Dr. Isa Pantami is the Director General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). In this interview with KUNLE AZEEZ, he speaks on the key areas the agency is focusing on in 2018 and beyond within the purview of its mandates in order to engender a more robust ICT ecosystem where regulations and laws of the land are respected by all and sundry. Excerpts:
What level of investment do you think we need in the ICT industry this year and over the next few years?
As you all know today, ICT is second to oil and gas in the area of contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In Nigeria, for the two or three years, the contribution of ICT is second to oil and gas and there are implications. We think that in next few years, ICT could replace oil and gas.
So, as you ask me about the level of investment we are looking for, which is very important, what I can say to you briefly on that is that we don’t have any single level of investment we are looking for in the ICT but we are more interested in the area of wooing the investors first. We are not only asking for investors that will come to Nigeria just because they want to get our money, but rather, we are looking for investors that will come and domesticate their products in Nigeria.
That is what we are after. If they domesticate their products in Nigeria, such products will be made-in-Nigeria, not made-in-the US, not made-in-the UK; it must be made in Nigeria. By having Made-in-Nigeria products, the implication is that all transactions will be Naira-denominated, and by implication also, we are strengthening the Naira and by inference, we are strengthening our local currency. But if you invite an investor to come with made-in-US products in your country, the transactions could be in dollar and by implication; it is putting more pressure on our local currency.
So, that is why our first focus, as NITDA, is to ensure that the foreign investment would strengthen our local content ecosystem. It will also strengthen our local currency. If it is made in Nigeria, then, it has become local content. If all the transactions are in Naira, then, by implication, we are strengthening our local currency. That is what we are after.
Between software and hardware spaces, which one do you think we should give greater attention as a country at present?
Well, we are looking at areas where we have, at least, more challenges in the country. We are more advanced today in software. If you look at our software developers, we are more advanced in that space in Nigeria. However, there are challenges still. But if you look at hardware, it is the actual place where you can hardly see products that are being developed here in Nigeria. We have companies that are doing well such as Zinox, Omatek and many more.
They are doing well but what we are looking for is how to support them. If we get world-class IT companies, they can collaborate with them through NITDA to see how they can give them all the necessary support and the collaboration to ensure that our local companies are producing world-class IT products.
That’s what we are after – to see that any collaboration, any investment is to ensure that our local content is well developed. That is what why NITDA continues to hold series of meetings, especially with potential foreign investors home and broad with a focus on the direction of soliciting investors not only to come and take our money and go but to domesticate the products and secondly, to ensure there is no pressure on our local currency, meaning that whatever you do should be in naira.
What level of collaboration do you have with agencies such as the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP) to encourage ICT local content development and curb capital flight?
Since 2017, we have had a standing committee with NOTAP.
There is a standing committee between NITDA on the one hand and NOTAP on the other. But whatever is related to ICT, NOTAP contacts NITDA and whenever we see there is any capital flight, we contact NOTAP to work together. The director general of NOTAP was in NITDA in 2017; we had a very long meeting.
We discussed the areas where it is necessary for us to collaborate particularly, when it comes to IT. We agreed on that and we established a standing committee in which NITDA is well represented on the one hand and NOTAP is represented on the other. It is a standing committee because we realise that our work is interwoven, our responsibility is interwoven.
So, because we are serving the same government, we don’t need to fight each other. What we need to do, therefore, is to come together and work to serve the same country. So, we have a standing committee on that and surely, NOTAP has NITDA’s 100 per cent support and we have their backing as well.
NITDA came heavily on other ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) in 2017 in the area of making sure they obtain NITDA’s clearance before embarking on an ICT project going forward. Since it is part of your mandate to do that, why did NITDA just realise this clearing-house role in 2017?
Thank you so much for this very important question. Granting approval for all ICT-related projects has been a statutory responsibility of NITDA. Let me illustrate what we are trying to do here using telecoms sector. For example, the Nigerian Communications Commission is regulating communications. MTN, 9Mobile, Globacom and others are all under the NCC.
Do you think any telecommunication company would just come into Nigeria and start selling SIM cards without contacting NCC? Also, is it possible for you to just start your own bank without getting registered with the Central Bank of Nigeria as the regulator? Is it possible for you to establish a university and start issuing certificate without going to the National University Commission? It is not possible.
If that is not the case, why are people into IT without contacting the regulatory body and that is NITDA? It is a very simple question. Secondly, issue of seeking for clearance from NITDA is not new; it is part of our act that we are to regulate IT in the country and seeking for clearance is part of regulation.
Secondly, to emphasise that NITDA, in 21st April, 2006 and 19th July, 2012, issued circulars mandating all MDAs that they are not allowed, in any way, to spend one kobo on IT without going through NITDA to seek clearance.
To emphasise what they have said, the circular were there before I was appointed as NITDA DG, even the last circular was sent to all the MDAs four years before my appointment. So, saying that the previous chief executives were not able to implement the circulars doesn’t mean we cannot implement it today. We aren’t doing anything wrong.
We are only trying to ensure that laws and policies are respected. That is all we are after and if you think it is not right, go and establish your hospital without being registered with the regulatory body; and establish your own university without notifying the NUC and see what will happen. If that is the case, why should NITDA not be respected in IT? That is just the reality. You cannot establish a university and get the accreditation without NUC involvement; and even breaking the NITDA Act can take one to prison of one or three years.
Basically, you are saying the IT approval and clearance policy is not a new idea?
Yes, our insistence that all IT projects must first be approved by NITDA is not a new idea. Sometimes, people fail to understand the importance of regulations. Without regulation, with the speed at which IT is progressing today, let’s assume the sector is not being regulated, what will happen in the next five to 10 years.
The easiest way to commit crime today is through IT. If there are no regulations, how do you manage the security of your country, which is very important? How can you do that? We are not after whether people understand or they do not understand, we are after what is right. What is right must be followed. As long as we have legal power to do it as NITDA, we must do it because it is within our mandate.
Some MDAs have said the new policy on IT projects approval is to frustrate and jeopardise their individual efforts. What is your reaction to this?
Well, let me state clearly that our regulation is not to jeopardise any MDA’s effort. It is not in any way to frustrate any MDA; we regulate in order to develop. You cannot develop IT without regulating it. Secondly, there is no developing nation in the world where there is no IT regulation. No! Regulation brings about synergy.
Today, if you go to MDAs, you will see them doing their projects independently. You cannot operate ICT in silos. You cannot save the government money in IT without regulation. For example now, each MDA is going to Microsoft for any other company seeking licence. Sometimes, you can use shared platform but MDAs are going there to spending billions of Naira. Sometimes, shared platform is okay. I bought something, you are a colleague; you are my neighbour in the same hotel, it’s okay we can share it. What I have bought is more than my demand.
Instead of me to go and waste your money and buy it one thousand dollars in Dubai, come and use my own. What is the problem in that? That is what regulation is all about. There are things that if I buy, you don’t need to buy it. We can share it together. There must be an agency that must bring about this synergy; and that agency is NITDA.
I know of many MDAs that spend billions of naira on IT projects, you can get 10 to 20. But in reality, if one MDA purchases that licence, it is sufficient for all of them to share. But since there is no regulation, anyone would go and buy. I just spoke about local content development. If there are no regulations, how do we enforce local content?
How can you enforce it if there are no regulations? So, our regulation is to develop the ICT ecosystem and curb unnecessary capital flight. We develop IT through regulation and we regulate in order to support development. They are interwoven; you cannot do one without the other.
Is NITDA’s resolve to ensure MDAs comply with the approval policy born out a finding you have done to quantify how much is being spent unjustly by MDAs on IT projects?
Well, I did not do that but one thing I know is that the amount of money that has been spent for many years in IT are running in billions of dollars in Nigeria.
But if you go there, there is nothing to write home about. You cannot justify that amount of money, which some MDAs claimed to have spent on some IT projects. We are not talking about millions of dollars; we are talking about billions of dollars.
Even as of 2016, over $143 billion was spent across MDAs on IT projects. How can you justify that? Without regulation, how can you manage that? We are not worried about the amount of the money, but the justification and where is value for the money? That is the justification. With perfect regulation, we must ensure that whatever we deploy, we have the capacity to manage it.
But in Nigeria, we fail to do that particularly in the previous years. Let me give you a simple example: why did the CCTV project in Abuja fail? It was because there was no regulation. Look at the billions that were spent on that project.
Where are the CCTV cameras today? How can you justify that project? The money has been released and spent. Where is the justification? What is the significance of the CCTV cameras in Abuja? Which crime has been handled effectively in Nigeria through the CCTV camera even in Abuja itself? People are more interested in an environment that is not regulated because of personal and selfish interests.
I will be glad to hear that there is agitation against regulation; I’ll be even very much happy because any decision that brings change is very unpopular at the beginning but in the end, people will realise how important it is. How can you import something into Nigeria without going through the Customs?
When they enforced eating our own rice in Nigeria that we should eat what we are producing, many people were complaining. But what of today? Look at how we revived many agricultural sector’s segments in the country. Also, look at how the Treasury Single Account (TSA) initiative has been doing amazing thing today; whereas when the issue was announced, it was very unpopular. That is why I am always happy whenever I announce any policy that is unpopular to people, I say ‘Thank God’.
We are on the right track because people like to live without law and order and that is a clear indication of anarchy.
To see people not wanting to respect one law or one policy means it is a good policy.
If you see that one, be happy. Try to enforce it. At the tail end, they will realise how important it is and that is what NITDA is doing. We are sure that our decision is right. We are not after whether it is popular to people or it is unpopular. What we are after, one: to ensure what the law says and secondly, we are anticipating a positive result at the end as long as this is to ensure compliance with the laws of the land.
Has there been any project that you have worked on and found out that the money budgeted for it was overblown to have warranted your current push for the IT project clearance process by the MDAs?
I will give an example through this clearance we are talking about. In the beginning of 2017, we reviewed one single IT project. We intervened. We improved the quality of the project significantly. We trained staff on it and we saved the government over N500 million. This is what we did on only one project for one agency. We saved over N500 million from what they agreed on.
We invited the company handling the project, we discussed with the officials, we reviewed the project significantly and when we discussed the money, N500 million was saved on only one project. We saved this money and NITDA did not get one kobo. But what we are after is to serve our country. On my table at some point in the last quarter of 2017, was a project for one MDA. It was around N3 billion.
They were seeking clearance. That is just only one IT project and there are hundreds of them. Money has been spent but if you go today you will not see the project. How do you expect us to leave this sector without regulation?
Unfortunately, regulatory bodies are being misunderstood. They are regulating not to jeopardise or frustrate you; but to ensure there is value for you money; that there is sustainability and at the same time, to ensure that there is collaboration between relevant organisations because you cannot do IT projects in silos. There must be a minimum standard that must be respected. That is the responsibility of NITDA.
We are not after pleasing you; we are after doing what is right and this will continue in 2018 and beyond. We are after doing something that the county would recall what we have done while in the office that we did not betray them in any way. That is what we are after. Even if you fail to understand the wisdom behind doing it, I believe that the history will judge us.
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