Nigeria’s Minister of Communications, Barr. Abdur-Raheem Adebayo Shittu in this encounter speaks with MONTAGE AFRICA’s Remi Adebayo and George Onmonya Daniel on the potentials and future of the ICT sector. The Minister also talks on why he is the preferred candidate to lead Oyo State from 2019. The interview was facilitated by Chief Consultant of Proedge Communications, Mr. TAJUDEEN KAREEM. Excerpts…
The Buhari Administration has economic diversification as part of its central focus. How far has your Ministry fared with this?
The issue of diversification cannot be understood properly except if you review where Nigeria is coming from. Over the last 50 to 60 years, Nigeria has had petroleum which has been the mainstay of our economy and contributing more than 90 percent of our income; and because we got these monies cheaply, we didn’t think of other sources of diversification and yet with all the oil money, Nigeria cannot be said to have developed at the rate where its peers over the years have gotten to.
On the other hand, we have seen many other countries which never had petroleum to export and make money from; many of them don’t even have land for agriculture, but you find out that these countries have utilised ICT to develop their economy in such a way that today, they have surpassed Nigeria in areas of development. So, we think that if Nigeria must be developed, the first step must be to diversify our economy so that we have multiple streams of income for our growth, that is why the government of President (Muhammadu) Buhari is thinking far and wide. The government is working hard to diversify our economy by prioritizing so many other sectors of the economy to bring them to national focus for the purpose of increasing production; exporting, agriculture and so on.
The Minister of Agriculture is doing wonderfully well in ensuring that Nigerians go back to the farm and that if we can double or multiply our productivity, we will not only have sufficiency in food for our livelihood but also for export. There is hardly anything that Nigerian soil cannot grow well, and there is hardly any product that are not being sought for at the world market.
We were re-doubling our efforts to ensure productivity and you will agree with me that the local production of rice has enabled us to decrease considerably the importation of rice. Today, the Custom Service is working hard to prevent mass importation of rice in favor of local production of rice; so, we are conserving a lot of money in rice and fertilizer importation because we now have our local production of rice and fertilizer for general agricultural growth.
Yam which is all over the country, which no one would have imagined would also be available for export, is now being exported and we are making money from that. In the mining sector, government has a double effort to ensure that legislation on mining is so regularized that it would be controlled.
More importantly is the ICT which is the greatest enabler of lives, businesses, education, health, agric, the economy, commerce and even of governance; it is the greatest enabler of virtually everything one does, it is like air which one needs to survive.
Government is making effort in agriculture, ICT, mining, education, commerce. Now, we have e-commerce which is improving on trade and commerce throughout the world. ICT is the enabler of all of these.
When we therefore say we are using ICT to diversify the economy, it means the government will provide the enabling environment, starting from registration, licensing and monitoring to make sure that this ICT phenomenon is able to impact every other sector of our lives and economy. Telecom alone constitutes more than 12 percent of our Gross Domestic Product and this means we are working hard and it is paying off.
Today, ICT provides more jobs for Nigerians than the oil sector; these are really evidence that ICT is driving our economic and social diversification efforts
Is there any form of synergy between your ministry and young entrepreneurs in the ICT Sector?
Our duty is to provide enabling environment, we are also bringing about intervention in several ways. For instance, UPS are being established all over the country to enable youths to have platforms where they can go and train in ICT and be able to develop themselves in the ICT sector. If we succeed in doing that, there will be sufficient scheme to provide services not only in Nigeria but all over the world.
It was in the course of that, that we initiated the idea of establishing an ICT University, which was planned to build and drive the process of re-tooling our facility; but that process was put on hold because of fund and other things. We are also now encouraging the private sector to go into the establishment of an ICT University for the same purpose.
Apart from that, we are sponsoring youths to engage in competitions at the national and international levels for the purpose of creating new applications which could become leading world products. Recall that today in Nigeria, we have what is called TSA which has really assisted in blocking all leakages in financial sector. Again, the advancement of the ATM, everybody keying into the cashless society, now you can transfer money more easily than it was. We are also developing e-commence business all over this country, our own NIPOST is going into e-commerce business to create more jobs, create a competitive atmosphere and raise the quality of e-commerce services across the country.
Furthermore, we are giving every encouragement we can to ensure that the private sector provides more investments into the broadband availability, so that wherever every Nigerian is, he will have access to it. All of these will assist new initiative, particularly, by youths in the ICT revolution.
Way back, Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), an agency under your watch shocked Nigerians by collaborating with Telecoms operators to hike data prices. How are you collaborating with the NCC to prevent future reoccurrences?
It was not as if we are partnering with them, the job of NCC is that of a regulator of the industry and that regulation includes pricing regulation and all of that. It is not for the NCC or for government to determine what pricing will be, but those who operate in the field, that is, the GSM companies. When they have problems of pricing, particularly which may affect their sustainability in the business, they would apply to NCC to seek review of the price. The pricing at that time, which brought about a lot of brouhaha, had been the price proposed two years before this government came. Somehow, it was suspended but when the GSM companies felt it was becoming difficult for them to maintain services, they decided to apply and the application was granted. The increase of two years ago was now revisited because both the NCC and the private sector had not done enough of engagement with the public, it came as a surprise and unexpectedly, and there was a lot of outcry about it. The bottom-line is, prices of everything increases by the day not only in Nigeria but most parts of the world.
The price that they fixed is also determined by the foreign exchange because all of these companies have foreign exchange components which they have to deal with. My advice to Nigerians is that these services that are being provided by these companies are needed by us, so since we need them, we must also assist these companies to be able to do business and make profit, but if they can’t make profit, then there is the possibility that we may go back to the days of old where the service was not available.
Today in Nigeria, if you want to send an SMS, the highest that you are paying is between four to five naira. Benin Republic pay equivalent 50 naira for SMS, Algeria pays 150 naira and these are the same operators who are here and are also there. We must be ready for pricing which will make these companies provide services for us. Government is not just sitting here to bring about pains and suffering on the ordinary Nigerian but if we invited these GSM companies to come and provide services for us then we must also provide enabling environment for them.
How would you rate the impact of the Nigerian Satellite technology without Nigeria holding sole ownership of its satellite?
We have NIGCOMSAT Nigerian satellite communications, a satellite project which has to do with communication. Satellite communication is different from the communication of laying of fiber optic cables over Nigeria to connect from one point to the other, satellite communication does not require laying of cables. I am told it is more expensive to utilize that service but new companies are coming in to say they can do things as cheap as fiber optic cable communications.
For now, Nigeria has only one satellite, which means Nigeria does not have a backup satellite. If you are patronizing a company which engages in satellite communication, you want to be assured that no accident will take away your data which are stored in the satellite company which you patronize. With one satellite communication, you can liken it to having a transport company with vehicles that has no spare tyre the chances are that people might not patronize such a company. In the same vein, because our satellite company does not have backup, there is also fear that if you patronize them, you may be having problems if they break down. That is why many companies, including government establishments now patronize foreign satellite companies which have multiplicities of satellite where there is always a backup.
We have been working very hard to be able to have two new satellites which will enable us to have sufficiency in terms of quantity and reliability. I have always prayed that in our time, we will be able to afford these two satellites for it to be possible for government to use legislation to compel all Nigerian entities including companies as well, to patronize only the Nigerian satellite communication company so that we can preserve our foreign exchange; and our local content will be guaranteed in providing an enduring security. We need a lot of money which is not available because of the state of Nigerian economy. I hope that we will have foreign investors bringing in their money for us to acquire localized facilities.
Should they bring in such funds, won’t they also influence our local content?
We will run it together with them as business and the company; they come in to buy equity in our country so it is different from having your information and data posted in another country.
What are the challenges you are faced with as a ministry?
The challenges we are facing largely is the fact that Nigeria needs much more investments in fiber optic to make broadband available to Nigerians particularly in the areas which are under served with fiber optics all over the country. We need to get fiber to all homes, offices, all establishments.
The federal government is doing its best for now to connect all federal government offices through Galaxy Backbone, but that is not enough. All offices, homes, establishments must be connected to the fiber network in Nigeria so that on the tip of the finger, you can reach then whole world and get all the information you need, whether in the field of education, health care system and much more.
With ICT today, you can access e-health system whereby a sick person in Nigeria does not need to be flown abroad because there is no expert on the ailment that he has. If we are developed through ICT e-health system, it would be easy for experts from the UK to diagnose a Nigerian who is sick in the hospital here and prescribe appropriate means of surgery and medication online, just like making payments online and sending mails online.
In the field of education, we could have a university here with professors from all over the world teaching and lecturing online in real time, our people would get the message.
It is all over the news that you are interested in being the governor of Oyo State. How true is that?
I tell people that whenever a child who attends primary school did well, got promoted to secondary, did well, when you start asking whether he went to the university, it becomes odd.
I have cut my teeth in politics, I trained under (the late) Chief Obafemi Awolowo; served as a member of Oyo State House of Assembly; I have also served twice as a commissioner, one as the Commissioner for Information, and secondly as Attorney-General of Oyo state.
On two occasions I have contested for governorship of my state in 2011 and 2015, so if today I’m minister, it’s obvious that am in a training ground and in a transit room for the governorship. It’s not about whether I am, it’s about waiting for the appropriate time to declare my intention formally and certainly, I believe that I will be governor of Oyo State come 2019.
I have read some of your interviews where you positioned yourself as the best candidate to beat in the state; not just in the APC but the whole state. What gives you that kind of assurance?
I have said some of it, one, there is nobody that has been in politics before me among all the contenders in Oyo State. I came into politics already a lawyer in 1979, I have been a lawyer for 38 years, and I have also been in politics for 38 years. No other person has these credentials, and being Minister of Communications is the icing on the cake because my being here has given me the opportunity to learn how to develop my state with ICT.
I don’t see anybody who has half of what I have in terms of education, exposure, experience and connection at all levels, and I think I will be in the interest of the people of Oyo state that they have the best; they deserve the best and they know that I am the best.
Perceptions about performance of your party at the central and the state is not so pleasurable. With this, how do you see the chances of the APC IN 2019?
I believe that when elections come in 2019, the opposition would not be able to have a mouth to talk, because they would not have anything to showcase to warrant votes of the public. We have a governor in Oyo state, who by all indices of performance has done particularly well in providing infrastructural facilities. In the capital which is Ibadan, to a large extent in Ogbomosho and in Oyo and Iseyin. By my judgment he has done very well because my rating of him is that of all the governors in the history of Oyo state, he is the best in terms of provision of infrastructural facilities. The one who is yet to be beaten by any other governor is Gen. David Jemibewon (Rtd.), but next after him is Ajimobi, particularly with the number of roads which he has constructed in the state.
The other parties particularly the PDP, messed up when they were in power; during their tenure, it was a regime of terror and I don’t know what any of them is coming to tell the people.
I, by the grace of God is going to be the candidate of APC. I have had a history of performance in public office and to be able to deliver means, you must have a history which is more glorious than what I have had in all of my public life.
Apart from the history of performance which I have had by the grace of God, you also want to look at who has as much passion and ideas as I have for the development of our state.
Are you not threatened that you have gladiators coming from Ibadan considering the Oyo politics where the Ibadans have always have their way?
I have gone beyond ethnicity and all of that. I have lived in Ibadan for all of 38 years consistently, so am not a stranger to all the political actors in Oyo state. I know virtually every important person in Ibadan and they know me very well, I’m also married to two Ibadan daughters and that again makes me an in-law from Ibadan. By the grace of God on the 10th of November, I will be installed the “Agbaakin Afiwagboye” of Ibadanland by the Olubadan of Ibadanland, which is an acceptance and affirmation that I am a true son of Ibadan even if my parents come from Shaki.
I have played my politics in Ibadan, lived the professional and social live in Ibadan, so I don’t have any fear. Today, I do boast to my people from Oke-Ogun that I’m almost sure that I will have more votes from Ibadan than from where I come from. I have accepted anybody that comes from Ibadan and I don’t know of any good anybody has done in Ibadan that I have not done in terms of relating to the people, living among them, impacting positively on their lives.
What areas would you like to touch as the governor of Oyo state if elected?
First and foremost, it is free education for all our citizens at all levels. I am very passionate about it because free education is the greatest leveler; it provides equal opportunity and access to education for all citizens whether they are children of the poor or of the rich and for me it is about prioritization.
Next priority is access to quality and free health services. Thirdly, is the issue of providing jobs for the youths and graduates generally
I have my own formula to do that and that formula has never been used in any part of Nigeria up to date to the best of my knowledge. By the grace of God, I will implement it and I know that within two years we should be able to eliminate unemployment with the youths and graduates of Oyo state.
Another priority that I have is about massive agric investment, not by government but if it is by government, it will only be by providing sites and services to ensure that farmers are assisted.
If I become the governor of Oyo state in 2019, I intend to turn Oyo state into the silicon value of Nigeria by the grace of God.
How do you intend to raise funds to meet up with these plans?
Imo state is doing free education at all level for its citizens, and Imo is not known to be an oil producing state. It’s about priority, if you have the right ideas, money will come in.