What Buhari Must Do For The Nigerian ICT Industry

By the time Nigeria’s President said, “I, Muhammadu Buhari, do solemnly swear…” on May 29, 2015, his honeymoon was officially over and expectations from all sectors of the economy – and corners of the republic – soared mercilessly. Nigerians are now impatient and want change, immediately. When the promise of change was being made during the elections, many qualified the word, “change”, with the prefix, “immediate”. Immediate change is what many now expect, and Mr President and his team should have hit the ground running, and must now be working overtime to fulfil promises and meet expectations.

As can be seen from recent reports on the health of economies globally, any nation that gets its Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) act right holds the potential of enjoying socio-economic benefits. There’s a reason why the Networked Readiness Index (NRI) and Human Development Index (HDI) have similar curves. If you plot a graph with NRI on the Y axis and HDI on the x axis, you will see that almost all countries with high NRI are above 0.8 on the HDI scale. It has also been established that increase in broadband access can add up to 0.3% gain to any nation’s GDP. The government of President Muhammadu Buhari must pay more attention to this opportunity, and maximize it. It is safe to assume that the president’s team already has many ICT experts but one hopes that this contribution will add value to existing thoughts and proposed strategies. We cannot afford to continue as a nation solely dependent on the mercy of global oil prices, it is time for us to start defining what the next decades must look like, and we can start with how this government manages the relationship between policy and innovation.

I have often argued that any government that can not work to make sure that policy supports innovation should get out of the way of innovation – and real work – instead of stifling it. The Muhammadu Buhari administration must ensure that policy is weaved around innovation in such a way that instead of standing in the way of those who are working tirelessly to introduce cutting-edge application of ICTs, government encourages innovation. One area where this directly applies is the emerging culture of tech startups in Nigeria, and government must not stand in the way of this potential answer to jobs and innovation but must instead seek to introduce policies that will encourage a Year 1 student in a College of Education to start working on her startup ideas, or at least acquire relevant skills, instead of just waiting to put together a CV as soon as she graduates. School fees are pretty high, even for public schools, so why waste it just to end up on the increasingly long unemployment queue that boasts of every grade of paper with “certificate” written on them?

Governments don’t create jobs, (small) businesses do. If we create the adequate policy environment and support innovation by allowing each student or out-of-school youth that introduces a new tech idea to do their job well, jobs and other economic benefits may follow. As tech startups grow, the need for adequate (wo)manpower becomes increasingly clear. In today’s Nigeria, we have a capacity problem such that even when there are jobs, it is often difficult to find young people who are able to adequately fill the gap. Instead of building (wo)manpower, many of our academic institutions are killing dreams by turning green-horned dreamers into cram-pass-forget students who end up on job queues but with almost no skill. We can turn this around. We must change from mis-educating to purposeful (wo)manpower development. Ongoing efforts in this regard give some reason for hope but they must not end up as paper tigers.

Nigeria has a National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) that can assume the responsibility of working with various stakeholders to lead this process of a time-bound and targeted (wo)manpower development for the ICT sector. We must ask the hard questions: how many people do we need with specific skills or knowledge in the next 10 years? What are the industry needs that (wo)manpower development must meet over the same period? Which sectors of the Nigerian economy can benefit from focused ICT capacity building over the next decade or so? When can Nigeria take leadership positions in pre-defined ICT application areas on the continent? These are the questions that NITDA must ask, set targets with, and then work with the academia and industry to develop (wo)manpower towards.

If we do this well, in the next decade, Nigeria will have adequate (wo)manpower to meet local ICT industry needs and be able to deploy assets towards places of interest where we can both learn and add value. There are problems with the academia, agreed, but if you have seen focused training based on the desire to meet specific objectives, you will appreciate the power of focused learning that has clear expectations. I see this from time to time as Paradigm Initiative Nigeria engages some of the academic institutions that have been condemned as cram-pass-forget centres.

As we develop more (wo)manpower, we must also address the problem of access. With ~46% Internet penetration and about ~12% broadband Internet penetration, majority are cut off from many opportunities. When I wrote on “Keep The Visa, Give Us Broadband!” many years ago, I was speaking to the fact that if we lay the pipes properly, we can afford to build where we are and allow the world come to us instead of jumping from one visa queue to the other, in a race towards better economic opportunities. Now that we have a National Broadband Plan (2013-2018), the Muhammadu Buhari government must build on it and work with the industry to repeat the feat of the early 2000s with GSM. Broadband is the new GSM and we can see aggressive roll-out and increased investments towards faster, cheaper and ubiquitous broadband access over the next 5 years.

For government to work more efficiently with industry and other sectors, it must become leaner and less confusing. In a 2007 report by the Presidential Committee on Harmonisation of Information Technology, Telecommunications and Broadcasting Sectors, which predates the establishment of a Ministry of Communication Technology, proposals were made on how to ensure proper ICT convergence in government. It’s time to whip the National Broadcasting Commission in line and get them to allow full implementation of the 2012 ICT Policy approved in principle by the outgoing government. One minister stood in the way of required harmonisation work and that error should now be corrected. Another recommendation that needs to see the light of day is the need to get rid of quasi-government ICT businesses.

President Muhammadu Buhari needs a leaner, fully harmonised and more focused Ministry of Communication Technology to help supervise Nigeria’s much-needed ICT revolution Nigeria must get her ICT act right, and it’s the responsibility of this government to make sure this doesn’t suffer additional delay.

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