Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Closing Ranks around a Pragmatic Ideal:
An Information and Technology Knowledge Manifesto
“Conscienceless men are in power and powerless men are the ones who have conscience; that is the Nigerian dilemma.”
Mohammed Dikko Yusuf, a former Inspector-General of the Nigerian Police and presidential candidate of the Movement for Democracy and Justice (MDJ)
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that the economic, political, cultural, and social spheres of our society must be transformed radically and immediately. It becomes a matter of conjecture however, in articulating thoughts and realities that influence policy (governmental or otherwise), and that ultimately determine action, whether the message eventually sallies through. The form of my treatise renders it entirely amenable to and desirable of enlightened input from dissenting opinions, and does not bind itself irrevocably to the notion of hubristic hogwash. However, though this is made freely available on the democratically-accessible medium that the Internet has become, it behooves us to realize that this piece and the underlying policies that it encourages, is restricted to a circle of critical thinkers and policy implementers. This group is (for the most part) completely outside the realm of patriotic entreaties and philosophical sentiments, and is driven more by the realities of increased economic resources and possibilities, than by the notion of selfless service. In simple words, this is not a recreational reading for the average mind; it is not for the common man or woman.
The reality is that most of my recent work has been directed at intellectualizing the struggle to resurrect the notion of societal advancement via sensible means. This recent article is in addition, directed at highlighting concrete steps, that if taken, will lead to a flourishing economic reality for all stakeholders in our society’s future. Subsequently, it is my sincerest wish that even if the modicum of enlightenment is retrieved from the tedious confines of this manifesto, then I shall have succeeded by no mean determination in achieving a major tactical thrust of my approach. My apologies to all those who might seem slighted by my declaration here, but it (the declaration) was made so that the non-initiated or “average” reader does not “suffer” through the intellectual labor of trying to decipher the letter or intent of my treatise.
I recognize the reality of selfish interest in issues of governance and leadership in our society, and have since come to terms with the environment that has bred and nourished it; however, I cannot succumb to its obduracy or presumptions, morally or otherwise. I must state unequivocally that coming to terms with a reality and excusing said reality are not the same. The difference is that the former still leaves open the option of a personal prerogative to respectfully oppose said reality, and work painstakingly to preclude its sustenance. Though we are ruled by conscienceless men and women, we, the powerless men and women with conscience, must come to the realization that asymmetric and fluid bargains can be struck between adversaries in the interest of confronting a common enemy. An interim truce may be struck in order to tackle pressing economic and political issues, and the conflict halted until the clear and present dangers of the common enemy can be put to the sword. Then and only then can the provisional armistice be breached and the halted conflict re-engaged via previous methods, failing which we may extend it by other means.
My efforts in this guideline might well fall short of a cerebral and/or academic panoply of strategies for addressing our dilemma as succinctly captured by Alhaji Yusuf, but nevertheless, I owe it to posterity to record my observations (informed and biased as they are) on the way forward. My willingness to augment the seemingly tediously theoretical tenor of my work in general, and this piece in particular, with public debates and oral defense of the issues contained therein, is informed by my realization that though intellectual discourse should precede societal and governmental initiatives, there exists an unwillingness and dearth of the dedication needed to press on until the ultimate goal is achieved. As such, dogged advocacy of solutions and constant reevaluation of policies must never be allowed to lapse in the public consciousness.
Pragmatically speaking, a simultaneous attack on the underlying psychological, some say physiological, tenets of Nigerian flirtation with eternal desolation is ideal. The contradictory underpinning of this assertion is ameliorated by the fact that pragmatism and idealism intersect at point called qualified success; and the realization that the “disconnect” between the two diametrically opposed instances, can be bridged via strategic considerations. However, the fact remains that the ideals and merits of an argument are quite different from the prevailing circumstances of its reality. We must temper our ideals with the candid realization that a revolution consists of different battles and skirmishes on various fronts and in different sectors. The stringing together of tactical brilliance in different maneuvers and campaigns into a coherent and holistic strategy is what ultimately will define our success or failure.
Information and Knowledge as Commodities for Exchange and Engines for Change
In this instance I choose to expatiate upon the notion of information and knowledge and their associated technologies as veritable economic assets in the attainment of industrial capitalization and macro-economic marginal utility within the economies of advancing societies. Development and societal progress can be buoyed and manipulated by a comprehensive grasp of the issues involved in the Information, Communications, Knowledge, and Emerging Technology arena. A haphazard courting and implementation of their benefits as is currently the case in Nigeria today will instead create another albatross around the already overburdened neck of the Nigerian promise and continuously preclude visions and realities of her greatness.
The notion of data (a collection of binary digits, ones and zeroes) organized into information that can be communicated and condensed into knowledge, which can be traded as a commodity in the emerging horizons of new millennial technology cannot be overstated. At the risk of suffering from the wrath of cliché-backlash from a weary public consciousness, it is important to see that the creation of a vibrant, organized, informed, and knowledgeable workforce that can farm out its skills on the international business scene with as much smug-assuredness and self-confidence as the Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, or Korean national, is the key to unlocking the promise of Nigeria’s over-exhorted “greatness” and ballyhooed leviathan status.
From a simply economic standpoint, the implications are far-reaching for the burnishing and renaissance of our dilapidated, oil-cursed, stagnant, and now regressing economy. From a social perspective, the effects (on its society and people) of a more financially buoyant, devolved, and globally-competitive Nigeria are best imagined, as the crime, poverty, and disease pandemics that have flourished in the mainstream of her consciousness will be moderated to tolerable levels. The national pastime of 419 and the drug trafficking scourge will subside in an inverse proportion to the opportunities that this democratic wealth creation will create, and will refine her reputation in the eyes of the comity of nations. Perhaps, General Powell and others will come to see us as a contraption other than a nation of fabulous scammers, master forgers, and wonderful crooks.
Politically, the cries for disintegration and of marginalization that have trailed her violent ethno-religious conflagrations and the substantive but venomous claims and counter-claims of various interests and agendas will recede into the respectability of amicable debate. The calls for dismemberment into composite nationalities will abate in a wealthier nation. A nation whose wealth will not be measured in terms of the loot in the isolated bank accounts of unscrupulous public officials, but rather by the cumulative per capita wealth of the average Nigerian. The hungry, angry, homeless, naked, thirsty, electricity-deficient, dilapidated-road-assailed average Nigerian will have the dignity to discuss the options open to him in the decency of a reality bereft of the vagaries of a wretched existence. Assassinations for purely political reasons will abate though never cease entirely, but the winner-takes-all attitude with which politics at the center and in the regions is practiced, and the fervor of fanatical over-reliance on the bastardized eco-system and sub-society of the Niger-Delta will subside. A diversified revenue stream will afford us a more pragmatic debate on the equitable distribution of resources and resolution of certain conflicts of interests. Culturally, Nigeria will be reborn in the image of her achievements and recast in the sensibilities of concrete triumphs of her merit-borne determinants rather than the hollow hearkening of a hallucinating crude-oil addict. Her people will finally begin to believe in the promise of her greatness and live their lives, comfortable in the visions of her greatness. Her history and future will evolve and begin to reflect the true aspirations of the greater generality of her citizens to live in peace and coexist with their neighbors on the basis of mutual respect.
The spill-over effects into all spheres of our national life will remain theoretical postulations for as long as we fail to harness this authentic multiplier of effort and leverage its knowledge and proficiency in securing a piece of the globalization pie, and managing its exigencies to suit our needs. The aforementioned will not transpire overnight, and it is not even clear if the non-exhaustive list of guidelines that I will outline will realistically achieve the lofty goals that we aspire to. But it has become clear and present, at least to me and to all forward-thinking and selfless-serving compatriots, that there is a major role that Information and Knowledge Technologies have to play in bridging the much storied digital divide, between us and the rest of the world. As our former contemporaries brace up for the challenges ahead and prepare to bequeath a more sustainable future to their progeny, we will be left in the cold of our collective ignorance and obtuseness. Impeded as our progress is by our detached and disinterested mien that hitherto formed the crux of our relationship with our native land, it is of some encouragement that a small group of committed individuals can really effect a change by adhering to the spirit and letter of this manifesto. The best executor of this agenda would be a person or persons in an executive capacity, wielding the staff of office not in elitist aloofness, but with the clarity and responsibility of a commitment to the struggle for renaissance, in the greater interest of our society.
Thrust of our Societal IT Policy
The main focus in my opinion should be on software development, support, and export. This is because of the residual effects of knowledge acquisition, retention, and transfer within the local industry in this challenging sub-stratum of IT. The engine to any appliance, technology, or process, is the software that will power it. The thought processes and highly refined knowledge that goes into researching, designing, producing, and developing efficient and dynamic software (and the intellectual property and assets that accrues to its proprietors in the long run) is the key to engendering a palliative resolution and long-term panacea to an industrialized society. For example, the economies of scale and the associated effects of globalization guarantee that an over reliance on the hardware and other mechanical/electronic attributes of technology is bound to fluctuate and palpitate as business concerns follow the trail that continues to slash margins on this sub-strata. The Holy Grail of technology in terms of hardware continues to pressurize margins and eat into profits, stipulating that we must diversify our efforts sufficiently to ameliorate its eroding effects. A strategic diversification of our IT investment will reap the rewards of a software-based strategy because of the qualitative rather than quantitative nature of software.
Hardware manufacture is such that once the design and testing have been performed, replication and duplication via clones and other forms of technology transfer such as reverse engineering, obliterate any long-term profits from any technology. Patents and trademarks and other forms of intellectual property rights disappear faster in hardware, because scale and quantity are more important than the specialized and relatively qualitative knowledge that is necessary to birth productive and globally competitive software. Since we are essentially trying to catch up with what seems (erroneously) to all to be an already concluded sprint, our long-term survival in this technology marathon can be best sustained by creating specialized thinkers and programmers a la India, that give programmers elsewhere a collective run for their money. The indications of this key-within-a-key status of software is obvious to the master strategist, but it must be articulated and breathed into existence in our IT policy by a concerted and coordinated effort on the part of our government (as Rajeev Gandhi did in India) in the furtherance of its mandate to fulfill and exceed our expectations.
This relative “qualitative-ness” remains the most strategic differentiator between hardware and software, and guarantees the latter’s preponderance over the former. In other words, the brain of the technology is veritably more important than the brawn of said technology. This does not however mean that visionaries like Leo Stan Ekeh (of Zinox fame) should not be given our unmitigated encouragement and sustained patronage, but in terms of a ratio, our efforts must focus more on the dynamism and efficiency of software development, support, and export economics.
Given the disparate cost of investments and capital to empower business activity in both sectors, and the speed with which and the quantity of said returns, it is not rocket science to recognize the subtle but unabashed hand of pragmatism in making this strategic determination. We can invest in both but to varying degrees; a crude (almost banal) illustration of this split-reality in their accrual of economic resources and the dichotomy of opportunities between software and hardware (though influenced by other extenuating factors) is the fact that Bill Gates and Larry Ellison are richer to a significant extent than Michael Dell and Ted Waitt. A trivial issue or seemingly irrelevant quirk, but a reflection of the reality in the relationship; as such the question should not endure as to which sector should get a greater portion of our scarce resources and initiatives. Enough said.
Guidelines for a Sustainable IKT (Information and Knowledge Technology) Initiative
In order to offer innovators and entrepreneurs adequate protection under the law of the hard-earned benefits of their labor, the government (all arms) must adhere strictly to the impartial adjudication of conflicts and disputes that involve intellectual property. Existing laws must be revamped and enforced with the full weight of jurisprudent fiat. In the absence of credible laws; new ones must be legislated and signed into law to protect investors in our information and knowledge economy. This heightened vigilance in regards to these rights seems peculiar to our current situation because little or no relevance is assigned to intellectual products or specialized innovative techniques within our society. Property rights seem not to extend beyond the tangible realm of physically manufactured goods and land. Little or no weight is lent to the notion of intellectual products as legitimate chattel as can be viewed by the widespread and blatant reproduction and piracy in the entertainment and publishing industries. The Nigerian Copyrights Commission must be given the full legal backing to arrest and prosecute offending culprits.
In the absence of an active federal initiative, the various states and municipalities should explore their own initiatives to guarantee and protect the rights associated with intellectual content and property. By providing a haven to innovators and developers, safe from the tribulations of intellectual property infringements, they can attract entities and concerns desirous of an authority that cares about their investments, intellectual or not. Companies will be attracted to localize or relocate some of their offices to areas that discourage infringements by actively prosecuting perpetrators within their jurisdiction. Information and knowledge are commodities and their manipulation and development into productive instruments of business and other activity, must be protected since they can only yield lucrative returns if law and order are enforced in the spirit and letter of non-discriminatory competition. Intellectual property rights-enforcement must go well beyond the lip-service of theoretical idealism and become not just the watchwords of equitable competition, but evident regulations guiding the vanguard of economic prosperity.
A special emphasis must be placed on providing affordable telecommunication services and Internet access. This is because in today’s age of globalization and heightened connectivity of economic activity, the Internet offers a veritable source of information that can be transformed into knowledge. It provides an effective infrastructure for productive innovations and an excellent platform for communication and interaction, which realizes the dream of collaborative efforts via teleconferencing and telecommuting, and the advantages of co-located synergies on projects and initiatives. Presently, the astronomical rates for high-speed Internet access mean that government must play a proactive role in affording its benefits to the budding entrepreneurial ingenuity resident in our society. By partnering with established private sector players and high-speed ISPs in joint projects, to devolve access to the Internet at speeds exceeding the snail-paced 56Kbps to IT concerns that need such speeds to conduct their business. We cannot wait until “market forces” determine or moderate the retail or wholesale prices of Internet access in Nigeria. We are playing catch up and so we must perform feats such as those attributed to the Late Indian Prime Minister, Rajeev Gandhi, in spurring the thriving golden era of Indian IT domination.
In any industry, much less the IT one, the importance of timely, reliable, extensive communications cannot be overstressed. Given the nature of its reliance on transmission of information and knowledge, and the need to communicate with customers and suppliers in course of business operations, it is essential to realize the benefits that can accrue from even the most low-tech form of communication. Be it via email, bulletin boards, or simple phone-calls, the sophistication of said technology is not the main issue, but rather its reliability, scalability, coverage etc. For example, logistics collaboration with suppliers or information transmittal to customers become much easier as each IT concern can reach out and touch or be touched in turn by both constituencies. In addition, adequate internal (organizational) communication can be harnessed and multiplied to positively affect employee productivity.
The present situation such that VSAT and sundry high-speed services cost an arm and a leg to install and sustain does not bode well for our ambitions to build a globally competitive IT environment. This suggestion does not in anyway mean that the government should provide these services indefinitely; it is just an ad-hoc measure that will in the long-run allow the pre-eminence of a critical mass that will fire up the ignition of “market forces”. Our inadequate telecommunication infrastructure and sector that was only recently deregulated must be empowered to support IT growth and economic expansion. By this I do not simply mean the preponderance of Telecom operators (although this is a positive development in itself), but given our focus on software as the means to gain traction within the global IT market, we have to encourage a flowering of software companies.
Software development is by its inherent definition, a task for small, closely-knit groups of innovators, working in tandem on designing solutions for all manner of issues and concerns. They might be in different locations, often needing the advantages of timely communication and access to the Internet. This rapid innovation in techniques and its concomitant effects on product development is well-suited to a subsidized internet environment, and place small companies at the forefront of the software pie. As such, the government has to take all the steps in its power to assist these concerns. Though the capital outlays on equipment and associated startup costs is relatively low, government still has to assist in providing the tools with which these software soldiers can wage their battles successfully in different sub-sectors of the software industry.
The creation of knowledge parks and IT corridors such as has been done in Nigeria via the establishment of Export Processing Zones for the manufacturing sector, must be embraced in this regard. A concerted effort to establish an information and knowledge grid via looped Internet infrastructure that links various knowledge parks will go a long way in complimenting the government’s attainment of the preceding guideline. The highly-specialized nature of research, design, and development in the information and knowledge technology sector, calls for a convergence on carefully delineated centers of excellence and refurbished infrastructure. These areas will mirror counterparts in the US such as Route 128 in the Boston area, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, the Northern Virginia Technology Hub, and the Pacific Seaboard from Seattle down to the famed Silicon Valley. Even newcomers such as Silicon Alley in New York City deserve a mention, which by the way of an example of visionary leadership, was an initiative by the government to ramp up and encourage a proliferation of IT companies in a particular area in NYC at the height of the Internet boom.
The commendable efforts of our government in terms of the EPZs, despite the hiccups that have trailed their implementation, must be transferred to the IT arena. A concentration of information and knowledge within a delimited area can even incorporate the notion of IT-employed Nigerians on leave or vacations or on a self-imposed seconding from jobs in the Diaspora, coming straight back into these zones to contribute their quota to national development. The intellectual capital from their contributions will be priceless. As demonstrated by the group of US-resident doctors leading the charge to establish world-class hospitals in certain areas in Nigeria, some Nigerians in the Diaspora are selfless enough to put their money and efforts where their hearts are, back home. We can lead a charge as a form of volunteerism and societal contribution to the burgeoning IT sector, all that some individuals need to spur them, is a bold initiative from a committed government. A little appreciation for and encouragement of such knowledge parks or IT corridors (even though the politics of localization etc. might crop up) will go a long way in nourishing the IT sector. And even if this Diasporan initiative led by organizations such as NITPA, (as an extrapolation of the notion of knowledge parks or IT corridors in Nigeria) should falter, the Nigerian IT professionals domiciled in the home country are more than able to shoulder the burden of utilization and innovation.
Tax holidays and other forms of financial incentives to start-ups and established businesses to encourage commerce, spur growth, and increase long-term chances of success are an important part of any IT initiative. But it is of vital importance to recognize that this guideline by itself cannot serve as the comprehensive framework of any government initiative. In other words, government cannot claim to offer tax holidays and financial incentives to IT concerns and then sit back and fold its arms. Unlike the case in the catchphrase-crazed world of the contemporary Nigerian polity, foreign investors and IT concerns are not the targets of this initiative. It is rather aimed at local entrepreneurial concerns who are the ones that will actually power Nigerians IT revolution.
These efforts are aimed at giving these businesses a break in the early stages of fostering an IT-conscious and dependent economy, in order to secure long term tax revenues from successful business concerns, years down the road. Tax breaks could be on employee taxes, business income etc. However, the taxes should not be offered to just any masquerading entity, checks and verification procedures must be put in place to counter fraudulent manipulation of this noble initiative on the part of the government. Another angle could be a reduction or elimination or at least a time-limited moratorium of tariffs on certain imported items necessary to engender a genuine technological culture.
This is of course a governmental responsibility, IT initiative or no initiative, but it must go beyond the government merely fulfilling its constitutional obligations. Concrete steps can be taken to improve infrastructure delivery and social amenities prioritization for concerns in the IT-sector. It ties into the subsidization of infrastructure within carefully structured knowledge parks and IT corridors. These could be via alternative power generation and supply, telecommunication, water supply etc. By adopting a proactive stance through guarantees of service, not necessarily subsidized service, (think service level agreements and commitments to quality assurances in infrastructural requirements within EPZs), and a prioritization of the service delivery in amenities to IT concerns. The list of opportunities and suggestions is in no way exhaustive.
IT start-ups and enterprises can be encouraged and sustained in the early stages via a provision of business advice (financial plan preparation, insurance information, strategy refinement and reevaluation, sponsorships to seminars and conferences etc.), soft loans (think Small Business Administration in the US), low-cost accommodation (preferably within the technology parks/IT corridors). Reinvigorate and adapt existing programs (such as the stalled SMIEIS) to focus on IT businesses, in order to more or less enable the environment within which the ideas and innovations can flourish.
Timely pointers and sound strategic business principles can be transmitted to what essentially might be a pool of first-time entrepreneurs. The government can put modalities in place that will address the teething problems of emerging businesses, by nursing them through periods of great instability and uncertainty. Most businesses fail within the first few years, and it is at this point that these innovators and entrepreneurs will be best served by seasoned observations and mentoring that can come in the form of retiree professionals and counselors proffering valuable insights into avoidable pitfalls. Help could be rendered in the area of market research, technical assistance, marketing campaign strategies, and financial services consultation.
The government can help IT start-ups gain traction by encouraging a cooperative environment for innovation. This is a livewire act as the government must balance its yearning for an innovative arena with a fiercely and detrimentally competitive one. Too much of this “cooperative” aura could kill innovation and competition. I will deal with this topic in graphic detail because it has to be handled very carefully. At the risk of being accused of Keiretsu or Chaebol tactics, the government must be the unseen hand that guides and prods the IT sector in the right direction. In the initial stages, and prior to the Nigerian IT revolution locomotive picking up steam, a careful balancing act of local patronage in the interests of nationalistic cohesion must be contrasted against a backdrop of productive innovation and expansion. Government must as a matter of urgency, establish guidelines that give local products and services priority over foreign-based ones. This nationalistic bias is the key to retention of economic resources in Nigeria, and tax-payer expenditures by government remaining primarily country-resident and not flying out of the country to line the coffers of foreign companies.
As much as possible the local product patronage should occur laterally, across sectors, to discourage the “oligopolic” tendencies of a few unscrupulous charlatans moonlighting as innovators. Even well-intended entrepreneurs might be tempted to dip their beaks into the pot of crony-capitalism, thereby stifling all hopes for dynamism and the abolition of lethargy in our IT initiative. However, until the industry matures sufficiently, the cooperative environment does not automatically translate into an absence of fierce competition, it simply means complimentary resource expenditure. Government can encourage this by levying tariffs and duties on the non-essential, quality-on-par (with local alternatives) imports to discourage an excessive importation drive. Even though the government’s present importation freeze on certain items has not resulted in the much vaunted local-alternative capitalization and ascendancy, it is pertinent to note that this guideline is not an island in a sea of inaction, but rather a complimentary effort to other initiatives in this regard.
Locally developed and resident IT products should get priority for governmental spending and contracts (think the US defense establishment which is more or less a military-industrial complex/partnership). The government should set aside a certain percentage of projects; say 80% for local companies or companies with a verifiable local partner that rises above the level of authorized reseller or distributor or agent. This means that foreign companies are forced to partner with local entities because local business must be in someway involved in development and have some creative control over localization efforts and production specifications. This might strike some as socialist, even communist, predispositions, but the reality is that we have a market and an asset to protect. Such policies will not discourage foreign investors, because they want our markets badly. Perhaps if we had a considerably smaller market, then we would not be able to make these demands of foreign investors. But the truth of the matter and the misstated reality of economic prosperity is that foreigners do not create wealth or power economic prosperity. Local, country-resident knowledge, expertise, and entrepreneurship (which are what we want to encourage in the IT sector) is the real engine of growth. They contribute to infrastructural and economic development. Foreign concerns are only interested as far as what they can get in return; they make no pretensions of nationalistic bias since they are aliens in any case and not bound by the same sensibilities and emotiveness that draws Nigerians to Nigeria, despite all her warts.
IT-empowered knowledge-resident local entities must be given all the opportunities to succeed. China, India, and other large sub-regional countries with large, untapped markets protect their markets with the same “nationalistic” bias because this truth is self-evident to them. To understand what I mean by an IT-empowered and knowledge-resident local entity, a local company with a disproportionate sales-production/development workforce, moonlighting as a “partner” to a foreign company will simply not do. The long term goal is not fleeting job creation in relatively low-skilled areas such data entry, sales, and marketing, but rather in engineering, programming, technical support and trouble-shooting, innovation and development. A knowledge-pool such that long after any failed foreign company might have packed up and left, a valuable knowledge-pool is resident within the local economy.
As I said before, the concept of cooperation between these companies is to be encouraged, but should stop short of wholesale crony-capitalism. The model for replication would be one that leans heavily (in the early stages) to local companies and businesses giving their local environment priority in terms of operating goods and services, with the international arena looked to increasingly as a distant second or third choice. The situation whereby vendors, distributors, and agents of foreign commercial concerns in Nigeria seem to be the darlings of the Nigerian IT industry just will not do. IT consultants and services are inclusive, legislative backing should be provided and teeth given to the practice of local patronage, it does not make sense for the Nigerian Central Bank to call in Accenture or KPMG or any other foreign company to perform a multi-million dollar IT project implementation when proceeds from said deal will always be repatriated to the home country at the expense of Nigerian taxpayers.
We have to ensure that a high percentage of taxpayer-expended funds stay within the local economy. We have to patronize our own, my experiences as a software developer in the US has demonstrated this fact very clearly to me. However, it is a dicey situation because over-patronage of local companies can often lead to declines in quality and productivity, so with patronage there should come enforcements of stringent service level agreements and anti-trust legislation to keep the local producers on their toes. At the end of the day, the Nigerian market is limited; the long term goal is to look outward to compete globally by sourcing for the same projects and contracts that the Indians and Chinese have cornered presently. I have faith in the ability of the Nigerian IT professional; he/she will rise to the occasion if only he/she is provided with the right tools and an environment conducive to quality work.
These joint efforts should be aimed at sustaining momentum in building and developing infrastructure etc. The B.O.T concept is not novel globally, it is only so in the Nigerian experience. It can be applied with great results to the issue (mentioned earlier) of the provision of subsidized Internet access and stringent telecommunications service enforcement. Provision of alternative electricity sources, transportation amenities, etc. Encouraging a world-class IT culture by fostering an appreciation for its tenets and underlying sentiments in the general citizenry through thorough awareness programs and by embarking on a joint effort to educate and sustain a flourishing human resource pool that inculcates the interests and objectives of the IT policy to even the most inexperienced professionals. Financial inducements can be offered to participating private sector financiers; the government does not have to source this directly from its coffers.
The anticipation of and preparation for global trends in terms of emerging technologies and horizons via an adequate funding of research, design, and development initiatives, will go a long way in sustaining governmental IT initiatives in the long run. Knowledge is not the private asset or monopoly of any one nation or group of nations, neither is any one nation or group of nations precluded (except by a lack of foresight, a vacuum of selfless leadership and expert management) from partaking in its benefits and innovations.
Residual Issues and Immediate Concerns
There are numerous details of a legitimate IT initiative, backed wholeheartedly by the government and civil society in tandem, which remain beyond the scope of this work. This “oversight” (if you want to call it that) is not without merit. Some details and finer points of such a comprehensive endeavor are for another day and another time. This broad outline is only to demonstrate by way of verifiable recommendations, the pragmatics of a revolution undertaken to awaken the latent spirit of innovation and ingenuity slumbering within the Nigerian consciousness. Having reflected on this topic and its related possibilities and infirmities for quite a long time, I have come to the conclusion that even if the federal government (in conjunction with the private sector and other stakeholders in Nigerian society) cannot or will not act decisively and definitively to define and realize an IT reality for us, then a smattering of state governments (or any other municipality for that matter) in Nigeria can seize the challenge. They can adapt the benefits of IT through strategic planning and tactical fiscal responsibility, to prove once and for all that they can exist independent of the largesse at the center.
For instance, immediate possibilities abound in the global outsourcing markets in IT services and consulting, in addition to software engineering and development, that have made the likes of Wipro and Infosys (both IT behemoths in India) and Bangalore and Hyderabad (cities also in India), household names in the greater IT comity at large. We can harness the exciting and promising possibilities in emerging sub-sectors to leap-frog from areas within which we are deficient in infrastructure. Three immediate areas come to mind, wireless technology (given our dearth of fixed-line technology and infrastructure), remote help-desk service and support, software projects and outsourced contracts. Wireless Fidelity (a.k.a. WiFi) technology can aid us tremendously in providing and distributing Internet access over wide areas, which the lack of underlying wired conduits has made difficult. It (WiFi) is not without its constraints and disadvantages, in fact it possesses its fair share, but the capacity that it builds in terms of widespread Internet use over wide geographical areas can be harnessed in-lieu of an extensive and expensive copper-wired or fiber-optic network. With their limited budgets and relatively smaller areas of jurisdiction and control, any progressively-thinking state government or other municipality can adapt this powerful technology to suit its IT venture. Help-desk service and support can be provided by adequately trained and staffed locations, housed and staffed within Nigeria, but providing services to off-shore locations. Made-in-Nigeria software or more appropriately, developed-and-engineered-in-Nigeria software, can also be a heavy foreign exchange earner. By focusing on export-oriented applications and systems, we can tap into the live grid of world IT contracts, and provide challenging and fulfilling opportunities for Nigerians, resident in the home country.
In the preceding sections, I have already explained my natural and strategic bias toward a preference for software (the smarts) over hardware (the brawn) of IT. Numerous other intellectuals, among them able pioneers such as Bill Okonedo and Chris Uwaje, have enumerated concrete steps and strategies that Nigeria as a society can take in tapping into the global IT bonanza by utilizing the dynamism of software. There are of course expected obstacles and daunting challenges to be surmounted in this regard (given the stranglehold of the Chinese and the Indians), but with the right planning, leadership, and foresight; we can compete favorably with any nation on earth. Even if it means we first reclaim our local market from the preponderance of off-shore concerns and foreign domination, to prove to ourselves psychologically and intellectually that we can do it. And from thence, casting our eyes unto the international panorama, and proceeding to foist ourselves and imprint our economic and entrepreneurial interests, on the world at large. We can compete in various areas of the global IT market. Varied jobs and opportunities include (but are of course not limited to) programming jobs in outsourced contracts and software development of customized applications, conversion and localization services to foreign concerns interested in the Nigerian market, consulting and turnkey implementations, back-office operations (through business process reengineering and supply-chain synergies) etc.
IT is moving towards an increasingly automated, intelligent, and integrated platform in supporting commerce, government, and our everyday life. In designing smarter systems and more anticipatory applications, it is becoming more apparent that the promises (such as Artificial Intelligence) of the past are becoming more desirable and realistic, and are finding expression in solving present problems. As time goes by, radical notions of the past such as Biometrics and Nanoscience are becoming more and more conventional. Geniuses of our own times, such as Phillip Emeagwali, have already discussed and extrapolated on the promises and benefits of computing grids and the distribution of computing power and resources via an integrated and intelligent super-super network of computers. The opportunities are boundless; we are only glimpsing a fraction of the possibilities that IT personifies. The issue now is whether we will position our society to reap its rewards and not be left behind in the stifling cocoon of our ignorance and myopia.
Case In Point
The steps that the Indians have taken in this regard should serve as a repository of discernment, determination, and long-term planning. We can learn a lot of lessons from the initiative linked to here by an autonomous body under the Indian ministry of communication and IT: http://www.stph.net/cguide/guide.html It is insightful to study the information contained therein to see what exactly I am referring to when I keep using the Indians as an example to buttress my point. In the alternative, one can go to the main page of the website here: http://www.stph.net/ to study other aspects of this grand design and the comprehensive vision of the economic aspirations of India and her citizens. Lest I be accused of proffering fantastic examples of Indian ingenuity (while failing to take note of Nigeria’s “peculiar” circumstances), I wish to point out that we do not have to do a carbon-copy of the Indian success story. But rather, study it, understand it, extrapolate it, and then adapt its advantages to our reality, while discarding its idiosyncrasies and imperfections.
Having gleaned some bits and pieces of the case on the ground in Nigeria, through the Internet and via reliable sources on the ground, I wish to highlight an example of an idea that (if managed carefully and pursued doggedly) could prove once and for all, the capabilities of determined leadership in Nigeria’s sordid reality. A good case in point is the Jigawa State government’s plans to create an IT-powered economy. I wish to state categorically, that it is unclear to me how far this project has gone, or if it is yet another white elephant project. However, I want to temper my skepticism with the realization that despite the Governor’s alleged eccentricities, his ambitious plan remains the best example (at least in my mind) that can explain, via its aspirations and estimations, the reality of an IT-driven strategy. I wish to state that I do not know the Jigawa Governor personally or by proxy, and that my decision to use Jigawa is solely based on reports in the press and my debates with friends on the ground in Nigeria. I am neither a sycophant nor am I a paid advocate of the Jigawa Broadband Project. I make this declaration so that my example is not mistaken as a wholesale endorsement of the Jigawa Governor.
The Jigawa Broadband Project is a commendable example of what governments should be trying to institute. The “email-governor” (and I use the term in complete admiration) has strived (from News reports at least) to build a lasting IT infrastructure that he hopes will propel Jigawa into the forefront of IT–enabled states in the Nigerian milieu. I don’t need to rehash arguments about the size of the Nigerian market and its latent productivity. But the Governor is positioning a hitherto rural-oriented and subsistent-farming state to become (in the not too distant future) a leading proponent of Nigeria’s IKT revolution. By advocating and implementing a high-speed Internet Broadband Project to support commerce, education, training, and healthcare services in the state, the government is trying to apply the economies of scale accruing from IT to the implementation of a complimentary and multi-pronged approach to the socio-economic issues the state.
The short term hindrances seem insurmountable and his (Governor Turaki’s) strategy seems foolhardy, but like with any long-term plan, when the effects begin to trickle in 5-10 years from now, people will look back with nostalgia on his bold initiatives just like the Indians do Rajeev Gandhi, and laud him for his strategic foresight. By instituting an Informatics Institute of Technology in Kazaure, a Solar Rural Electrification Project (in conjunction with SELF – Solar Electric Light Fund and the US DOE), an Independent Power Plant in Dutse, and the Jigawa Broadband project; it is evident that he is planning a revolutionary departure from the norm in Nigeria in general and the North in particular, vis-à-vis information technology. The thrust of the Jigawa IT initiative has already taken into consideration some of the steps that I have outlined in this multi-part piece. By planning for an intellectual and educational hub, a steady or alternative power supply, subsidized high-speed internet access, amongst other initiatives, the policy is poised to realize a significant portion of the imperatives of an IT revolution.
Arguments against his priorities have assailed this fixation on IT from all quarters. Complaints abound that Jigawa has a low-voltage fluctuating current in its epileptic power supply, no roads, no food, no other social amenities etc. A catalogue of woes has trailed this initiative. Arguments have been proffered that Jigawa is a rural state whose sustenance and survival will be best served by focusing on the over-flogged notion of agriculture. The fact remains however, that the benefits of IT are much more realizable, with a relatively smaller investment, than say a comparative one in agriculture or manufacturing. This is not to say that he must totally abandon all other concerns and options, in a mad fool’s rush for the fleeting gold of IT development, but rather, it simply means a prudent reorganization of priorities. The long-term survival of Jigawa is what is in doubt and is at stake; and so if in the short-term the Jigawa people must sacrifice just a bit more until the perceived and desired returns of this gamble start to pay off, then it is a worthy price to pay. The effects of Data Centers, Call Centers, Remote Help-Desk Support Operators, and Software Developers and Engineers relocating to an IT-haven in the not too distant future will create immediate returns into the state’s coffers and its trickle down effects will reverberate within the local economy of Jigawa. As with all endeavors, the strategy is not without its flaws. The Governor’s dedication to the strategy is unquestioned, but some wonder about the ambitious nature of the project on such stringent budgetary allocations from the Federation Account, with most states other than Lagos (and perhaps a handful of other states) having little internally-generated revenue. Accusations of a deluded fixation on a white-elephant project have been variously leveled at the government. But as anyone who is pragmatic enough about public administration and knowledgeable enough about IT knows, the effects of this strategic gamble on the part of the Jigawa government are more enduring than the fleeting libido of a consciousness sated by government largesse. If (and it’s a very big if) the government is determined enough to persevere, and sincere enough to lead, Jigawa’s long-suffering masses may well be the first beneficiaries of the promise of IT in Nigeria.
The Role of Educational Institutions
Despite the endemic strikes and shutdowns of Nigeria’s Ivory Towers, they have a very crucial role to play in fostering and positively reinforcing the Nigerian Knowledge culture. They are burdened with providing the bare essentials of the intellectual and professional sub-culture upon which the dynamism of Nigerian IT creativity will thrive. The practical aspects of Nigeria’s IT professionals do not have to be carried out within the hamstrung confines of our decrepit universities however. IT is mainly a profession of self-education. The foundation is laid in college, yes, but the practicality and experience is gained in the field and by self-education and enlightenment. The role of our institutions of higher learning (aided by civil society’s philanthropists) is to provide certain minimum standards and resources that innovators and entrepreneurs can harness to realize their potentials. With the active participation of a determined government and committed private sector, the educational sector brings up the ranks of major players in this revolution. They form the three musketeers of Nigeria’s IKT revolution.
This brings to an end my extensive and wearying oeuvre on Information and Knowledge Technology and its role in Nigeria’s realization of her visions of greatness. It should form the backdrop for understanding my idiosyncrasies as a revolutionist committed to Nigeria’s struggle for survival, and my previous exhortations on the topic. It crystallizes the major point of my arguments for utilizing this multiplier of efforts, in implementing a veritable, sustainable, and productive economic reality for Nigeria. A few good men and women, ensconced within various levels of executive governance in Nigeria can lead the charge as Governor Turaki has done so far, in wrestling to amplify the benefits of IKT and ameliorate its flaws. For any further clarification of issues see the following:
“Strategies for Software Export” by Larry Press, CIS Professor, California State University at Dominguez Hills
“The Challenge of Information Technology” by Chris Uwaje, CEO of Connect Technologies, culled from the Guardian.
“Asian Model, Key to Our IT Growth” by Bill Okonedo, culled from bday.org
Chukwuemeka Uche Onuora
September 11, 2003
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