By Soji Ehinlanwo
On the side-lines of an International conference in the U.K., I got drawn into a debate hovering around the global state of Information and Communications Technology. A robust discussion that started with a review of ICT development and performance across a number of leading European and Asian countries inevitably dovetailed into a review and analysis of ICT performance in specific African countries, of which Nigeria became a major focus, partly because of my involvement in the debate but mainly on account of the high expectations and hopes many have held and still nurture about Nigeria. Without mincing words, the specific discussion around Nigeria’s ICT development revealed quite depressing statistics and information, especially when viewed in relation to developments in several other countries, including quite a number of African countries, which made me undoubtedly very uncomfortable.
My discomfort arose from a number of factors, which included the following: First, Nigeria’s poor ranking on the latest ICT development index, as reflected in a 2018 report published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which puts the country in a disappointing but not surprising 143rd position globally, out of 176 countries whose ICT developmental levels were measured. Even more confounding is the sobering reality that in the African index of the same report, Nigeria is rated 15th, behind countries such as Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius, Kenya, Gabon, Zimbabwe and even Cote-D’Ivoire. Second, Nigeria has an excellent pool of highly experienced and talented Information and Communications Technology professionals dispersed across many parts of the World including Europe and North America – some of whom I have come across in my own ICT career, whose skills are being harnessed to further develop the ICT potentials of major countries in Europe and North America, yet paradoxically while Nigeria still struggles both in perception and reality in terms of the development of its ICT capabilities. In my mind, that really doesn’t square up. Third, successive governments have made modest financial investments presumably aimed at positively changing the Information and Communications Technology landscape, yet it does appear that these investments have yielded as much as have been anticipated or indeed in relation to changing existing disappointing rankings. Fourth, there has certainly not been a shortage of policy documents – possibly arising out of numerous workshops/conferences ostensibly aimed at enhancing ICT capabilities and usage – but yet we are still very far from where we should be and achieving well below available potentials.
Notwithstanding what is certainly a not-so-cheering background, I venture to affirm that there need not be despair, and of course this leads me inexorably to pose the pertinent question: How can we change the reality now and its narrative as it stares us in the face? First and foremost, there needs to be an urgent policy shift in respect of the drive to make ICT pervasive in our country – in a way that puts the country on the highway of digitisation and enables us to harness the full potential of ICT in our transformation efforts across all critical areas including agriculture, manufacturing, health, finance, education, etc. As Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, the African Development Bank president, posited in the 2019 Mo Ibrahim Governance Week, new policy initiatives are required which should be aimed specifically at the democratisation of ICT adoption – a key plank of which he argued must be a legislation or policy to make code learning compulsory across all levels of our institutions. This position is certainly in tandem with my own thinking and I believe this will require an important update in our school curriculum in a way that exposes our youngsters to coding techniques across many of the modern areas of ICT, such as database programming, machine learning, artificial intelligence, web technology – including web analytics, big data analytics, 3D printing, as well as other ICT tools with the potential to engender a new wave of innovation that could possibly help in the resolution of our youth unemployment challenges and boost income potential and GDP
Financial investments in ICT need to be shaped by new thinking. While admittedly, the investments outlay so far by successive governments does not match an aspiration to make ICT a key driver of economic growth and social inclusion, it is pertinent to aver that in many respects, there are reasons to doubt that we have gotten optimal value from even the little capital provisions and investments that have been allocated to ICT. There needs to be not only targeted financial investment in ICT infrastructures build – but clear and verifiable cost and benefit analysis of such investments – particularly in relation to how they contribute to economic growth, their potential for stimulating employment both in the short and long terms and to what extent they help to extend government agenda of social inclusion. These are by no means the only criteria that should be used for evaluating and determining financial investment in ICT, a raft of other cost/benefit factors must also be added to shape how allocations to ICT are deployed, so as to ensure optimal outcomes are achieved in respect of all ICT related capital outlays. The value of such carefully “programmed” thinking in relation to ICT capital investments is that it could help to significantly raise rankings as well as, more importantly, enhance transformation efforts in other areas of economic, political and social development.
One of the sad ironies of our poor ranking in ICT performance and development is the fact that while our ICT development growth appears to be slow and unimpressive, we can rightly boast of a vast pool of excellent ICT resources dispersed around the world. We urgently need to find a way of harnessing this pool of expertise in order to radically re-define our internal ICT potential and capabilities. They can be a veritable tool for stimulating training and investments in the local ICT market. India has, over the years, become a major ICT outsourcing and ICT capabilities country for major European and North American countries through a tenacious pursuit of partnership between Indian ICT professionals in Europe/North America and local talents, as well as a vigorous and positive development of local capabilities and skills – all supported by government which has helped to engender the confidence of European and North American companies in skills resident in India; of course quite apart from the cost advantage to these companies. We urgently need a new template that gradually brings us to compete with India in this sphere. Undoubtedly, it will take a great deal of planning, efforts and determined focus but it is clearly achievable.
While the idea of workshops and seminars, which aim to evaluate the possible means to enhance ICT performance, are certainly a welcome one and could of course stimulate discussion and lead to important policy documents, we need to start to prioritise workshops/policy documents and initiatives that focus more on the inherent issues and factors particularly peculiar to us which limit ICT usage and confidence building – consequently hampering growth. For example, we urgently need to tackle the negative narrative promoted by an extremely tiny minority of our youth, who interestingly possess some IT skills but who unfortunately deploy these for nefarious activities which undermine the hard work of many enterprising young people and end up creating a very bad narrative for the country, thereby affecting confidence and investments from outside the country in our potential ICT capabilities. I am talking about what has come to be known as the “Yahoo boy/girls” problem. We urgently need to deal with this.
In all, for Nigeria to achieve its true potential in Information and Communications Technology development and performance, a new and fresh raft of thinking, policy initiatives and investment push needs to be unveiled that consolidate not only on whatever modest achievements have been made but importantly maps out a new trajectory for ICT growth, inevitably leading to better ranking on the global Information and Communications Technology index, as well as actively supporting our ambitious political, economic and social development aspirations. As the new APC government under President Muhammadu Buhari prepares to commence its second four-year term, following an endorsement by the Nigeria people, there is no better time to initiate this new journey in promoting a new digitization agenda.
Soji Ehinlanwo, an Information and Communications Technology consultant writes from the UK.