INFORMATION and communications technology experts are demanding the creation of ‘Office of ICT General of the Federation’ to oversee issues concerning the sector.
The demand followed concerns that Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed was meddling in the sector with his role in the suspension of the operations of microblogging and social networking service, Twitter, by the Nigerian government.
Mohammed had, through a statement by his media aide Segun Adeyemi, announced the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria on June 4, citing the alleged use of the platform for activities capable of undermining the country’s corporate existence.
The minister also directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all over-the-top (OTT) and social media operations in Nigeria.
But some ICT experts, who spoke with The ICIR on June 8, observed that the information minister lacked the qualifications and expertise to take informed decisions concerning the sector.
The ICT experts said the proposed Office of the ICT General of the Federation should oversee the harmonisation of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).
An ICT expert and member of the Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON) Chris Uwaje, in an interview with The ICIR, made a case for the establishment of the Office of the ICT General of the Federation.
ISPON is the industry professional body for indigenous software developers and practitioners in Nigeria.
Uwaje said the office should be headed by a professional who would have the same status as other top government functionaries such as the Accountant-General of the Federation, the Attorney-General of the Federation, Chief Justice of Nigeria, and the Statistician General of Nigeria, among others.
“A critical issue is, we now have a minister of information who is delving into information technology.
“We need an ICT General of the Federation whose office will handle all issues relating to ICT, not information minister Lai Mohammed who is not a professional and as such does not understand what needs to be done in situations like this.
“The ICT General should be the chief information and communications technology officer of the federation for the ICT sector, just like we have an Auditor General of the Federation and Chief Justice of the Federation,” Uwaje said.
The ICT expert noted that issues arising from the Twitter ban had underscored the need to develop a national software policy and also build capacity in the country’s ICT sector.
He called for the establishment of ICT research centres in the country.
“ICT is research-based, so we should have ICT research centres. There is no technology without science.
“When you talk of Twitter, you are talking of software and Nigeria does not have a national software policy and we have not trained enough people that can develop software. So, we need to build a research base to develop the capacity so that when we need to fight back against big tech we will not end up losing out.”
Uwaje observed that the Nigerian government’s face-off with Twitter was a losing battle with ‘big tech’ that would end up hurting the country and its citizens.
“The issue is, we are fighting the big tech and we don’t have the infrastructure and the capacity to win.”
The Twitter ban is having a negative impact on the Nigerian economy and will end up worsening youth unemployment, Uwaje warned.
“If it becomes prolonged, it might even lead to further devaluation of the currency,” he added, noting that the Nigerian government should address outstanding issues in the ICT sector from infrastructural, policy and strategic angles.
The Nigerian government had threatened to prosecute individuals who continued to operate Twitter accounts through virtual private networks (VPNs).
Uwaje, however, wondered whether the government considered the implications of stopping foreigners in Nigeria from using Twitter to communicate with their home countries.
“We have foreigners in Nigeria who use Nigerian infrastructure to assess the internet. Will they also be banned from Twitter? If you say they should not use Twitter in Nigeria, how will their countries react?”
Reacting to the demand for creation of an Office of the ICT General of the Federation in an interview with The ICIR, a former president of the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) Olusola Teniola noted that information minister Mohammed and Minister of Communications and Digital Economy Isa Pantami were not on the same page on matters relating to ICT and social media.
“I think there is a friction between the views of the minister of information and what he intends to do with social media, and the views and direction of the minister of communication and digital economy.”
Teniola added, “It will be ideal to have a senior official that is almost like a digital czar – someone that reports directly to the President – that will oversee the transition from where we are now to the digital world so that social media, OTT, robotics, artificial intelligence and other trending emerging technologies are assimilated into the society in a manner that will bring together the government, civil society, the academia and Nigerian citizens.”
The former telecoms companies’ chief noted that the Twitter saga had highlighted the need to unify and harmonise the NBC and the NCC.
NBC is under the Ministry of Information while NCC is under the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy.
“Like in the UK where they have the Office of Communication, which also regulates communications and broadcasting, I think it is high time we had that, so that we can have a clear strategic policy for communication and broadcasting and that will help us to know how to relate with the digital world,” Teniola said.
- Twitter ban amounts to government shooting itself in the foot as platform has been a very effective means of communicating activities
Further reacting to the Twitter ban, Teniola said the development amounted to government shooting itself in the foot as the platform had been serving as a very effective means of publicising its activities.
The ICIR observed that the Nigerian government and its ministries, departments and agencies had been using Twitter to circulate press statements and other publications about their activities.
The instant, interactive nature of Twitter makes it a more efficient and cheaper option than traditional alternatives such as press releases and media conferences.
Should the ban be sustained, government will lose the opportunity of instant communication with about 40 million active Twitter users in Nigeria.
“The government has used Twitter to effectively communicate with Nigerians as well as global users. It has been an effective tool for the government to disseminate information and also interact instantaneously and spontaneously,” Teniola noted, adding that the social media platform had been very useful in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria.
“Government should engage Twitter to resolve issues surrounding this deleted tweet because we wouldn’t want a situation where the government has shot itself in the foot but is also preventing Nigerians from accessing and utilising the benefits of the platform, which is very useful not just for socio-economic reasons but also for economic diversification,” Teniola further observed.
The suspension of Twitter is already impacting negatively on the economy as small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs), which rely heavily on the platform, have had their operations disrupted.
Noting that many SMEs use Twitter to market products and services and also interact with a wider audience, Teniola said the ban was threatening the survival of small businesses contributing a lot in terms of tax to government.
“At the moment, the ban represents a $1.2 billion risk and the risk gets bigger the longer this drags on,” he said.
- Telecoms subscribers appeal to government to lift Twitter ban
The National Association of Telecoms Subscribers of Nigeria, an umbrella body of customers of telecommunications companies, has pleaded with the Nigerian government to lift the suspension.
President of the association Deolu Ogunbanjo told The ICIR that the ban was taking a huge toll on the livelihoods of ordinary Nigerians.
“Many ordinary Nigerians are relying on digital platforms, especially Twitter, to run their businesses – they operate on the social media from home because they don’t have money to rent offices.
“This category of Nigerians are now at risk of shutting down their businesses and this will have a severe negative impact on the economy.”
Ogunbanjo described the Twitter ban as a bad omen for digital Nigeria.
“We are appealing to government to please reverse the ban,” he said, noting that the matter between the Nigerian government and Twitter had been balanced after Twitter followed up on the removal of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet by also deleting that of leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) Nnamdi Kanu.