Buhari, Zuckerberg and telecom, by Ken Ugbechie
Last week in this column, I commended the smart innovators who pulled Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg to Nigeria, precisely to Yaba, the nation’s emerging Silicon Valley, and later to Aso Rock, to meet President Muhammadu Buhari. The essence of Zuckerberg coming to Nigeria goes far beyond the fact that Nigeria is a huge market; it goes beyond the logic of Nigeria having a huge collection of ICT-savvy youths just waiting to excel. Its deeper essence is rooted in the reality that out of the dunghill of what used to be the state-run NITEL, has sprouted a boisterous private-sector driven telecom sector which flame has simply refused to wane.
Lest we forget, the co-creation hub in Yaba, Lagos is a product of a telecom revolution that swept Nigeria into global reckoning. Since the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) organised the historic Digital Mobile Auction in 2001 with subsequent rollout of services by the operators in August same year, Nigeria never remained the same. That singular act laid the foundation for the ubiquity of telecom services, gave birth to telecom companies that have by every stretch of the imagination added real value to the nation’s political economy.
I have said it aforetime that the nation’s telecom sector has continued to stay bullish standing out as the best performing sector year-on-year. Because of the success in telecoms which birthed diverse ancillary ICT businesses including the sprouting of Computer cum GSM villages (concentrated ICT markets) in different parts of the country, world richest man and technopreneur supremo, Bill Gates, left the comfort of his US home and jetted into Nigeria some years back for a first-hand appreciation and evaluation of the ICT strides of some relentless young Nigerians. And just recently, it was the turn of Zuckerberg. There must be something they are seeing in Nigeria which most Nigerians are yet to grasp.
Zuckerberg, for instance, never shied away from applauding the innate talents in the Nigerian youth and how they have in the midst of difficulties clawed their way into the global innovation club. In contextualizing the Zuckerberg visit, we must never fail to acknowledge the contribution of the following Nigerians: Ernest Ndukwe, the former Executive Vice Chairman of NCC and the sagely Ahmed Joda who chaired the NCC Board during Ndukwe’s tenure, Dr, Eugene Juwah, the immediate past EVC of NCC and the then Communication Technology Minister, Omobola Johnson, a woman who distinguished herself in a so-called man’s world. These outstanding personalities showed visionary leadership and herded the nation’s telecom sector on the path of profitability and sustainability.
And now enters the real McCoy of this dispensation, Professor Umar Danbatta, the incumbent EVC of the NCC. The Professor of Electronics Engineering arrived at the NCC in August, 2015. He came at the most challenging time of the nation’s economy and by extension, the telecom sector. But in just one year, Danbatta has simply raised the bar in regulatory dexterity and excellence. His insistence that operators in the sector subject themselves to corporate governance and adhere strictly to regulatory code of ethics stands him out as a man for this era when the nation is looking for men and women sporting the breastplate of integrity.
In the last two quarters of 2016, the nation has pulled through a turbulent economic climate, recording two successive negative growths with unprecedented double-digit inflation. Yet, within this period when every other sector shrank by virtue of the prevailing economic instability, telecom has remained bullish, adding more value and substance to the nation’s GDP. The recent data from the National Bureau of Statistics speaks volume of the resilience and rebuff of telecom against the tide of corrosive economic tidal wave beating down other sectors.
The NBS reports says telecoms sector contributed N 1.58 trillion to GDP in the second quarter of 2016, or 9.8%, which represents an increase of 1.0% points relative to the previous quarter. This runs contrary to the dip in other sectors. The NBS said this is the largest contribution to GDP made from telecom sector in the rebased period. It emphasised the fact that growth in telecoms has remained robust when compared to total GDP.
The report noted that the share of telecoms in total real GDP had declined throughout 2010 to 2014, but for the last five quarters growth in the sector has been higher, meaning the trend has reversed. The positive performance of telecoms in Q2 reflects its bullishness in Q1 of 2016. This is simply remarkable given that all other sectors have capitulated to the vagaries of economic recession.
This is why President Muhammadu Buhari should be proud of telecoms. He should be proud of the feat of Professor Danbatta, widely regarded as one of his best appointments. But much more, Mr. Buhari should be proud to have hosted Zuckerberg in Aso Rock, a 32-year-old man who wowed the world with just an idea. He gave the world a new ‘Face’ for people-to-people, people-to-business and business-to-business engagements. The President must never miss the inherent lesson in the Zuckerberg visit. The billionaire New Yorker said he was enchanted by the energy and creative capacity among Nigerian youths; he said he was excited at the momentum and passion swirling around Nollywood and Nigerian music; he saluted the raw gusto and chutzpah that run in the streets of Lagos, at Yaba co-creation hub and among the various start-ups that are beginning to dot the nation’s business landscape.
President Buhari is an austere, ascetic man, not given to gloating and boastful gushes typical of Nigerian politicians but I have no doubt that on meeting a young global citizen whose invention, Facebook, he cherishes and uses, the President must have felt a sense of pride for the younger generation. A man who is just 32 years and worth over $54 billion, standing with President Buhari in Aso Rock, in a period of recession for a nation endowed with human capital of extra-ordinary intelligence and blessed with immeasurable natural resources, should trigger a new thinking for the President and Nigerians. The challenge is for Mr. Buhari to seek out the Bill Gates and Zuckerbergs in the country. And they are many. The very fact that no fewer than 18 Nigerians are currently working at Facebook at mid-career and senior levels around the world is a pointer that we are no dull heads. Most of them studied outside Nigeria and that alone says so much about our educational system.
This is the knowledge century and your certificate or school grade counts as nothing if you cannot use it to make a change. High profile school dropouts in the mould of Zuckerberg, Bill Gates et al have demonstrated most profoundly that the world respects men who change the course of history for good rather than men who flaunt long and loud certificates. Aside agriculture which Nigerians most commonly look to, the most realistic alternative to oil as revenue earner is export of ICT knowledge. Turning Nigeria into a nursery for nurturing innovative whiz kids in ICT, just like India, will be the most realistic way out of the current economic bind. Telecom has proven that knowledge economy is a buffer to economic recession. Need I remind Mr. President that in 2015, India grossed $99 billion from ICT export alone. India is able to do this because its government at all times placed premium on ICT development. It was never a happenstance. It comes out of proper planning and visioning. The challenge is for the Buhari government to leverage on the success in telecom and drive the entire ICT sector with fresh vigour using Nigerians because in deed and in truth, this country is never in short supply of thousands of Zuckerbergs but they lack opportunity. The real reason Nigerian telecom is doing very well is that the appointment of the leadership of the regulatory body has not been reduced to the level of political patronage. This should apply to other sectors, too!
- First published in Sunday Sun, September 11, 2016