The budget circle is on again. Information and Communications Technology procurement is one of the constants we see in the budgets of Ministries, Departments and Agencies every year. How have we used this instrument to develop the ICT industry?
I will disarticulate that question into two or three parts. One, the government has been spending on developing the ICT infrastructure itself. The expenses have come as interventions from the Universal Access Provision Fund, the National Information Technology Development Agency, the Petroleum Technology Development Fund, and from all sorts of sources.
I will not throw statistics around but it is fair to say that we are not satisfied with what had been spent over the years. There are many reasons to this. One, maybe no one is taking a helicopter perspective of everything. So, at times, the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. There is a lot of duplication in terms of infrastructure and connectivity spending. There is a lot of wastage in that arrangement.
So, government, under the change dispensation, needs to have a coordinated view of things to avoid duplication and wastage of resources. That is for ICT development part of things. The second link is the ICT for development. How is government using ICT for development? I think we have a lot of interesting programmes IPPIS; the agriculture wallet programme, and the Bank Verification initiative.
These are all very critical initiatives that are ICT-centric but their ultimate objective is to reduce costs, block leakages and to enable us to do things better but a lot of the costs are dollar components. We don't make these things here. So, even our software licensing, our software support costs from a lot of the Original Equipment Manufacturers costs are enormous.
There are some OEMs that charge as much as 22 per cent as annual support costs. That means in a few years, you would have paid all over again for the software. You ask, if the software is that good; why do you have to pay almost a quarter of the cost for support services every year? These are dollarized costs.
We need to have a very comprehensive view of how much it is even costing us in government per annum supporting the ICT infrastructure. What value are we getting from these investments? Is it commensurate? Are there leakages and gaps in that arrangement and I suspect there are many commercial gaps, complicity and collusion, ignorance.
We need to look at those gaps and block them. There are areas we need to use our muscle and the size of our market to negotiate and get preferential deals. We are an emerging economy, not a developed economy. This has to be reflected in how we make our IT procurement especially now that our dollar income has plummeted.
Are you suggesting that we move from proprietary to open source software as part of the solution?
That is a very good point. If we look at what we are spending; if we pursue some of the objectives that are already set in the ICT policy that was approved in 2013, local skills incubation is very critical. All the software we are paying for; there are brilliant Nigerians that can do them. There is no reason we cannot be serious with budgeting for local software development.
I have followed the saga between Federal Reporting Council of Nigeria and Stanbic IBTC Bank about the software that was locally developed that was good enough but which unfortunately had to be paid for as if imported. I don't want to go into that because it is already in court but again, it is part of the challenges.
To answer your question, local development is key as not only a short-term measure but also as a medium to long-term initiative that would drag down the cost of government expenses in recurrent expenditure and even capital expenditure on ICTs.
You raised the issue of BVN. What is your view on the recent governments directive that this database and others should be handed over to the National Identity Management Commission?
NIMC actually has a legal mandate to maintain identity database for all identity matters. We have to understand that identity is also slightly different from data in a sense. If I capture data, I need to establish that the data I have captured represent what they purport to. I should be able to cross reference the data to be able to establish the identity. NIMC is about identity.
Now, if we had approached this in a more organised manner; maybe NIMC would have been able to come with a mother database where every parameter exits on an individual. The telecoms man goes to on tie the data to SIM card for his own application that keys into NIMC database and takes what he needs for his own sector. Maybe, the driving licence man can have his own application. So also insurance, banking and others. So, we would have avoided all these multiplicity of projects.
However, some of these agencies also have in their establishment Acts a duty to maintain a database. So what do you do in that scenario? To wait for NIMC project before you can fulfil your own constitutional mandate or you go ahead and do yours. So what we have had is that each important agency had done one identity project or the other. I think Nigeria is on the top five in terms of identity expenditure. We had census, election, banking registration, driving licence. It goes on at the national level and again at the state level. I must add that there are sectors that have a legal mandate to maintain a database.
Are you suggesting then that we should reform the legal framework or that a directive can help us harmonise the anomalies?
A directive should not be superior to what a law has established. We are not in a directive-oriented democracy. You can see that from a lot of actions that the present government has tried to maintain that posture. So, I don't think it is a directive issue. I think it is something that needs to be harmonised from a legal viewpoint and we need to find a tactical solution to how to ensure that the coming databases can talk to each other or at worse can talk to NIMC's database so that if in the future, five years, six years; if there is a need for a big harmonisation to reduce recurrent expenditure, the technology then doesn't become a problem.
The Office of the Nigerian Content in ICT has raised the alarm that most of our data as a nation are hosted abroad and I have also seen that the American Embassy is opposed to the localisation of data. What is your position on this emerging controversy?
There has been a lot of talk about cloud technology as a method to reduce infrastructure cost but you really have to ask yourself; what is cloud? What are the risks? Who is seeing the data? What can the data be used for? How secure are they? What happens, if for instance, I have a contractual disagreement with my provider? Does it mean that they seize all my operational data? When I have a contractual or operational disagreement or anything; does that mean you hold me hostage and I can't work?
These are some of the issues we need to balance against the commercial attractiveness of clouding. So, I am not surprised if those who are hosting the data primarily are opposed to localisation because it is in their commercial interest that you host the data with them. But bear in mind that a lot of local providers are also emerging that have full solution from connectivity. Don't forget that connectivity is a very critical element in clouding. If there is no connectivity, it can't work. If your software application or your platform is cloud-based and you lose your connectivity, work stops.
There are local providers. They also have a connectivity dependency but then they are local as opposed to international ones. There are a few in Lagos that are quite serious about hosting. We need to encourage them. But we need to pay attention to an issue and that is, the ethical makeup of the sector. There are a lot of Cybercriminals attacking banks. Some of them very organised groups, very organised rings. You were here on election day, somebody managed to compromise INEC website. Imagine if somebody had posted a wrong result and the nation taught that was the right result. It could have triggered off mayhem. So, we have to address the ethical component of our local ICT industry, providers, and developers the entire value chain.
Perhaps, you are suggesting that this should be part of the national reorientation being proposed by the present government?
It is very key because if we say we are going to the knowledge economy, you need to make sure that the people with the knowledge are going to use it for good because technology knowledge used for evil can be devastating. I watched recently, the attack on the Estonian government. The people were able to shut down the whole Estonian government banking services, government services. Everything was shut down. What I am saying is that ICT knowledge can catalyse the growth of the economy if used positively. If used criminally, it can bring economies and businesses to their knees. So, as we are empowering the next generation, we need to ensure that ethics are integral.