Information Technology And E-Government In Nigeria –Reflections on Fuel Subsidy Crisis And Related Economic Issues

The central message of the national fuel subsidy removal and related economic crisis is: “The Industrial Era has ended and the Information Society Era has commenced”. All these …

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Chris-UwajeThe central message of the national fuel subsidy removal and related economic crisis is: “The Industrial Era has ended and the Information Society Era has commenced”. All these noise about oil and gas, oil and gas – yes, removing the subsidy has created hardships, but focusing on this and identifying or calling it our central problem, is like chasing a shadow. Fact is,Governance is constructively and visibly disconnected from the people – of which 60 percent are youths! Full digitization and automation of government processes, access to and delivery of e-Government services, constitutes a significant part of the eluding solutions.

The entire fuel subsidy crisis can simply be defined as an unorganized information cacophony -an environment myopically entangled in consumption. Instead, we’d do well to view this as a crisis of national information resources and governance.

The time has come to shift our focus away from our dependence on consumption, and concentrate instead on seizing immense new opportunities for building within, and firmly,finally, controlling our own destiny. These are the opportunities of high technology and the Information Age. By understanding them, by using them, we can expand prosperity, we can
manage our country properly, and we can drastically reduce the chances that “economic and social earthquakes” such as our current fuel subsidy crisis will occur.

Nigeria has arrived at a defining moment in its history. Our problems are real, and, in darker moments, we may fear they can overwhelm us. But this climate of anxiety, of fears for our future, need not exist at all. The answers are within our grasp – we can see them in action all over the world. The answers have to do with the new tools, the new way of thinking that is the
Information Age. This, demands a lot from us; a deeper comprehension of the path to building a merit-centric, knowledgeable, prosperous, wealthy and peaceful future – driven by Information Technology. And this can and must be done. The ominous headlines about Nigeria now being read around the world shout the message to us – we must do it. The Information
Age, the high Technology Society is here and we cannot continue to wish and carry on as if we still exist and live in the feudal era. The present approach is like prescribing Panadol to treat leprosy!

Our primary focus should be on a degree to which Information Technology can accomplish large-scale, permanent change for a better and sustainable Nigeria, and, by extension, the future of nations throughout the African continent.

Technology skills can effect positive change in the most immediate matters of everyday living;things such as more innovative and effective methods of governance, education, information exchange, dialogue-based communication technique, agriculture, better management and use of natural resources, general economic development, health care, everyday communications,social vibrancy – and perhaps most important, the conscious need conflict management and gradual minimization of reasons for physical conflict and warfare; the spread of peaceful alternatives.

Applying high technology in the pursuit of crisis management and peace is central to the vision of the Nigerian Nation. The Global Early Warning System Association of USA is developing one promising approach. This is a group associated with Columbia University in New York City and the Millennium Institute in Washington, DC. The system involves deployment of a network of mini-supercomputers capable of gathering and efficiently processing massive amounts of data concerning critical, fundamental issues. This information is then used to assist in formulating decision-making alternatives based on rational, objective facts. Today, for example, Nigerians
could be using the system to place reasonable, truthful policy options regarding fuel subsidies in the hands of our country’s decision makers and the Nigerian youths and people.

This one, single application of high technology has the potential for attracting massive Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Nigeria and engendering fundamental, positive, sustainable change.

There is a similar concept called the National Database System (NDS). This is a prerequisite for effective planning, organizing and delivering a transparent model of how our nation’s vital affairs are being conducted. It is a foundation for building the trust of citizens, confidence that basic services are functional and effective, and that life and property are being protected.
The economic and political character of a nation is largely defined by its basic structural framework, or “constitution”; it’s organizational capability; its administrative efficiency; and reliable management of its information systems. Today in Nigeria all these are fraught with deficiencies. This is why we state that the root-cause of the current fuel subsidy crisis revolves
around the non-existence of a centralized National Database System (NDS), which ensures that these basic elements of a healthy society are in place, functioning and transparent.

Thus the NDS is simply an amalgamation of available data and information variables which translates to budgetary process and distribution of resources; the implementation of policy.The constitutional divisions of the Nigerian government ‘Executive; Legislature and Judiciary’ and its administration organs (MDAs) are designed to function in a ‘separation-of-powers’ relationship.

However noble in concept, this has evolved into a classic snail-speed model of file-carrying administration that has not only strangled the information flow, it has created enormous loopholes for corruption: Information manipulation, the denial of rights, subversion of merit,ignoring, discouraging or otherwise eroding of potential of Nigerian youths, and slamming the
door to the dynamic innovation, participation, and creativity of the people.

It is, then, no wonder that today we witness all the bottled-up anger and visible suppressed national development, at all levels. It will be recalled that in year 1999-2000, Nigeria was a nation with a population of 140 million people served with 720,000 telephone landlines out of which only 400,000 were functional! That translated to a telephone acquisition waiting list of 5
years for its citizens.

Today not much has changed in our Government Information Network System. In the new language of the Information Age, a significant chunk of millions of terabytes of information is isolated, analogue and dormant or minimally digitized, isolated and unconnected.

This means that information as critical national resource is inaccessible and therefore, effective governance is denied to the citizenry. The message is that it is not possible to effectively govern 155 million people through a traditional manual file movement model, especially when about
43 million of the people are connected to the Internet. A robust and automated Information and Communications Technology system is urgently required to resolve the endemic challenge.

As for oil, suppose we forget about that for a moment. New sources of energy and renewable energy are emerging, and emerging very fast. Two years ago, I road in an electric–powered car on the streets on New York City and instantly got the jarring message that indeed things have
changed, and it won’t be long before it dawns on us that the game is up for consumer nations –like us — as we face innovation at the speed of light and stiff global competitiveness.

Today, humanity can be classified as living in a “machine society’ where technological tools are predominant at different levels, interfacing in the day-to-day activity of man. These livelihood activities constitute and deliver economic, social and political benefits and potential risks to the survivability of nations – especially developing nations like ours. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and Human Capital have become the centre of gravity and indeed the heart of sustainable National Development and in particular for structured effective
governance, education, advanced knowledge and intelligence activities, product development,manufacturing techniques as well as organizational financial and management systems – all of which are the cornerstone of global competition through automated globalization.

Automated IT-based systems are performing many of the tasks previously done manually by humans. ICTs have also enabled more efficient, information-centered management and contributed to the breakdown of the bureaucratic/industrial organizational model. Public and private sectors are downsizing and flattening the hierarchy as systems become more accurate and efficient.

Wisdom also warns that within this development cycle and its embedded opportunities and benefits, the risk of techno-crime grows. Systems must be designed accordingly.

For future governments to function effectively using e-government tools and skills, major ministerial structures, functions and the human resource base must be completely re-defined and overhauled. Indeed, it is a tragic irony that while the private sector is busy restructuring,re engineering, and upgrading its operations to use the advantages of things like cloud computing and nano-technology, the operating structures of governance remain unchanged!

It has been demonstrated that ICTs can provide opportunities to change traditional practices.This is especially important in Nigeria and our sister nations in Africa, where short-sighted divisions, personal quests for power and wealth, and the priorities of foreign powers have so impeded progress. The introduction of ICTs can change the accepted social distribution of
power. This is why the interfacing relationship of Government and Citizens, through technology must be systematically understood, strategically organized, constantly examined, tracked,monitored and managed for sustainable development of national resources and the survival of our national sovereignty.

The shift towards knowledge-based jobs has accelerated the rise of the services sector, creating new opportunities. Time and distance from a business need no longer be the problems they once were. Outsourcing, as well as various forms of telework, either within or outside organized work units, can generate an increasing proportion of national wealth. “Telework”, or“telecommuting” as it’s sometimes called in the West, can create the opportunity to work from geographically isolated locations, as if the same person were in a big city office. For Nigeria this could be significant not just in reducing personal travel expense, but also as a means of keeping young people in their own rural communities. It’s also an incentive for the creation of small businesses serving local needs.

As mentioned previously, there are dangers. As with all things, ICTs may fall prey to the baser side of human nature. Vigilance in system design and operation is essential to prevent cyber and economic sabotage, financial crimes and politically destructive data manipulation.

Indeed, the Digital Culture may also be used to manipulate, magnify and multiply national security issues; it can be exploited by foreign interests and shadowy “online managers”–unseen ghosts in Cyber Space whose insidious purpose is to create permanent crises –especially for developing countries who have neglected to properly safeguard their data. It would be irresponsible and naive to overlook the fact that for some, there is profit in chaos, and in warfare. Security issues must have the highest priority from the outset.

Typical cyber-crimes target the cell/mobile phone culture. This has become a conduit for economic, social, and financial crimes. There is currently no national database of owners of cell phones and other wireless technologies, including computers. We in Nigeria should be acutely
aware the mobile phone was instrumental in the successfully executed short down of the government, economic and social activities in our country during the past week!

The challenge now is to join in the very real excitement among those who know all the new technology best; those who see it all at work in their laboratories and workshops, and join hands. The time has come for constructive and practical implementation. We must fashion an actionable approach capable of igniting development and celebrating knowledge. The moment is ours; we must greet it with the pride, the bearing, the fierce determination that is our right and our heritage.

Major implications for governance

First, existing over sized Government and ministerial structures and functions must be redefined and re-structured. They must be smaller in size, but far more effective. To pretend that this is not necessary would be a national deceit. Furthermore, market forces alone for a developing economy such as Nigeria are incapable in producing the required change – we can’t
sit by and “let nature take its course”. The initiative must be ours. We must comprehend and master the enormity of complexities and the rapidity of change that is the Information Age Revolution. A mix-mode approach model regarding private industry is necessary.

What will the future look like? Can future government and commerce cope and survive the new age without for example, a ‘Ministry of Infrastructure’? What purpose will the Ministry of Commerce and Industry serve without the sophistication and competence to manage digital technology trade and commerce? How will education be improved and positioned without the
innovation intensive and knowledge applications, diffusion and use of informatics and communications technologies? How will government respond to the high velocity of trade and commerce – with respect to balance of trade issues – in the information age? Indeed, who should be in government and govern in the information age? What skills would/should such people require to perform?

To resolve the national challenges and attain the aspired knowledge-based state of affairs in our nation, there is need to re-structure and reorganize the entire education system to focus on self-reliance, creativity and innovation. Software Development strategy may hold the key for Latecomers in the national development life cycle, including developing nations like Nigeria, by developing her I.T. Industries. At the same time the manufacturing capability in the hardware sector and local content development should also be fortified.

Long ago, the International market for the export and consumption of software generated more than $300 billion US dollars in 1996. A number of governments and firms in the third world said, “Why can’t we do this too”? They recognized the fact that software production has emerged as a major global industry of substantial economic significance. A number of Asian and
Latin American like India, Chile and Uruguay have taken advantage of this fact to boost their economies through the export of locally developed software.

To make an impact in the computer industry with world standard package software, Nigeria has to follow the example of these countries by deliberately working out a scheme and policies to achieve this goal. The main thrust of such a policy will be the provision of locations,infrastructures, highly skilled manpower and the relevant enabling environment.

Again we must carefully regard the dangers. A “global meltdown” of sorts is challenging financial institutions, the finest technical minds, and the best leadership. This involves the complexities of undefined and carefully laid out parameters, guidelines and global supervisory controls for globalized services, lifestyles. USA and Europe are typical examples of what can befall nations where greed is king.

All those acts of financial recklessness and cyber-carelessness have consequently subsumed our human abilities to meditate and see into the future. At the global level, the resultant effect is that we have built a monumental cyber web patched by layers of greedy human minds. This has established and left us in heavily techno-beclouded rooms where gross fixing and number crunching manipulation of quantum data – even beyond the comprehension of computational machinery – have become the order of the day. Now, the moral centre of gravity can no longer hold. As I write, the new revelations from the perceived causes of Global Financial Meltdown are compounded by the Information Pyramids of Technology jargons that are added to our digital world-mindset from nanosecond to nanosecond.

Similarly, digital-savvy and electronic criminals continue to search and smoke-out the loots and unsecured green notes around the globe. Developing counties such as Nigeria will remain vulnerable, to Oil and Gas theft, unless urgent and smart steps are taken. Indeed, the bailout adventure may lead nowhere for Nigeria, unless multi-parallel actions of leadership political will for re-structuring government, re-designing, rebuilding and fortifying our National Information infrastructure(NII) – as well as building commensurate Information Society code-warriors are
taken seriously – simultaneously.

A developing country such as Nigeria stands to gain immensely from unleashing development information resource through I.T.; Nigeria should take full advantage of its quantum opportunities. There is a fundamental need to prepare her work force to have access, apply and use IT facilities like the computer. In the developed world, IT is permanently established in education, human knowledge, research and socio economic activities. It is available to us, and the most populous nation on the African continent must use it. If nothing else, it is a primary obligation to our Youth.

Summary and Recommendation: Nigerian runs a suppressed development model at the moment. This must change. e-Government is mandatory as a significant part of the current and other solutions to the crisis. Information Technology is a global revolution and an important nation such as Nigeria must be involved.

Nigeria’s main objective should be reactivating its governance, educational and institutional structures with an overriding purpose: The attainment of a confident and respected player status among the information age societies. This is a new path to status in the world that is ours for the taking; it is a paramount assignment, which should top the list of national development priorities. Its framework should be supported with a dynamic IT Policy, capable of achieving and sustaining meaningful growth using technological skill. The entire national workforce should be re-tooled. A critical minimum competence goal must be established and attained.

This should be followed by enhancing the national technological capability. Knowledge is essential for harnessing and building the potentials of this great nation. Government must play a significant, active role. The role of Government should be driven by a positive interventionist strategy capable of networking the entire IT development phases. Apart from utilizing
technology government has an important role to play with respect to its regulations –these should embrace technical, financial and techno-legal Frameworks. This offers options for resolving issues like the fuel subsidy, the improvement of electoral processes, resource allocation, improving government structures, education, economic development, legislation,
health-care, international relations, environmental protection –the list goes on.

It is mandatory that the development of IT be controlled by Nigerians themselves -even as we recognize that international cooperation in this field is absolutely healthy and necessary. On the other hand, for meaningful IT development growth to be attained and sustained, the private sector, academia, professional bodies, government, as well as the local community must form an alliance and work out an enduring national IT policy. Such a policy should recognize IT Education in Nigeria as the engine room of our future. Within the context of this paper, the following recommendations are presented as a path-analysis to workable solutions.

IN CONCLUSION: Nigerian youths should take their destiny in their hands, ensuring that it is accomplished through sincerity, hard work, transparency and accountability. Equipped with technology, Nigeria should pursue innovation and creativity, applying the use media in a fashion appropriate to the times, their demands, and opportunities. The onset of the Information Age is one of those moments in time when matters of importance are evolving too quickly for earlier patterns of thinking to grasp. The Information Age is here and permanent.The clock cannot be turned back. Nigeria has the choice of embracing it, or being consumed by it.

By Chris Uwaje with contributions from Daniel Molina (Houston, USA).Chris Uwaje is the CEO of Connect Technologies, Fellow NCS and President of ISPON and Dan Molina is a Journalist, former Correspondence for NBC News and Film Producer.

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