Public interest and concerns about the probable health and environmental risks associated with the building, in the same vicinity, of duplicate Base Transceiver Stations (BTS), also popularly known as base stations, cell sites, masts or towers, by ATC Nigeria Wireless Infrastructure Limited and MTN Nigeria Communications Plc, are gaining more momentum as another non-governmental organisation, Foundation for Environmental Right, Advocacy and Development (FENRAD), has secured the order of a Federal High Court in Abuja stopping ATC and MTN from proceeding with the project.

The Incorporated Trustees of FENRAD had in lawsuit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/633/2024, with the Federal Ministry of Environment and Ecological Management as the First Respondent; the Minister of Environment and Ecological Management as the second Respondent; ATC Nigeria Infrastructure Limited as the third Respondent; and MTN Nigeria Communications Plc as fourth Respondent, secured the restraining order in an ex-parte order made on May 29, 2024, by Hon. Justice Peter OdoLifu (JP).

Granting the petitioner’s application, Justice Lifu ordered that ATC was restrained whether by its servants, agents, privies and or assigns, from commencing, continuing or completing the construction or erection or installation of any cell site Base/Transceiver Stations/Towers/Mast (BTS) within proximity to existing cell sites or operating cell sites within proximity to existing cell sites pending the determination of the Motion on Notice for interlocutory injunction.

The learned judge also ordered that MTN Nigeria was restrained whether by itself, servants, agents, privies and or assigns from moving, relocating, or transferring any of its telecommunications equipment to any telecom cell sites being, or that has been constructed, erected or built by ATC which is near an existing telecom cell site, pending the determination of the Motion on Notice for interlocutory injunction.

He further said with this order, a duty was imposed on all the respondents to obey the order of the court as failure to obey the order amounted to contempt of court.

The duo of ATC Nigeria and MTN Nigeria have therefore been restrained by the courts in respect of the proposed building of 2,500 masts for MTN Nigeria by ATC Nigeria.

Without prejudice to the final decisions of the court in this lawsuit, it is pertinent to note that the rising public interest and concerns about the construction of new base stations, in the same vicinity, of duplicate Base Transceiver Stations, and the potential impact on the environment and human lives, underscore the bigger implications of the business decision being implemented by ATC and MTN.

The concerns for millions of Nigerians, who would be at the receiving end of an insensitive business motive by ATC and MTN, call for attention to the seriousness of this matter. It is most certain that as days and weeks go by, more concerned stakeholders will come to terms with the reality of the issue, and why raising the tempo of public interest advocacy further should be of prime importance in a serious matter of indiscriminate duplication of base stations within the same vicinity in our environment.

The fact that a public interest entity is taking up the issue is indicative of the concerns about the potential impact of duplicating telecom cell sites within the same vicinity being real, and not just a smokescreen. Across the world, governments and concerned stakeholders are promoting friendlier behaviours towards the environment, including measures that lessen the impact of businesses on the environment.

A careful analysis of the situation even further shows that the public interest and concerns about the construction of base stations are for the overall public good and the well-being of the generality of Nigerians and other stakeholders.

There is an undeniable thread of common interest that FENRAD’s suit highlights, which is that more stakeholders are beginning to know how much damage the duplication of base stations within the same vicinity would impact on our ecosystem.

It would also interest Nigerians and the global community that the restraining order secured by FENRAD was pretty much indicative of the fact that there is a cause of action or merit in the suit filed against the respondents, principally ATC and MTN.

But let us even assume that the matter is not in court, how ATC and MTN have disposed themselves to the judicial process calls for concern. While the courts had yet to make the final determination of the lawsuits, coupled with a substantive injunction, it is on record that ATC Nigeria and its business partner, MTN Nigeria, did not comply with the ex-parte order as the construction of the new BTS sites continued.

Will ATC do the same in the U.S., its country of origin since its parent company is registered there? Will MTN do the same in South Africa which is its parent company’s home country? Will ATC show such disrespect for the U.S. laws and lack of care for American residents and lives in its bid to make or maximise profit? We all know how strict the U.S. government is regarding compliance, ethical business practices and environmental sustainability. So, why are things done differently in Nigeria?

Where impunity has become the norm, it could not be ruled out that ATC and MTN would disobey the order of Justice Lifu’s court as well. It is disheartening that these global entities are listed on the stock exchanges of either their local market or their parent company’s home countries would behave in Nigeria in a manner they would not contemplate doing in their own countries.

With the U.S. even better equipped for emergency preparedness and response, concerns about the potential environmental and health risks from duplicating telecom cell sites within the same vicinity is among many reasons the American government takes safety, health and environmental standards seriously for businesses. The rule of engagement should not be different in Nigeria.

Or, how can we explain it that, while the Federal Ministry of Environment and Ecology Management had disapproved of and prevented any construction work from proceeding, ATC was busy building the new sites in readiness for the installation of the hardware and software infrastructure? Why are they doing this in Nigeria? Could there be a loophole in our law, regulatory oversight or enforcement ecosystem that organisations and businesses are capitalising on? Are there bad examples which others are emulating because there are no consequences for bad actions in the past? Many questions to ask and perhaps, few or no answers! Time will tell.

Overall, on the point of wider and more serious implications, the process of a network operator transitioning its operations from existing base stations to new ones comes with the potential disruption of telecom services. For ATC and MTN Nigeria, there is no magic to decommissioning 2,500 sites and migrating the network to new BTS without impacting the Quality of Service (QoS) negatively.MTN customers – individuals, businesses and institutions – should brace up for poor connectivity and service disruption. This is a serious and important point that should not be lost on the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), other industry regulators and critical stakeholders.

The above factors should, therefore, be of concern and interest to our policymakers, lawmakers and regulatory authorities, and the need for them to act fast. A stitch in time saves nine!

Lateef Aremu, a public commentator, writes from Ibadan, Oyo State.

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