How Digital Economy is boosting Nigeria’s GDP- Dr Isa Pantami, Minister
Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami was sworn into office on the 21st of August 2019 as the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy by President Muhammadu Buhari. Before his appointment, he was the Director-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA).
Apart from being an Islamic Scholar of repute, he was an ICT lecturer at Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU), his alma mater and later joined the Islamic University of Madinah as the Head of Technical Writing.
While COVID-19 Pandemic shutdown and lockdown other sectors it merely accelerated the way agencies under his supervisions executed projects. Within his first year’s tenure, he has commissioned over 20 ICT projects including Capacity building Centres, Emergency Communication Centres, Data Sharing Centres, among others.
An associate Professor, Dr. Pantami obtained PhD in Computer Information Systems and Post Graduate Certificate in Research Methods from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland. He also attended Executive Courses and programmes relating to Digital Transformation and Strategic Management at different institutes including the Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute of Management Development Loussaune and Cambridge University. Pantami is a fellow of both British Computer Society (FBCS) and Nigeria Computer Society (FNCS).
In this exclusive interview with the Economic Confidential, Dr. Pantami reaffirms his commitments to advancing the digital economy in Nigeria with success stories of agencies under his Ministry.
How can ICT be deployed in tackling insecurity in Nigeria?
Communication or digital economy today are the key enablers of each sector. And because of this, we must come up with some initiatives where we can support the government in the protection of lives and properties. The Emergency Communication Centre being facilitated by the Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) is a statutory institution as in the Nigerian Communications Act 2003. That Act mandated the government to provide communication centres in the country in order to facilitate communication, and these communication centres are not only for security purposes but for instance during emergencies like fire outbreak, ambulance services for hospitals to cater for emergency situations. We are glad that the numbers of the ECC in the country have increased in the last one year of the second tenure of President Muhammadu Buhari who is deeply passionate in finding solutions to insecurity in the country.
Are the agencies under your supervision addressing cybersecurity issues?
If you want to reduce the gravity of cybersecurity threats, create awareness. Let the people controlling emergency centres know what they should do at every point in time, especially online. And our ministry has been doing that. We have just commissioned the Computer Emergency Response and Readiness Centre (CERRC) under the National Information and Technology Development Agency (NITDA). The Centre monitors potential attacks on our cyberspace in the country. When there is an attack in our banks, and other financial institutions, or an attempt by cybercriminal to penetrate our data centre in the country or attempts to compromise the website of a very important institution, the Centre monitors such potential attacks 24/7. In some cases, we block the attack completely; in some cases, we notify the potential institutions to be attacked, and we give them professional guidance on how to curb the attack.
Are there specific measures in place to be taken when there is a sudden disruption in the system?
When I was DG NITDA, the agency and other communications parastatals, conducted an assessment in 2018 after a cybersecurity attack was launched in a European country. We identified institutions that control huge data in the country. We reached out to the giant multinational technology company, (Microsoft), whose system detected the initial attack. They immediately sent some parties to us from their Headquarters in USA, through their Nigerian office. And we sent them to the institutions immediately and issued a press statement. At that time, I was the first person to address a press conference in Africa about the attack. So, when we collected the parties from Microsoft, we sent it to the relevant institutions and they immediately updated their systems. Though there was a serious attack, the impact in Nigeria was not up to one per cent compared to other developing nations. In a situation of a breach, which is exceedingly rare, we immediately guide the Organisations concerned on how to recover their own systems or applications, and the actions required to prevent potential attacks. So our upgraded facility is also for monitoring potential cybersecurity attacks. We are doing a lot to help relevant security agencies counter potential threats not only to lives and properties but cybersecurity, institutions’ websites, among others.
Why do you lay so much emphasis on the digital economy instead of agriculture and other resources?
Firstly, the digital economy today is not just an independent sector, but it is the key enabler of each sector. We are not in any way advising our country to jettison agriculture, but we are encouraging them to practice it using digital technology. We are not asking any sector to be neglected, but rather if we want to enhance the performance of that sector, we must deploy digital technologies.
Can you cite an example where digital technology assists other sectors?
For instance, in 2018 alone, and through agriculture, Holland introducing smart agriculture after deploying digital technology, specifically emerging technologies generated around 120 billion euro at the time Nigeria as a nation could not generate even 20 billion euro through oil and gas. They deployed emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and drones to their agriculture, thus enhancing the productivity by more than 100 per cent. So, all we are advocating is that digital technology should be deployed in each and every sector of the economy.
What is your take on the impact of COVID-19?
I feel sad that, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, our universities have been closed because we could not embrace the digital economy early enough. Otherwise in the developed nations, their universities have been operating virtually. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, we are conducting virtual Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting. But before now there was nothing like that. And even before I came up with the policy, the entire FEC was shut down for almost three months. And I had to meet the President and informed him that we cannot continue like that because there were so many important memos awaiting FEC’s approval. But now that we started virtually, most ministries are now working, because their memos are now been discussed and approved. From the day we started the virtual FEC meeting six to seven memos are regularly approved, and each of them is all about national development. So, the digital economy is all about providing a platform for other sectors to enhance their performance.
How efficient is our broadband?
It is very efficient. When I assumed office in August 2019, the broadband penetration was just a little higher than 30 per cent, but within one year, with the national broadband plan we developed, as of end of July, the penetration was more than 42 per cent. So, an increase of more than 10 per cent. And in any country where you increase broadband penetration by 10 per cent, automatically that will increase the GDP of all other sectors by a minimum of 1.6 per cent up to 6.8 percent. Why, because they leverage on broadband. So, digital economy indeed is the future, and it is all about prioritizing digital innovation and digital entrepreneurship. So, there is need for the government to deploy more digital innovation and also support digital creativity or if you like, entrepreneurship.
What is the contribution of the Digital economy to the GDP?
From the time we started with the digital economy, the performance and contribution of ICT to our GDP is always increasing. Let us take for example, in the second quarter of 2020, the contribution of ICT to GDP is 17 per cent. In the previous years, it was not near that, it was just 13 percent maximum. And this just the contribution of the ICT sector alone without the digital economy. But if it is with the contribution of the digital economy, it will be more than 45 per cent. As I stated, the broadband penetration in the country is also encouraging.
What does the transfer of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) to your Ministry portend, especially as regards to the problem of collection of ID card?
I won’t like to say much since the transfer of NIMC just announced less than 24 hours to this interview. Meanwhile, our main focus to be fair with you is not about the ID card. That ID card is optional. The new approach is the digital number, and not the card. That is what brought NIMC under the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy. So, now the target is the number, which will be in the country’s database. The number will be the link or centre of any information with regards to the person’s identity and will be attached to the person’s passport and Driver’s License among others. So that if a person wants to access any kind of service it will be through the digital number, which he or she will provide to the authorities concerned, and they will render the service requested by the person. So, there is no point promoting the digital economy and encourage people to be going out with cards. It should be optional.
Your Ministry seems to be driving the digital economy and other key programmes vigorously. How sufficient is your budget?
We are managing the budgetary provision even though it is not sufficient. We have been generating more fund and revenue for the government. So, any institution that has been generating more revenue for the government, should be encouraged to do more by adequate budgetary provisions. I have been agitating for that, that any sector doing well should be supported by giving them more funds. So that they will continue to thrive. The sector that generates more revenue should be motivated to do more.
How do the agencies fair in that regards?
Some of our agencies do not even have budgetary provision coming from federal government allocation. They collect levy or tax on behalf of the government. Nevertheless, some of them enjoy the government’s patronage for payments of staff’s salaries like NIGCOMSAT. Galaxy Backbone, for example, must pay their staff’s salaries, they must generate money to pay salaries, do other things and provide services. As it is now, even the salaries of NCC and NITDA do not come directly from the federal government. They generate a certain percentage from income and remit a significant per cent to government and the remaining is used to pay salaries of staff and provide some interventions.
How was the budget provision to your ministry?
As for the last budget I inherited in the Ministry when I came on board, the entire money released for the whole ministry is less than 2 billion, which is around 1.6 billion, including constituency projects. To the extent that the policies I am talking about, most of them I have to sit down and write them myself because there was no enough fund to engage consultants to develop the policies like the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy. I am glad to have competent aides who stay up at night with me for hours working to develop them. We don’t complain because it is a privilege to serve our fatherland and our country is worthy of our sacrifice. It is not about us, but our children and the younger generation to come. In any situation I found myself, I just do the best I can. However, to be fair, with the little we get we are far better than many other sectors. I must commend the President for being so passionate and interested in what we are doing. He always listens to our complaints and intervenes where necessary.
What is the update on NIPOST and FIRS issue?
As a Minister supervising one of the institutions, that is NIPOST, I have been handling it formally. Part of my interventions I wrote and discussed with the Minister of Finance, who supervises FIRS, and I pointed out the wrong that was done to NIPOST to my understanding. I also contacted the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) to give his legal opinion on the matter. It is necessary to also state that I reported the issue to the President too with relevant documents. So, I am doing the little I can in handling it officially and formally. I am aware that NIPOST initiated the bill of stamp duty. The staff did everything to the National Assembly and defended the bill to the extent that they once sent a letter to the Minister of Finance. The minister officially endorsed it by writing that NIPOST was to collect stamp duty. When the bill was in the process of been approved, NIPOST started collecting stamp duty. And they collected over N50 billion naira in their account in CBN.
What could have triggered the controversy between the agencies?
A day before the final decision on the bill at the National Assembly, something strange happened without the knowledge of the Minister. So, NIPOST’s name was substituted with another institution, and the following day, the decision was taken, which nobody knew. So, in a nutshell, Finance Bill 2019 brought about the controversy. So, to me, I am not worried about some institutions collecting money, it is just that I cannot tolerate injustice. And it is my nature, I always fight for the oppressed. So, what provoked me is injustice. And even NIPOST, with a staff capacity of over 12, 000 in Nigeria, they don’t get even 1 kobo from the federal government for any capital project. As it is today, the FG doesn’t provide even one naira for NIPOST for any capital project. That is why all their offices are dilapidated. They don’t get any intervention for any capital project. And after they came up with the process of digitalizing their activity, some people decided to take the joy away from them.