some pertinent issues.

“Section 6 arrogated new powers to NITDA, which included the ability to fix licensing and authorisation charges, collect fees and penalties and issue contravention notices and non-compliance with the Act,” the body stated.

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According to CPN, all the agencies present during the February 2022 stakeholders’ engagement convened by NITDA, were unanimous in their opinion that the offending sections of the proposed NITDA Bill, giving NITDA powers to perform other agencies’ functions, should be expunged.

CPN said it strongly believes that NITDA should stick to its role as an IT development agency and stop seeking regulatory roles since there is so much that is yet to be done under information technology development in the country.

Similarly, a similar webinar convened by NITDA in March 2022, bringing lawyers together, to examine the provisions of the NITDA Amendment Bill 2021 was also met with unexpected condemnations of a number of sections, promoting them to call on the drafters of the Bill to go back to drawing table to ensure it toes a neutral path the does not make it arrogate the power of existing government agencies to itself, a development that could necessitate more conflict regulatory interest in the future.

The proposed NITDA (Repeal and Re-Enactment) Bill 2021 not only seeks to convert the agency into another regulator that will be wrestling powers from its regulators but prescribes asphyxiating punitive regime for business owners.

During the March 2022 webinar, the President of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Olumide Apata, who was represented by ICT Committee Chairman of NBA- Section on Business Law (NBA-SBL) Chairman, Rotimi Ogunyemi, raised three fundamental concerns on the proposed Bill, central of which was how the NITDA Bill intends to navigate its way within the broad context of other regulatory functions of other regulatory agencies to eschew functions overlap; and the impact of the harsh penalties for violation of certain sections of the Bill on the ICT business environment.

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