Madam Minister, It’s Time To Connect The Dots (Part 2)

On April 27, 2009, I wrote an Open Letter (of sorts) to the then Minister of Information and Communications, Prof. Dora Akunyili, because of the huge gap between potential and reality in Nigeria’s ICT space. It was titled Madam Minister, It’s Time To Connect The Dots, so I’m using the same title now because there’s a new madam – on whose shoulders now rest the opportunity to turn potential into reality.

The journey towards an independent ministry for Information Technology, Telecommunications and Broadcasting started a long time ago, but it reached a crescendo in 2006 when President Obasanjo set up a 26-man committee to work on the harmonization of the Nigerian Information Technology, Telecommunications and Broadcasting sectors because of obvious overlap in functions and expenses. By the way, I used “26-man” because there was no woman on the committee until few were co-opted along with other gentlemen whose industry associations complained about their absence from the “table”. But I digress. Speaking of overlap in functions, an example that comes to mind is a frequency spectrum dispute between the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) who both issued the same band to an Internet Service Provider and a Television station respectively.

This, among others (including budgetary allocations for the same activities), led to the committee’s recommendation of a ministry that allowed the synchronisation of ICT efforts in the age of convergence. The entire ICT Harmonization Committee report is available here, but it’s also worth mentioning the fact that while the NCC already draws funds (2.5% of annual turnover) from telecommunications companies through the Universal Services Provision Fund (USPF), the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) is also empowered by law, via the National Information Technology Development Fund, to levy companies that have annual turnovers of over N100 million and are heavy users of Information Technology tools. So, NITDEF also affects all telecommunication companies (again), cyber cafes (as if they didn’t have enough problems and will they ever get close to that turnover?), Internet Service Providers, Pension Managers (yes, they were listed) and “pension-related companies” (I’m still trying to understand what this means). Now, you see the need for harmonization as earlier advocated, later recommended and (hopefully) now implemented.

Of course, questions have been asked about the need for an ICT ministry when we already have ministries in charge of Science & Technology, and Information & Communication. The latter was renamed Information & Communication, from Information (and National Orientation) to accommodate the recommendations at the time, but it became evident that no minister can handle propaganda and ICT at the same time. And then, there is the confusion of names for the new ministry, which is not new. There is industry politics between IT conservatives and those who wish to go with the global ICT nomenclature, so the only people that can put this to rest are Anyim Pius Anyim (Secretary General of the Federation who handles portfolio distribution) and Omobola Johnson (Madam Minister who will lead the vision behind the new ministry).

Considering the need to reduce the cost of governance, I believe that new ministries created so that nominees can have a portfolio makes no sense, but if this was done to lend credence to Nigeria’s quest to use ICT towards Vision 2020, then it’s easy to admit that the new ministry will add value. The 2006 ICT Harmonization Committee recommended that the Ministry of Science & Technology should be stripped of all ICT-related functions, especially as it is the current oversight ministry for NITDA. We also suggested that the Ministry of Information – before it was renamed Information and Communication – should focus on propaganda (which, if used to a good end, is undeniably a required instrument of state in its own right), image-related issues (no rebranding, please!) and National Orientation.

With these established, I come to the major reason I started writing this in the first place. Mrs. Omobola Johnson, your reputation precedes you and I personally believe that you are a square peg in a square hole. We know your works, both at Accenture and through Women in Management and Business (WiMBiz), so we expect that you will join the likes of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, etc, to paint a picture as close to transformation as possible, for the Nigerian economy. We can NOT continue like this! Madam Minister, it is time to restructure fully, 100%, and plug all the leaks. We want to know how many Nigerians are online, without waiting for the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva to tell us, or for relevant agencies to keep pushing the responsibility to each other. NCC must become a better regulator, one that can tell all telcos that claim to offer Blackberry Internet Service to stop making BS of the contract by removing the I(nternet) – or making us plug-and-pray each time we need to send an urgent chat line or eMail.

NCC should not only enforce policies that will make consumers enjoy the new submarine cables we only read about, but vehicles such as USPF must be used to resolve the issues that operators face. Seriously, why pay 2.5% (plus 1%) and then spend another X% to buy diesel, Y% to protect your infrastructure and Z% to pay the unbelievable taxes that state and local governments extract from attractive companies. Madam Minister, fire the current Director General of NITDA, to at least send a message that a development agency must not only be one through the pages of newspapers. And please remind NBC that 2012, the year that we agreed (with the rest of the world) to switch over to digital broadcasting, is only 6 months away.

Madam Minister, please make sure you engage the missing link, that thriving youth-led ICT space that is now beginning to gain the attention of the world and has the twin potential of providing jobs and addressing the menace of cybercrime. Speaking of cybercrime (and I hate to end with this embarrassing reality you now have in your bag), please raise the tempo on the need for cybercrime legislation while also retraining the army of youth at-risk with cybercrime, and attracting attention to what works among young Nigerians. Also, we set up national committees on outsourcing and software development in the past, it’s now time to connect these policy directions with the young talents who will – supported by a climate of innovation – graduate with business plans (and not only CVs) to run with the vision! There is absolutely no reason why Nigeria’s ICT sector can’t do up to 10% of GDP as non-oil contribution by 2025.

Madam Minister, it’s time to connect the dots!