For a country that missed its second industrial revolution to a chaotic political and economic history, it is a potentially grave prognosis. Nigeria now runs the very real risk of failing to achieve what historians call the third industrial revolution: of computerised digital technology, telecommunications and the internet, which have collectively altered every aspect of life and living. There is no denying that ICTs can spike development and eventually help improve the condition of individual lives. Developing economies that fail to register on the Networked World can therefore only fall into progressively deeper grades of underdevelopment and poverty.
This is precisely the fate Nigeria rejected while adopting the ambitious 2020 goals, a radical blueprint intended to jumpstart growth and establish the country as both a regional and global economic powerhouse. Nigeria’s considerable oil wealth was squandered over decades of civil war and military takeovers, inept governance and corruption that brought it to the brink of economic disintegration. Deficient public investments spawned endemic poverty and decimated traditional livelihoods and economies. The transition to civilian rule in 1999 opened the doors to much-needed reforms and a redrawing of national priorities. No longer content with its third-world heritage, Abuja approved plans for accelerated and sustainable development in a time-bound manner. Its existing IT infrastructure and initiatives however continue to be far less than adequate.
In fact the whole of Western Africa suffers from endemic ‘information poverty’, and Nigeria is certainly no exception. While credible, current data is largely inadequate or absent, the records are unanimous about the country receiving its first digital computer in 1963. Installations remained low even after many individual universities, government departments and public sector undertakings had acquired some amount of computing power towards the end of the 1970s. While the number of internet service providers (ISPs) and cyber cafés mounted over the years, IT development received meagre official stimulus in the last century. Abuja in fact had no IT policy until 2001, when it finally instituted the National IT Development Agency on a $28 million grant. Tasked with making Nigeria “a key player in the Information society”, the agency has been widely criticised for ineffectiveness and failure to align with other national policies.
The synonymy of digital expansion and economic development is an obvious inference in this case. Nigeria’s IT potential has been significantly underachieved, and consequently, its efforts to drive rapid enterprise development across sectors have failed to deliver to expected levels. The country’s long-term development targets are contingent to a large extent on its IT capabilities, but this challenge is also an opportunity.
As of 2001, there were well over 500,000 business operating across the country, engaged in manufacturing, services, retail and wholesale. Most of these companies stand to benefit from IT products, services, or training. Nigerian software developers stand to both contribute to and gain immensely from this situation. The growth curve for indigenously-developed IT is potentially steep.
Although there is hardly any empirical data in support, Abuja insists proactive policies, especially those taken since 2000, have spiked IT percolation and application in diverse sectors. That there is some truth in the claim is borne out by a visible spurt in internet accessibility (through a mushrooming of cyber cafes, especially in urban centres) and the increasing popularity of web-based services like e-banking and online advertising. The following are some of the notably encouraging developments for Nigerian IT so far:
o Nigeria signed the Regional African Satellite Communications Organisation for multimedia telecommunications services in 2001, visibly increasing government participation in IT.
o The Nigerian Telecom Company (NITEL) a government-owned monopoly was privatised in 2006 to encourage private-sector participation and innovation in IT and communications.
o Multinational corporations have led the way in introducing online banking operations that have begun to catch on with resident and expatriate Nigerians.
o E-commerce initiatives in the B2B and B2C segments have been running successfully, even if most of the IT content and equipment has had to be entirely imported.
By themselves, these measures are evidently not enough to promote IT as a growth fundamental. Nigeria has to take up a raft of coordinated initiatives in order to meet its IT obligations, and more importantly, to drive and capitalise on the digital revolution. The most pressing requirements in this connection are:
o Improving the telecommunications infrastructure, upgrading communication techniques and improving the reach of mobile and fixed-line telephony services across rural and urban areas.
o Enhancing basic computer skills and advanced IT education through a structured overhaul of the education system; specific focus on tertiary institutions offering engineering programmes.
o Patronising indigenous software over imports, funding research and promoting private and public sector cooperation for innovation and enterprise in the IT sector.
o Developing sound policies that propagate IT as a crucial component of business culture; fostering IT-enabled practices as a means of governance and administrative optimisation.
o Active promotion of procedures that introduce computerisation and IT to the industrial process, through use of advanced digital technologies and office automation systems.
For Nigeria to tap its enterprise potential in time for the 2020 goals requires a massive reinvigoration and rationalisation of its IT development initiatives. Abuja must realise the importance of developing entrepreneurial capability in the IT sector to ensure inclusive growth and sustainability. Provided it is suitably adjusted to ground realities, a digital revolution undoubtedly holds the key to poverty eradication by enabling extensive business development and wealth creation. The challenge before Nigeria today is essentially the use of IT and communication technologies in a manner that accords the widest benefits from, and contributions to, the digital world.