States get mandate to use technology to improve governance, payment, tax collection – Lanre Osibona, SSA to the President on ICT
With over 20 years’ experience in the ICT space, Osibona believes government must build efficiency in terms of how government is run and that technology can help to improve services and provide knowledge based outsourcing in this interview. Excerpt.
Let us focus on digital economy. What is digital economy? Is Nigeria running a digital economy?
A whole revolutionary change is upon us and that is what people call the fourth industrial revolution and this has brought about digital economy. It has changed the way and manner in which traditional business is done, from our daily activities to commercial banks, services, learning and education, distribution etc. However, it is important for to highlight certain aspects that are very key, which we need to establish before we can run a digital economy. One of these is deep penetration of broadband.
The Internet is extremely crucial. It makes it easy to do business. It improves infrastructure, e-government. We need to have a digital payment services and we need digital skills because you cannot have a robust and successful digital economy if you cannot harness or harmonise it. This brings job creation. We have talked about a potential that we want to make a reality, especially by increasing our skilled workforce in the digital and ICT sector. That is the way I would open up the discussion for better understanding.
Each one is a crucial pillar and there is a whole lot of work to be done in that regard. If you look at broadband penetration when this government assumed power, we had about 6% broadband penetration. The target was 30% broadband policy, which is to be achieved before the end of this year. We are now about 22%. So, more work still needs to be done. A huge amount of work has been done.
What is the strategy to meet the target you have set?
There are some work ongoing around the infrastructure companies [Infraco] licensing. The challenge we are facing now is not even funding. The challenges we are facing is in term of multiple taxation, regulations, right of way (ROW) issues; because today we have five fibre cabling companies. The capacity is not our challenge. We need to be deliberate. We need to focus and be determined and be conscious about benefits that are realizable from this investment.
So, we have to go all out to make it happen and we have to look at our spectrum optimization. We have to look at the reuse of spectrum. We have to make sure that the spectrums we have are optimally used. We have to go all out and open up the economy. And to open up the economy means that we have the intent to cater for the infrastructure, and the right business model has to be built to support the sustainability of this kind of investment. So a whole of these things have to be done.
Are there milestones?
One of the other aspects is digital identity. It is a big project that we already have commenced. It is not that Nigeria never had identity in the past but there were silo identities in different forms. So, part of what we have done to assist the registration again in terms of responsible government approach to harness the different silo identities, hamonise them unto the agency of government that is statutorily mandated to harmonize them and manage identity. Another thing we talked about is the issue insurance data which we shall come to. It relates with biometric identity and the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC).
So, we are putting the necessary strategy in place to develop the roadmap with regards to meeting with stakeholders, organizing workshops and it is so critical to ensure we get total buy-in from the identity agency stakeholders because we don’t want a situation whereby there is no harmonisation in terms of understanding not just in the technology sense but in trying to make this happen. So, this is what we focus on. We have our development partners, the World Bank, AfDB, the EU. This has put us in the position as the first in Africa, and the largest in terms of data.
Isn’t there anything the government can do to put a stop to multiple taxation and right of Way issue among the layers of the government?
I think this is a challenge for us as a federation. This problem is also universal. It is not unique to us. I remember that the National Communication Commissions [NCC] chairman in the US, mentioned that this is a worldwide challenge. I was relieved. Though ours might be worse but what we must do is that the same way the digital registration is embarking on a massive reform agenda within the civil service, we have to extend this to the states, local governments, and different agencies of government to understand the benefits and importance of digital economy, of technology, of efficiency in terms of the process which is broadband technology.
This is because the recent attitude of the operators is that people are seeing that they can pull cash from them. We have to change this attitude. But the good news is that it is already ongoing. The President chairs the National Economic Committee, which includes all the states. We are having awesome communication. If you’ve noticed recently, Ogun State hosted a summit and one of the agendas is technology. So the states are supporting this. You know that internally generated revenue is critical to the state governors and they need it. We are looking for better ways and manner around it and we are discussing this with the states.
What other steps are you taking in this direction?
We are also looking for means of meeting the states through subsidy. Though I don’t like that word, we are giving a kind of funding, which can come from the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) while the states then allow this to carry on because there are resultant benefits. Also, one of the things we need to do is that for you to qualify for that funding, you also should be able to showcase your digital roadmap as a state or local government, you should be able to use technology for your activities may be for duties payment or for tax collection. You also must embody in terms of school curriculum – 10 courses; and some other conditions. As long as you are meeting these conditions, then you are then qualified to receive the funding because what that means is that we can create competition.
This is because when we come to showcase the success for some states, others will naturally align with the programme. We can’t force feed this kind of system. It has to be deliberated upon then follow-up and eventually, it is beginning to yield the desired result. Ogun state has set the agenda to attract business by saying “we are removing Right of Way come and do business here” and that’s where we need to get to. We must build efficiency in terms of how government is run but not just only that, we want to build a workforce that can provide services, knowledge based outsourcing, basic process outsourcing. We have crude oil basins in Nigeria but they are all programmed for companies abroad. That is a massive foreign revenue generation.
Is that part of the digital economy?
That is where we need to get to and this is what we call prosperity especially for the young people. This is another opportunity for the young people because this is the fourth industrial revolution. They allow us to be able to play in the global space because the world has become so small. We are competing for jobs with people in China, India, Pakistan and other countries. But we must be ready in terms of digital infrastructure, digital skills. We have to own ours.
And what’s encouraging is that Nigerians are naturally smart and clever and brilliant in terms of technology. You just have to visit some places such as the UK, Europe and US, you will observe that Nigerians are among the leading people in technology. So, it is not archaic to us. It is not something that we don’t have the ability to handle. You know about what is going on in terms of the startups. There is more to do. As a country, we still have a whole lot more to do.