GBB’s Abubakar and Nigeria’s digital transformation

Abubakar, MD/CEO GBB

 The advent of COVID-19 has brought tremendous changes in the way we work, conduct business and socialize. These new changes are, from all indications, here to stay for a very long time—if not forever—so we all have resigned to calling them the New Normal.At the centre of the new normal mantra is the way we are now using ICT. In Nigeria, Galaxy Backbone (GBB) is the official custodian of the Nigerian state’s ICT infrastructure and is preparing Nigeria’s officialdom to the challenges of new normal life style.Muhammad Bello Abubakar Chief Executive of GBB is the one leading this transformation in by far the most professional manner. In the short period under which he has been saddled with running the GBB, Abubakar has emerged like our Eric Yuan, the founder and CEO of Zoom, the trailblazing video conferencing app that is shaping new normal culture.He would not make the $12 billion that Yuan made since March 2019 when the Zoom app became a household name and practically indispensable commodity in our new normal life. That’s because, unlike Yuan who is running a private enterprise, Abubakar’s GBB is a public sector outfit with enormous social responsibilities. However, who says that, in the near future, GBB cannot generate such a colossal amount for the federal government? That is one vision of GBB that Abubakar makes no secret of.

Yuan first got the idea for Zoom while trying to figure out the best way to keep in touch with his long-distance girlfriend under the restrictions imposed by COVID 19 . Abubakar’s passion on the other hand was ignited exactly last March when lockdown of Abuja, Ogun and , for the first time due to COVID-19 raised cases which meant that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) could not meet in physical space as was the tradition. Mr. Abubakar recollects how he was challenged to think out of the box:“Our minister perceived the possibility that FEC will be postponed because of the COVID 19. So he called me on Monday (23 March 2020) …and gave me a marching order. He directed me to make sure that in the nearest future the FEC meeting was resumed virtually so that it will continue while still maintaining the Covid-19 protocols. So, the next day on Tuesday (24 March), I was able to form a Committee known as the COVID-19 task team.”By April, it was possible for the FEC to have its maiden virtual meeting.

Abubakar resumed office in January 2020 as the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Galaxy Backbone (GBB), Nigeria’s digital infrastructure and shared services provider, an agency of the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy. Abubakar is a professor of Petroleum Geosciences with over two decades of working experience spanning academia, oil and gas exploration research, development and innovation institutions. He is a strategic thinker with strong leadership and management skills. He has an impressive exposure to global best practice in the field of energy.Since that marching order Prof. Abubakar has not looked back, working assiduously to implement the two policy frameworks guiding the mandate of his agency — the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy and Nigeria National Broadband Plan of 2020-2025 launched in November 2019 and March 2020 respectively for the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy by Mr. President. The twin policies were coupled to accelerate growth and modernization of the Nigerian economy. 

The two policies provided the framework for digital-led growth strategy for the Nigerian economy.GBB is currently preoccupied with operating an IT-based network that provides network connectivity to MDAs of government, saving government cost of maintenance and securing and protecting its data. Prof. Abubakar has an even more ambitious vision of taking the GBB to a higher level; the level where the GBB can be the primary competitor to all ICT providers in Nigeria and , especially West , in the long term.

Abubakar envisions GBB and its ICT infrastructure becoming, in his words, the “new goldmine as oil and gas are now.”In addition to the angle, that vision will propel GBB to the enviable position to protect our infant digital industries especially in the e-commerce sector. Our two leading e-commerce companies, Jumia and Konga have started facing stiff competition from global giants like eBay and Amazon. The role of GBB would therefore be to ensure hardware infrastructure to foster rapid growth of this area. In our quest to diverse our economy, e-commerce is an area of global investor confidence in Nigeria. The figures show that Nigeria is one of the leading IT markets in , where there has been a rapid surge in the development of e-commerce businesses. This should be encouraged through facilitating the dynamic visions of the current leadership at the GBB.According to Euromonitor International Market Research, e-commerce advancements have been most notable in Nigeria because of the surge in telecom investments and smartphone purchases which have fueled growth in internet usage from 20% in 2009 to 41% in 2014. The International Data Corporation also reported that Nigeria has the largest online market particularly for apparel and footwear in , which was envisioned to grow from US$104 million in 2014 to US$1,077 million in 2019, due to the activities of trusted e-tailers (online retailers), like Jumia and Konga.

This development can only be sustained if GBB work is supported with a sense of deliberate purpose. GBB’s National ICT Infrastructure Backbone (NICTIB) project needs to be taken to its logical conclusion.Prof. Abubakar highlighted the status of this project in a recent interview with the media. Phase one of the NICTIB project covered about 13 states, including the FCT. It started from , covered many states in the South East and South-South. The fiber-optic backbone of the Galaxy Backbone came from the landing point in , to Onitsha, extended to Akwa Ibom and Rivers, it came to Enugu, Benue State and then , through Lafia, Akwanga and then into Abuja, which is now the backbone that we have”.Business analysts feel that leaving the project half-way will not deliver the long term desired result.Prior to his as MD/CE of GBB he was the Executive Director and a Principal start-up for the establishment and development of the National Centre for Petroleum Research and Development of the Energy Commission of Nigeria, where he spearheaded a cutting edge research that developed the conceptual exploration model deployed in the successful oil and gas exploration in the frontier basin of the Northeast Nigeria. He was also a Research Consultant to NNPC on oil and gas exploration.His ICT background in high end Cisco Academy Networking certification no doubt has equipped him for the leadership of the GBB. His vision tallies with what is expected of an agency like the GBB.

The direction of where GBB is headed under Prof. can be discerned from the transformation that took root since he assumed office through re-branding the agency. The Gombe-born and alumnus of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, , achieved this by establishing new departments that focused more sharply on implementing the mandate of the agency. Three such departments stand out. First is the Research, Digital Development and Skills Department introduced to fast-track the research innovation and also skill aspects of the digital economy policy. This is in line with the 8 pillars of digital economy policy document. The second pillar of that policy addresses digital literacy and skills issues.Second one is the Enterprise Business Group, which focuses mainly on the private sector to make sure that they are provided the necessary platform that will make their economy continue to strive better and of course generate handsome for the Federal Government. Third one is National Policy Strategies and Mandate Project Unit, which specifically looks at the policies and how to translate them into what GBB can offer by way of services.

The whole idea of a digital economy, which the Federal Government is keenly implementing through agencies such as GBB can never come at a better time than now. We need agencies like it to create leap-frog opportunities in the economy, improve competitiveness among the private sector and foster ICT infrastructure development and innovation to help us integrate more seamlessly into the global digital economy as the New Normal life style engendered by COVID-19 unfolds. Hassan, a financial and economic analyst, writes from Abuja

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