Nigeria at 53: Perspectives

03 Oct 2013

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By Olufemi Adeagbo

As Nigerians congratulate ourselves and indeed receive congratulations from other parts of the world for attaining 53 years of independence, the indices of development do not hold out much to celebrate about.

Of course, political leaders and their cohorts will reel out brave statements citing development and progress. Perhaps it is the pride and love we have for the country that often prevent us from making crystal clear and stark assessments of the horror show the nation is becoming, or the fact that leaders need to keep expressing optimism to douse tension. Regardless of the motivation, the indices of employment, human rights, judicial access and credibility, education, affordable and qualitative healthcare, security and super-structural existence presents an unpalatable reality.

Indeed, Lord Frederick Lugard must be laughing in his grave. And the joke is on us. We should be angry that we have not been able to prove him lacking in foresight and accuracy. On page 70 of  “The Dual  Mandate” written in 1926, Lord Lugard describes our African race type in many unflattering sentences. Perhaps the most traumatising to me is where he says of our race type: “He lacks the power of organisation, and is conspicuously deficient in the management and control alike of men or business. He loves the display of power, but fails to realise its responsibility. ...........Perhaps the two traits which have impressed me as those most characteristic of the African native are his lack of apprehension and his lack of ability to visualise the future." 

Of course, a few African entrepreneurs and political leaders have proven that they have foresight and management skills, but that view will be missing the point. Lugard is laying out a broad character framework that is, in his view, the norm. We appear to be acting out the script - even in the ICT sector.

Power, after 53 years remains a cross-cutting inhibitor to Nigeria’s development, though the completion of the privatisation process - once in fact completed - must go down as a significant feather in the cap of President Goodluck Jonathan. Agriculture appears to be finding a stable footing at last and this is another critical achievement if sustained and translate to sustained economic growth. There is a freedom of information act that deepens transparency and accountability. Democracy, though with limited dividends, appears to have come to stay. There are  wins, here and there, demonstrating that a strong political will, when exercised, can deliver results in relatively short period of time.

However, the lack of restraint, common sense, and decorum that often accompanies public discourse and conduct is still with us. Thanks largely to ICT mediums, we witnessed the drama of the Rivers State Assembly and more recently the tearing of clothes during the ‘New PDP’ visit to the house of Assembly. Corruption is not only with us, but appears within us and has attained stratospheric proportions debilitating the minds of all - rich and poor, young and old, male and female alike.

The fuel subsidy differential recently released by the Ministry of Finance, and the fact that no one has faced any sanctions since the scam was exposed is a clear indicator of how corruption has fared. Leaders have forgotten that they serve the people, not lord over them, run them off the road with exotic convoys, loot their resources, oppress them and then look down upon them. This behavior demonstrates a deep disdain for the lessons of history and also validates Lugard’s comments about lack of apprehension and foresight. Fundamentally, the churches and mosques have been unable to touch the conscience of Nigerians at all levels – otherwise how come Nigeria is the way it is? The often  castigated leaders do not drop in from outer space. They come from within us suggesting that they are reflective of society’s propensities. 

Against this gloomy backdrop, ICT must be one of the few shining lights that we can point to and say that there has been progress. Nigeria had, in the beginning, been involved in telecommunication landmarks. For example, in August 1963, USNS Kingsport, the world's first satellite communications ship, relayed the initial live broadcast of a telephone conversation between Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa in Nigeria and President John F. Kennedy in Washington via Synacom -- one of the first synchronous satellites launched.

Fast forward to 2013 and an excerpt from Emma Okonji’s piece : Nigeria: ICT Sector at 53 - Tremendous Growth, Poor Services cites the Economic Impact of Telecoms Growth Today. According to Emma Okonji: “Nigeria's active subscribers stand at 117 million with a tele-density of 82 per cent. In terms of growth, Nigeria is ranked the largest and fastest growing telecoms market in Africa and among the ten fastest telecoms growth markets in the world, an indication of its robustness to return on investments. From a private sector investment of about $50 million in 1999, Nigeria has by end of 2009, attracted more than $18 billion in private sector investments, including Direct Foreign Investment (FDI), according to NCC's statistics”

Omobola Johnson, the Minister of Communications Technology also captured the role of ICT aptly when she  said: “The mandate of the Communications Technology Ministry, simply put, is to leverage ICTs for national socio-economic development”

According to the minister : "Four things define our mandate for this industry. We have to connect Nigeria with a ubiquitous physical fibre, satellite and microwave, we have to connect Nigerians through the wide ownership of cost effective devices". Others, according to her, are: "To aggressively drive the participation of Nigerians in ICT businesses and improve local and domestic value add in the sector and finally we must leverage ICT in government to improve effectiveness, transparency, governance and reduce the cost of governance."

ICT’s contribution to macroeconomic development cannot, in my view, be quantified; it is that significant. It has added velocity to business, social interactions and the overall quality of human existence. However, the critical aspect of development must find its true meaning in the level of participation of Nigerians in the ICT value chain. I fear we are not making any giant strides in this respect.

Since Sir Balewa’s phone call, what happened to the extent that at the beginning of 1999, we had only 400,000 lines representing one of the lowest tele-densities in the world? Can we quantify the lost opportunities of transformation that telecommunications super-structure access and utilisation could have contributed to human development, the Nigerian economy and its global standing? Did we fail to visualise? Are we  still failing to visualise, even today, compounded by a blurring, created by the seemingly fantastic telecommunications growth statistics? Are we apprehensive of the consequences of failing to urgently leverage the efficiencies ICT brings to governance and development – especially as a post oil era looms in the not so far distance?

Economies cannot grow unless its people are educated, sustained, secured and utilised to produce things – be those things services, products or even knowledge. In ICT, we are not producing anywhere near the required levels to sustain meaningful jobs in our economy. In fact, we  may have become a mass market dumping ground for sub-standard devices as well as a significant destination for all ICT things expensive and ‘snazzy’. Civil servants, University undergraduates, and even Secondary school students strut around with smart phones ranging $600 – £2,500, without doing a lot of  smart things on them. When you multiply the quantity of the smartphones and tablets and factor in the modest retention of margins in the value chain that accrues to Nigeria, one can reach no other conclusion that ICT is morphing into an avoidable vehicle for capital flight.

To derive true value from the ICT developments, we must participate in the creation of useful and relevant content. Infrastructure must be rolled out responsibly with special funding products that recognise the long -term nature of ICT investments. Innovative approaches must be found to provide alternative power to reduce operational costs. Consumers must have choice from a range of qualitative services at affordable costs. Local content must exist pervasively. Regulation must continue to be robust and forward looking. We must make things here.

But these inputs require significant investments, and investors always seek clarity about macro direction in order to properly contextualise their risks. One the most debilitating factors for development in the sector is the continued ‘approval in principle’ status of the National ICT policy, meaning that our policy and legislation remain unreflective of many realities of technological development, thus deterring significantly more investments and arguably suffocating sectoral growth.  It is no surprise that Samsung is set to open a television, laptop and printers’ assembly plant in Nairobi creating 1,000 primary jobs. The Kenyan ICT Policy is clear despite the challenges of doing business in Kenya.

Back home, patriots like Zinox continue to plough in significant investments, an example being the multiclass, multi-application assembly facility recently installed by Zinox with a production capacity of 1,250 Personal Computers (PCs) daily. But much more is required to make significant impact to our job creation employment fortunes, and by implication National Development. Many Zinoxs are required. The market size arguably dilutes the challenges of production /assembly significantly.

Sub-structurally, there has been a lot of focus and action in the broadband space, including Presidential engagement at the policy level and infrastructure rollout supported by government and private sector funding. This is a very good development. But there are concomitant aspects that are not being factored into the equation, as a consequence of ‘holistic policy’ absence. Broadband by itself cannot yield the desired results, nor is the process of ICT development necessarily sequential. It exists as the critical ‘expressway’ in an integrated ecosystem that consists of ‘cars’, tolling, management, regulation, etc. – if we are to use the physical expressway analogy.

Information rides across broadband networks and ultimately are captured through corporate and consumer devices that have to be manufactured, accessorised and supported. Their availability justifies the existence of the broadband network on the long term. That value chain in terms of ICT assembly is massive, and if we do not have a clear, credible plan that can attract investments in large volume local production, we will continue supporting jobs in other climes at a very significant level, and to our detriment.

In conclusion, ICT’s true impact, as we try to avoid re-colonisation through economic, rather than military means,  must focus on policy cohesion that ultimately supports pervasive local manufacturing / assembly, updating of legislation, convergence, and the tactical application of ICT in critical areas like governance, National reorientation, youth development, education, healthcare and security to mention a few.
•Adeagbo writes from Abuja

Tags: Nigeria, Featured, Business

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