By Innocent Ekejiuba
For long, successive Nigerian governments have made tons upon tons of promises of how they would turn around the fortunes of the nation by exploiting the opportunities that lie untapped in the non-oil sectors of the economy. But after many attempts (if any at all), they often ended in mere huffs and puffs and a litany of excuses of how “they tried” but did not succeed because it was too big a task to be accomplished during their tenures.
This was the status quo when President Muhammadu Buhari emerged as the commander-in-chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It was a period of palpable doubt about the capability of any Nigerian government to truly diversify the nation’s economy. But here was a man that consistently offered hope that his administration would be committed to achieving this seemingly impossible feat – he had the trust of many, but needed to sustain it with an outstanding performance. So, we held onto the last straw of life – hope: that, finally, this new man we gave our hearts and mandate at the polls would not fail us like the others. But more than a year into his administration, we are still hoping for the fulfilment of his promises.
Certainly, this administration got more than it bargained for. (Governance is different from merely being the voice of the opposition). So, it hasn’t been a jolly ride so far, especially with the crash in prices of oil, from which successive governments at the centre fed for so long. But surely, the times have thrown up more challenges, and government must arise and look elsewhere if indeed it desires to take the nation out of the woods. Already, one is glad that government seems to be putting mechanisms in place to ensure it achieves this.
However, there arise questions about whether or not we are prioritising the right way.
At the inception of this government, two officials of this current federal government grabbed the attention of the media for their attempts at diversifying the economy. These two are the Ministers of Solid Minerals Development, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, and of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh. Fayemi had early in 2016 raised the hopes of many Nigerians when he announced that his ministry was making concerted efforts to harness Nigeria’s natural resources; only for him to return days later to shock us all with the news that his ministry may be unable to come out with any substantial results for at least a year because they would be spending a year researching on how best to revitalise Nigeria’s potential in solid mineral exploration. Certainly, research is important, but Nigerians are expecting swifter actions. Worse yet, after putting in “so much work”, it would be unfortunate if nothing worthy of note comes out of the “research.”
Audu Ogbeh’s ministry also has been active – at least going by what we hear and read. Ogbeh has continued to court the media and has remained in the news for one reason or the other. Today, he is talking about establishing grazing reserves all around the country; tomorrow, he is talking about how Nigerians eat poison; day after tomorrow, he is with the president launching a project. But Nigerians still await concrete results from all the ministry’s activities. Or are we just too much of an impatient lot?
It is time we did things differently. A major reason we have failed, time and time again, to achieve all our goals of diversifying our economy is because we have not acknowledged, let alone putting in a place of primacy, our human capital and their capabilities over resources hidden in the ground.
Instead of first “tilling” our human resources, we have tilled our natural resources till they become almost useless to us, e.g. oil. While other nations of the world, being aware of the global knowledge economy, are flourishing by optimising Information and Communications Technology (ICT); Nigeria has remained stuck in the agrarian economy which lost its relevance decades ago. Indeed, it is time we did things differently.
It was therefore consoling to recently read in the news that the current administration is finally committing to promote indigenous technology by showcasing Nigeria’s leading technology solution providers and start-ups at the annual information technology exhibition, GITEX, holding in Dubai in October 2016. GITEX is the 3rd largest technology event on the planet. This is undeniably a step in the right direction! Nigerians have always expected more from National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) – the agency whose recently replaced Director General, Dr. Vincent Olatunji, made the statement on behalf of the federal government. We are however glad that the agency seems to finally be waking up to its responsibility.
“If we get our ICT right, it would be more difficult for people to be corrupt, and where they are corrupt, it becomes a lot easier to track them down,” said John Obaro, Managing Director of SystemSpecs, developers of Remita, one of the IT solutions NITDA would be showcasing at GiTeX 2016. “The only reason the wealthiest people in the world are ICT professionals is because of the potentials inherent in the sector”, Obaro added.
Nonetheless, showcasing Made-in-Nigeria technological solutions on the international scene should only be the beginning. It is important for government to prioritise the ICT sector, by equipping professionals in the industry. The talents who are already doing exploits without government support are there; all that is left is substantial backing from government. There is only as far individuals can go. These Nigerians, many of them youths, are daily inventing technological solutions capable of placing Nigeria on the global map and transforming us from the scorn of the world to the world’s envy, but lack the needed support.
Studies have shown that the top economies in the world have successful ICT sectors upon which other sectors ride to attain greater heights. These economies are successful not only because individuals are gifted but because there is substantial government backing, especially through investments and incentives. For instance, a country like the United States that understands the relevance of ICT tripled investments in accelerators and incubator programmes in 2015 while the United Kingdom made direct investment of 1.1 Billion Pounds in Cyber Security. These are only two examples. Hong Kong, Singapore and Luxembourg are others. These nations did not become technological giants overnight, they started by taking little steps. It is time Nigeria took her little steps, capable of transforming our nation.
Government, through such agencies as NITDA, should partner with stakeholders in Nigeria’s ICT sector, including the Nigeria Computer Society (NCS) and Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON), to reengage the National Assembly, to facilitate the refinement of our laws towards encouraging increased participation and patronage of indigenous technological solutions. The technology industry anticipates the fast-tracking of the National ICT Policy which would help to position the industry among the best in the world. Already, local players have demonstrated impeccable competence and should be patronised by government agencies and local Nigeria businesses. For us to command a pride of place on the international scene, Nigerians must first patronise and grow what is ours.
Prioritising ICT in Nigeria means we need to discourage practices where foreign trade delegations are composed without the complement of Nigerian technological products to be promoted. Similarly, Nigeria should also no longer receive foreign technological solutions for challenges which our local competencies can resolve. Also, tech start-ups should cease to be burdened with high take-off costs and killer interest rates that they currently suffer from. Nigeria’s ICT sector should benefit from government incentives like the kind extended to the telecoms sectors where the first entrants got pioneer status which led to an unprecedented boom in the sector. If this is done, the impact would surely be felt, especially in the areas of mass employment and wealth creation across all sectors.
For this government to succeed in its aim for economic diversification – and not fail like previous administrations, it must place emphasis on ICT by designating the sector as a catalyst for national economic prosperity. And this has to be about action, and not mere words. President Buhari’s government must entrust key national responsibilities to Nigerian technological firms and also champion the course of deploying indigenous ICT for national development. This way, Nigeria would again regain its pride of place on the globe. The ICT path is open before us today, and the best time to take the leap is now!
Ekejiuba is an ICT analyst