Dead or Alive: Thoughts on Nigeria and Technology

The clicks from the unfastening of seat belts went on like a symphony as I closed my eyes to catch at least 73 minutes of sleep – since I’ll have to wake up few minutes before touchdown in Geneva (again) – but my mind keeps racing from one topic to the other. All the topics focus on two themes: Nigeria and technology.

I left Lagos, on May 29, to speak at a workshop organized by Freedom House at the 17th session of the Human Rights Council meeting, and to also join a delegation that Freedom House referred to as “experts” and “activists” depending on the country we were meeting with. The few days in Geneva got busier than planned, thanks to the various shades of news from Nigeria: telecom service shutdown in Abuja, attack on government websites (and threats of more) and the presidential assent that gave Nigeria a Freedom of Information Act (after 12 years of demand for the same). As usual, such news items from Nigeria attracted impromptu requests for comments, and the usual “tell me Nigeria isn’t that bad” trick questions. I digress.

During the few days at the United Nations meeting, I had the chance to discuss the Nigerian component of the Freedom on the Net 2011 report, a most-interesting assignment commissioned by Freedom House. Nigeria is “partly free”, as far as the ratings – which basically measure Internet Freedom – are concerned, but there are few worrying signals such as provisions made in the “cybercrime bill” which remained at the level of discussions till the end of the last National Assembly session. An example is the dangerous provision that allows any security official to seize equipment on suspicion of any cybercrime-related activity. We all know what that means for the Nigerian Police Force, as they stand today, and the potential misuse by a government-gone-wrong. Of course, Nigeria needs a cybercrime law, and Paradigm Initiative Nigeria is working to support that possibility, but recent actions such as shutting down telecom service in the nation’s capital (for security reasons, I’m told) and possible response to increasing “hacktivism” that targets government websites leave me with questions.

During the week in Geneva, the delegation – which also had Internet Freedom experts from Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Egypt – met with various country representatives (and Foreign Missions) to have two-way conversations about our countries and what recent developments may mean for Internet Freedom globally. I came out of most meetings wondering if the tension between “security” and “freedom” will ever have an answer beyond case-by-case provisions. For one of the embassies, we were stripped of all communication gadgets before going in for a discussion on freedom. Hmmm, ironic, isn’t it. But then, one man’s freedom ends where the other’s security concerns begin – or is that not what reality tells us? Again, I digress.

I left Geneva without a chance to meet with the Nigerian delegation, which was one country we all hoped to meet with. But it was a very busy week for the Nigeria mission in Geneva, as I gathered from “our” intervention during the council meeting where a Special Rapporteur (a UN term for “unpaid consultant with an office”) discussed Internet Freedom. “On behalf of the Africa Group”, the statement began, when the microphone turned red and Nigeria’s representative took the floor. Nigeria is very busy, as usual, coordinating African response as our eyes also remain on that permanent Security Council seat. If only we spared some time to look more inwards instead of contesting for the crown of “Africa’s Big Brother”.

I return to Geneva for a last day of finishing up work for the 2-week trip, and while the news of a cancelled meeting means more time to prepare for the week ahead in Abuja and Ile-Ife, I can’t get my mind off the many technology opportunities that Nigeria can take advantage of if government can catch up with a fast-paced private sector and growing number of young tech enthusiasts who will help grow Nigeria’s non-oil economy. With a little more coordination by the lame duck agency (the National Information Technology Development Agency) actually tasked with the responsibility, we can identify where we want to be in, say, 2020 (since we have a national plan that aspires to make Nigeria a “top 20” economy by that year), measure the gaps (especially skill-wise) we need to fill, and then support the education of talented young minds in these areas of need.

But we can’t just keep hoping or rot on the spot, we’ll continue to push in every way possible, hoping that islands of effort will connect and cause an explosion of innovation across Nigeria. From Paradigm Initiative Nigeria’s little contribution to the recent series of networking opportunities, and the announcement of a social innovation hub opening in Lagos this August, one can at least smile even though the thirst for more remains. Napoleon once said of China, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world”, and I know the same is true of Nigeria’s technology slumber. Actually, the sleep is near its very end, and though it could use some more policy/conducive environment support, something of a silver lining is in sight.

However, I’m reminded of the story of the young man who caught a bird and took it to the wisest man in town, saying to him: “If you’re the wisest, tell me if the bird I have in my hand is alive or dead.” The bird was still alive and his plan was simple: to crush it to death if the wise man said it was alive or set it free if his verdict was “dead”. Though the wise man couldn’t see the bird as it was held in the young man’s hands behind him, his response rings true for the various stakeholders of the Nigerian tech space: “Whether the bird is alive or dead, the power is in your hands.”

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