In the last article, I mentioned at the end that we really need to start thinking about IT education for the upcoming generations. Right on cue a few days later the Director-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim, was quoted as saying that Nigeria can save about N3.1trn annually if we “stop importing software.” As something of an IT evangelist, I feel personally invested in the IT development of this country and it’s probably why this particular statement grated my insides more than all the others. And there have been others.
As an aside: I choose to focus in this article on information technology development because that is one of my primary areas of interest. But it is not far-fetched that my arguments here can be applied to your sector and you will find similar results.
It’s all about the Murtalas
This administration swept into power on a wave of chants and defections, neither of which has let up since. The “Change Begins with Me” campaign that I looked at in a previous article is just a remix of the chant that brought them to power and was thus intended to lead to a continuation of the fervour and belief. “God save the king!” and all that – if you don’t echo it, you’re a potential blasphemer or something.
A second, though more subtle, chant is sung by those who occupy positions in government. It has become something of a party line that has to be toed in order to secure or consolidate your position in whatever ministry, department or agency (MDA) you are leading. We all know the chant; even though its exact phrasing changes, the meaning is always crystal. So when the Comptroller-General of Customs sets an annual revenue target like a for-profit business would, or the men and women of the Federal Roads Safety Corps appear more focused on revenue generation than actual safety of road users, we tap our collective feet to the all too familiar beat.
This kind of behaviour occurs mainly because the federal government is the political center of gravity of the country, with everything having to pass through, and therefore be controlled by, the FG. So everyone is forced to go cap in hand to Oga at the top, kowtow and try to keep him sweet. Even if all you really, honestly want is for the agency under your watch to excel beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, it is cumbersome and difficult to do so when you have little flexibility. As well, having to consistently be doing everything you can to please the Oga instead of focusing your energies on your MDA opens up room for corrupt aides of the president to manipulate the system for their benefit. After all, if there’s something we’ve learned from Mr Buhari’s 49-day medical vacation in the United Kingdom, it’s that he can be a difficult man to reach at times; even his special assistant on media and publicity, Mr Femi Adesina, who had been shouting louder than most about the president being hale and hearty finally confirmed that he had never actually spoken with the president for most of the time the president was away, only the latter’s close aides. Now imagine the DG of some agency that nobody really cares about trying to speak with the president to explain why his agency is important to the future of the country. Basically, if his handlers don’t deem it important, the president is unlikely to ever hear about it.
I recognize some will present the argument that the country is in recession and the government needs funds to meet its budget so that it can “make Nigeria great again” and blah blah blah. But let’s blaspheme by forgetting for a minute what they want to use the money for (We can talk about that in the near future). The issue under consideration here is that government agencies and parastatals have found themselves in a position where their worth to the government appears to depend on how much currency they can conjure up. In other words, your actual job is more or less irrelevant; what matters is how much you can deposit into the government coffers. Keep in mind that some of these agencies specialize in harassment and intimidation and so it can easily become a case of giving them a good excuse to continue “doing their work” (an actual threat from a police Special Anti-Robbery Squad officer attempting to extort me for money). Looking at antics of the EFCC, who went so far as to “diabolically” freeze a law firm’s bank account on a flimsy whim, it is even more obvious that money is, in fact, the goal. I’ve said before that this government seems to think that only stealing is corruption, but maybe I was wrong; maybe this government is so desperately running after money that money is all it sees. Reading about the CBN’s forex policies and other attempts by the government to keep the country from drifting into recession, one can understand why they are so desperate for funds. But at the same time, I worry that this over-emphasizing money could not only have a poor knock-on effect, but could also result in tunnel vision that blinds them to other, no less important, things.
Back to the Future
“We are committed to reverse this trend of uncontrolled inflow of foreign software to the detriment or our own local software… After all, facts and figures at our disposal suggest that the local software alternatives are performing well at a much [lower] cost.”
– Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim, Director-General, NITDA
I honestly do not even know what it means to “import” software; is that what I do everytime I download an app that wasn’t “Made in Naija”? Or, when a government agency procures some brand new personal computers, are you counting the pre-loaded operating system as a software import? I’d love to know how the figures came about. But if it is indeed true that Nigerian-made software is delivering great value at lower cost compared to others, then that’s fantastic news. I do know some indigenous software firms that do impressive work and, as is typical with Nigerian businesses, have fashioned out creative billing methods to fit customer needs. However a major problem, as I understand it, is that they are having trouble getting government agencies to adopt their software. And this is where, for me, the issue come to rest. Because, from the quotes, it appears that the $1bn quoted by the DG of NITDA as being “software importation” (I just can’t get over that) is incurred by government MDAs. I won’t go into our flawed and inflated procurement style, that would just be flogging a dead horse but suffice to say that if the problem is mostly from government agencies, then it’s about government policy, not public declarations.
But even in cases where indigenous software is being used by government bodies, the results are still not quite satisfactory. Take for example registration for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Exam (UTME), an exam written before you can gain admission into university (a bit like the American SAT but with more twists than a Scorsese movie). The software appears to be indigenous and it works just fine, most of the time. However, the implimentation of a software-based solution to JAMB’s problems has been rather troublesome. Among the complaints that people attempting to register have expressed, it can be seen that what was once an undesirable but understandable process now seems complicated and bent out of shape. It’s sad that something which is designed to make lives exceedingly less painful (information technology) has been twisted in such a way as to probably make first-time university students even more petrified and distrustful of computers, networks and their ilk. Think about it; most of these students didn’t have an email address to begin with, and have little to no knowledge about computers. And then they’re forced to go pay a cyber cafe to open an email and create a username, they go to the bank where another person sits behind a computer, takes more of their money and automagically generates a “PIN” which, when taken to the final registration center where they pay money again, may or may not work (the bank staff tend to write it down by hand at times, creating errors). All this while they clearly have received little to no briefing on how the entire thing is supposed to work. So no, Mr DG, I am afraid that I will not be trumping (it’s a real word now) your drive to purchase indigenous software with a view to saving the federal government a ton of cash. If that is the objective of your office, so be it, but I will encourage others to join me in focusing our energy on, first and foremost, making sure that young people are not made to fear technology because, if they cannot become comfortable with it, they will remain slaves to those who are.
To be fair to the DG, his declaration is a better one than what most of the others do because it not only mentions a number (in the trillions, no less) that can be turned to revenue, but he also hints at the “self-sufficiency” that is another chant of this administration. What they don’t seem to realize, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge, is that self-sufficiency in most cases is a difficult dream but in technology it is most certainly a myth.
Skype is a good example. The company itself was founded by 2 men, one Swedish, the other a Dane, while the software was created by Estonians, and then the company went into partnership with a Polish company to begin offering it there. Eventually it was purchased by Microsoft. And even the Apples, Googles and Facebooks of this world don’t actually develop all that technology themselves; they buy up smaller companies that have shown innovation or some product or service done exceptionally well and then integrate that work into larger, more complex solutions. And so my advice to the federal government, NITDA in particular, is the same as I gave in my last article; focus on IT education. Because the fact is, until there is an enabling environment for designing, developing and deploying technological solutions in this country (be it software or otherwise), even if some of our countrymen come up with something innovative, I’m willing to bet that another company will swallow them up in short order and all we will have is a Nigerian division of an American corporation. I guess you could technically still write that out as “Made in Naija” sha.
In conclusion, it’s fine to toe the party line in order to get material support your agency needs; I really have no problem with aligning your agency’s abilities to the policies of government. However, it’s dangerous to make grandiose tactical promises which could ultimately put the strategic objectives of your agency (IT development) and indeed the future of the agency itself at risk if the promised milestones are not satisfactorily met.