Even as the Buhari regime enters its lame duck period, it has found it expedient to inaugurate a Presidential council on digital economy and e-government. Chaired by the Minister of Digital Economy and Communication, the membership of the Committee some state Governors, the Secretary to the Federal Government, some Ministers in the Cabinet and representatives of the relevant government agencies such as National Identity Management Commission, NITAD, NCC and Galaxy Backbone Limited.
Some of the Governors in the Council membership include Abdullahi Sule of Nasarawa, Godwin Obaseki of Edo, Inuwa Yahaya of Gombe State, El- Rufa’I of Kaduna, and Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State. In addition to the Digital Economy and Communication Minster, other ministers on the Council are the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, and the Minister of Industry, Trade, and Investment. The Head of Civil Service of the Federation will keep the company of the Secretary to the Federal Government in the Council.
Coming in this late hour in the life of the regime, nevertheless, it is an important development, indicating an awareness that digital transformation is not something that should be regarded with a tap-war approach. The importance of a plan to guide, or event to, will it, cannot be overemphasized.
But there are a number of question marks to this commendable step. The first is what precisely is the mandate of this Council? The Federal Ministry of Digital Economy and Communication has over half a dozen plans already to midwife the digital transformation of Nigeria. They include the Nigerian National Broadband Plan 2020 – 2025, the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (2020-2030), the Nigerian E-government Master Plan (NEGMP) and the National Digital Economy Policy NS Strategy (NDEPS), among others.
Is this committee to harmonize these documents or is to develop a new one? Our challenge as a country is not the shortage of plans but the determination to implement existing plans. Often plans are developed and then locked in cupboards, only to be used for decoration on ceremonial events and occasions, to be forgotten as soon as the ceremony is over, Is the task of the Committee to implement actioning existing plans? In which, there may be the thinking in government that existing agencies with responsibilities for working toward the digital transformation of the country are inadequate. If so, and this apparently is alluded to by the Chairman of the committee. Prof Isah Pantami who in a statement indicated that the Presidential Council would in effect “implement the National Digital Economy Policy (NDEPS) and the Nigerian E-government Master Plan (NEGMP)”. What makes them inadequate and how can higher level committee address that is thus begging for answer. More so, a how can Council, consisting largely of politicians, at a campaign period, have time, energy and incentive to do the work? Politicians for now cannot pay attention to anything that is outside or not directly relating to winning elections. What time will they have for implementation of such documents which is a task more suited of professionals and technocrats and not of politicians?
It is clear that such a committee cannot implement anything and at many rate, with a ministry and a plethora of agencies, it is duplicitous to think that you need a Presidential Committee to drive the digital vision of Nigeria. A political Council cannot properly do the work of a statutory agencies, no matter the best o intentions.
The membership of the Council leads to a question to the Government commitment the multi-stakeholderism that has become the key mechanism globally in the driving digital transforming, it at the centre of the development and discourse at both the WSIS process and the Internet Government Initiative. It is also key to discussions at all the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and other related bodies. Looking at the composition of the Presidential Council, dominated by government officials, with a symbolic representation of academia and one person representing the professional associations (Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) is represented but ALTON does not represent the full spectrum of the private sector in the ICT industry), it is clear that government’s commitment to the Multi-Stakeholder Mechanism has been jettisoned, In deed out of a total of 27 members of the Council, only two are not government employees or employees of government agencies, working under one Minister or the others.
Clearly, government once against has shown its lack of depth in matters of transforming society. Government alone cannot transform a society. It does not have the monopoly of vision or ideas. With trust-deficit, government cannot but leverage what social goodwill other sectors of the society could bring to contribute in seeking to seed fundamental change.
But there is also a conceptual problem. Government talks about digital economy and e-governance in the same breadth and indeed it is difficult not to get the feeling that in some government circles, they use the two interchangeably. e-governance refers to the use of digital technology to transform governance processes, structures and mechanisms, allowing citizens interact with government online, making government to deliver services via online platforms as more and more of these services migrate online. This has the prospect of improving efficiency, effectiveness and coordination and potentially, to promote inclusive deliberative and consultative processes that could deepened democracy.
Digital economy on the other hand is much broader, dealing with mainstreaming digital technology in economic processes from processing, production, manufacturing, marketing and selling as well as to general coordination of all business processes and transactions. This, like e-governance, can improve effectiveness and efficiency and can generally create more jobs and wealth while bringing demand and supply sides of governance and service providers and goods producers and their clients closer. There is one area of overlap between e-Governance and Digital Economy which is the area of service delivery such as provision of education, healthcare and other services online. These neither purely governance nor purely economic sphere.
The confusion arises from government’s narrow conceptualisation that reduces digital economic transformation to e-Governance and therefore sees it as largely the sphere of government. That is why in empanelling this Council the president has either not been advised to provide for stakeholders’ inclusion or that he declined to accept a broader inclusion in his Council. Whichever the is the case, he has robbed his Council from a wide spectrum of ideas, experiences and knowledge stock that could benefit its work. By the same token, it has robbed the country of a greater focus on economic transformation than mere transformation of government processes. This is not to say that transforming governance processes is not important.
But there is also the issue of strategy. Only recently, the government sold two 5G licenses for the rollout of 5G networks and services. While 5G will increase quality and generate new digital opportunities, it is not the solution to Nigeria’s challenge to digital transformation. Key challenge to digital transformation is digital exclusion. You cannot transform a county in digital direction where more than half of the population has no access to digital technology.
At the moment, about 120 million Nigerians are unconnected, this means they cannot use digital technology for a variety of reasons. So leap-frogging the country to 5G will only exacerbate the gap between the connected who will have access to faster and more opportunity providing connectivity while those unconnected remain unconnected. A serious digital transform plan therefore has to start with transforming the people: transform the skills they have, their insertion in the digital space and enabling their connectivity.
These are not matters of a Presidential Council. They are simply administrative and executing matters that the president can easily direct. For example, one of the key elements of extending access for the unconnected is to empower communities to address their own connectivity needs by rolling out community networks. The skills to do that exist, the resources can easily be mobilized and the technology is there. What is missing is the policy to regulate and guide community networks in the country and make them sustainable as is done in other countries. Nigeria for inexplicable reason, has no community networks policy even when all relevant actors in government have agreed of its desirability. With a stroke of the pen, and not a Council of Governors, Buhari can address this problem by ordering that a Policy on Community Networks be developed and issued. Again, the content of such a policy are available, laying about scattered in many offices of government.
Another problem is the lack of sufficient opportunities for citizens to access and acquire digital skills. We have decreed that all primary school pupils must be taught computer studies but we are not clear about what we want them to learn. Is it to learn to use the computer or to hear stories about the history of the computers? When you teach computer studies with no terminals for students and pupils to use or even see, you are merely telling them stories about computers. I have seen many of these classes where pupils are taught about computer like they are listening to tales by the moonlight. They have no opportunity for hands-on training. That is why when these children grow up, enter university, still are lacking adequate digital skills. They are even obstructed from going farther in their educational pursuit because they cannot pass the computer-based examination of Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB). Governors on the Council that the President has inaugurated know countless schools in their states that do not have a single computer with which to teach their pupils or students and rather than calling them to implement a national Plan, let the President tell them to go and find the money to equip their schools with computers. If they could find N100m to purchase forms to contest party primaries and mobilized many of their minion to purchase forms with large amounts of money for Senate, House of representatives and State House of assembly primaries, they could surely find the money to use to provide computers to their schools, that is, if they are serious. That is not a job that a Council will do. It is a task that all state governors should do.
A third issue that is responsible for sustaining digital exclusion in the country is low level of awareness about the transformative power of ICTs. Against I see this as a simple job to be done, not by a Presidential Council but by the many agencies of Government. For example, the Federal Ministry of Digital Economy, along with the Ministry of Information as well as the National Orientation Agency (NOA) can easily do this. They can saturate the air (radio, TV and the print as well) with appropriate messages, the way we mobilized a frenzy for party primaries. Each state government has at least a radio and TV station in addition to the chain of federal government TV network of stations, and federal radio corporation’s many radio stations. By the time all these are brought to mount a campaign to raise awareness about transformative powers of ICTs, in no time all Nigerians would be aware it and become convinced about the power of ICTs to change their lives. That they way, they will not wait for government to provide them with connectivity or computers. They will address these by themselves.
Another effort that can help in the digital transformation of Nigeria is for government to support our research institutes and private sector to design and mass produce digital interface devices for people with various forms of disability that will allow the over 20 million Nigerians living with disabilities to access and use digital technology and be ready for the digital future of Nigeria.
There is also the not too small matter of the tackling of the menace of harmful content and gender violence online which keep many women offline. Government does not require a Council to address these. In the various documents that are in the cupboards of the Federal Ministry of Digital Economy and Communication as well as those of NITAD and NCC, we can find ways to deal with this problem. How about the Minster of Education initiating a move to incorporate the teaching of internet safety and privacy online as part of the computer studies in schools? That will set many Nigerian women free and allow them to be online.
In the end, it is difficult to really understand the purpose for settling u of the Presidential Council at this late hour. May be it is not out of place for the president to prepare a special handover note with focus on digital economy and e-Governance that an incoming government might find very useful. But event at that, the Council has to reinterpret its mandate away from implementing any specific Plan to developing a strategy on how government can ensure that its agencies are able to deliver in terms of the implementation of these critical national digital transformation plans.