The Nigerian Constitution 1999, as amended, clearly provides for the appointment of at least one minister from each of the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory. However, the choice of who is appointed rests solely on Mr President. It won’t be uncharitable, therefore, to state that many Nigerian presidents have preferred to rely on anything but the professional qualifications of appointees when assigning them portfolios. This is really shocking, considering the fact that virtually all of Nigeria’s ministries can be situated within a profession. Evidentiary success of past ministers like Prof Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (now president of the World Trade Organisation) and a host of others should ordinarily have been enough to tilt the thinking of Nigerian presidents towards professionalism and industry experience as a guide to the appointment of ministers. Unfortunately, the sad commentary continues to light the stables of this decision trough.
In the midst of this dark corridor, however, is the bright light of Nigeria’s Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Pantami. Arguably, the most outstanding professional in the Buhari administration, Pantami was poached from Saudi Arabia, where he was employed as a Professor of Information Technology, to head the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) as its CEO in 2006, and later nominated and sworn in as the minister of Communication and Digital Economy in 2019.
From his days in NITDA, Pantami had midwifed aggressive reforms aimed at positioning Nigeria into a globally acclaimed digital hub. Using innovation and global best practices, Pantami sought, rather audaciously, to not only position Nigeria’s digital value chain into another avenue for the reduction of the nation’s scary unemployment numbers, but also as a money spinner for the much needed internally generated revenue. On May 4, 2021, NITDA celebrated its 20th anniversary. The event, which was understandably low-key because of Covid-19, was an opportunity for Pantami to recount the contributions of NITDA to Nigeria. In his address at the event, Pantami declared that “NITDA’s achievements contribute to the nation’s GDP” and, for once, no one including the fieriest of critics could raise an eyebrow.
Pantami was being very modest not to have boldly declared that virtually all of the achievements of NITDA towards IGR collection are due to his initiatives from his days as NITDA’s CEO; solid foundations for which the current head of NITDA has been building on. Between August 2019 and 2020 alone, through her seven strategic Pillars Map for National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy; one of which is IT Regulation, NITDA successfully created 272 users accounts to enable MDAs submit their IT projects via the IT clearance portal. This was followed by the clearance of 154 unique IT projects of 73 MDAs, with close to N2 billion thereby saving the federal government over N5 billion. One will be tempted to ask, to what end? That question will be best answered by looking at how JAMB has leveraged on information technology to transform from an all cash outlet where millions of naira are either carted away by monkeys or are swallowed by snakes, into a parastatal that remits billions of naira to the federation account annually.
Perhaps one of NITDA’s most iconic milestones is the introduction and implementation of the Nigerian Data Protection Regulation (NDPR). Anyone familiar with how internet-based service providers abuse user data with impunity, most times without their consent, will value this initiative. The NDPR, a subsidiary legislation of the federal government enacted to ensure that the data and privacy of Nigerians citizens is protected, has found favour among IT professionals, who have hailed it as a most necessary instrument. Consequently, NITDA had licensed 59 Data Protection Compliance Organisations, inaugurated the Data Breach Investigation Team. The Nigerian Data protection sector is now valued at N2,295,240,00.00. This initiative, the first of its kind in Africa, has made Nigeria a point of reference for other African nations. Thus,, NITDA has bagged the vice chair position of the African Union Policy and Regulatory Initiative for Digital Africa (PRIDA).
The ministry has been gestating an IT ecosystem that has seen to the development of several IT hubs that have attracted lots of foreign exchange to Nigeria. This has culminated in the contribution of an unprecedented 14.7% to the nation’s GDP, which could rise to 27%, according to the minister. Capacity building has been one of the mainstays of the ministry under Pantami. For instance, over 200 women were trained on ICT and Entrepreneurship and were provided with laptops that came installed with several productivity softwares and dongles. 30 people living with disabilities also benefitted from the ministry’s IT skills for all initiative. Aside the 26,000 active participants in the NITDA Academy and the many ICT incubation hubs established in Nigerian tertiary Institutions, Pantami has also overseen the training of 145 farmers in a pilot Smart Agriculture Practice under the National Adopted Village for Agriculture (NAVSA) initiative. Several artisans across all the geographical zones where also imbued with IT capacity.
The Nigerian Communication Commission, NCC, the sister parastatal under Pantami’s watch, has made leaps and bounds towards ensuring a steady and sustained growth in service regulation and customer satisfaction. Besides resolving the agelong Right of Way (RoW) logjam that has prevented the penetration of communication infrastructure and connection of more Nigerians, the NCC has been more poised to deliver on its mandate as the regulator as well as protector of the right of Nigerian telecom subscribers. The beauty of all the ministry’s initiative is that it is not audio. Everyone can see and feel it. For instance, Pantami lamented the exorbitant cost of data and committed to 50% reduction this year. That has been achieved. But it is not all business with Pantami, who worried about the use of SIMs to perpetrate heinous crimes against Nigerians, introduced the NIN-SIM linkage.
Indeed, Pantami’s biggest legacy will be the codification of several policy documents to support the vision of the ministry. They include the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy to the Nigerian Government Enterprise/Nigeria e-GOV Interoperability Framework NGEA/NEGIF; and even the Nigerian ICT Innovation and Entrepreneurship Vision (NIIEV), among several others. The implementation of these instruments can be seen in the form of several start-up clinics and support for start-ups that NIMC has undertaken. President Muhammadu Buhari just approved a new salary structure for NIMC staff. This is a vote of confidence that I am sure every Nigerian will agree with.
Dr Joseph writes from Lagos.