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How Nigeria Can Win The ICT Race in Africa PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mercy Ette   
Sunday, 29 March 2009

A book authored by a Nigerian journalist examines Nigeria’s approach to the development of ICT and concludes that the country is on its way to becoming a leader in Africa

It is not a subject that would readily grab attention of ordinary readers but in the hands of a journalist-turned-university lecturer, the story of Nigeria’s engagement with information and communication technologies, ICTs, is a compelling tale. Information and Communication Technologies in Nigeria: Prospects and challenges for development is not just an authoritative text on the subject but also a refreshing narrative of Nigeria’s attempt to harness ICTs for socio-economic development.

Patience Akpan-Obong explores Nigeria’s engagement with new technologies at various levels against the backdrop of theoretical assumptions about their potential to drive economic development. The result is what the author describes as ‘a compendium of the development of ICTs in Nigeria both as means to socio-economic development and as ends by themselves.’ But this book offers more than that. It is also an engaging examination of theories of development, especially those that focus on communication and information, and how they influence debates on the connection between socio-economic growth and ICTs.

Akpan-Obong premises her argument on the interconnection of ICT and development, but is quick to acknowledge that development must be contextualised against the backdrop of a socio-political environment. She provides a brief historical account of the emergence of development theory before taking on board new perspectives that have been put forward over the years. These new explanations, she argues, contradict some common understandings of previous decades.

One of the new positions is the ‘basic-needs’ approach which offers a more useful perspective on how to achieve economic growth through equitable distribution of resources. This approach de-links development from economic growth and focuses on empowering the poor with essential tools for the realisation of their potential.  The author argues that Africa had already recognised the advantages of this in the 1980s and cites the Lagos Plan of Action, which was drawn up by the defunct Organisation of African Unity, as an attempt to implement ‘internally driven strategies for development and collective self reliance.’ This approach, however, was overtaken by structural adjustment programmes and not given time to yield results.

Drawing on a broad typology of theories on development, the book becomes more focused on specific issues, for example, communication, by exploring key arguments that illustrate a link between communication and development. Working from the premise that media of mass communication can facilitate modernisation, Akpan-Obong questions arguments that find correlation between low level of communication and low level of development and argues that the causality between communication technology and economic development cannot be taken as given but must be seen as being subject to other factors in society.

Although there is no standardised and all encompassing theory of ICT and development, Akpan-Obong attempts to synthesise dominant viewpoints to provide an authoritative platform for an analysis of development of ICT and their application for socio-economic growth and development in Nigeria. She identifies frontline players, underlying policies and structures in Nigeria’s engagement with ICTs for development and delineates their contributions at different levels.

Information and Communication Technologies in Nigeria is a book for ‘geeks,’ policy makers, scholars of development and ICTs and non-specialist readers. Akpan-Obong, former head of the Political Desk of The Punch newspaper and now a weekly columnist for the paper, writes fluently and rigorously about a subject that naturally appeals to a certain readership. She puts her journalistic skills to effective use by unpacking theoretical explanations that underpin the subject in a detailed and informed style. Woven into the narrative are interviews and conversations with key players in the Nigerian ICTs sector.  A succinct summary of Nigeria’s major national development plans provides a context for an analysis of the country’s approach to the problems of under-development and points out how the state has always pioneered development process in the country. In fact, it was not until the 1980s that the private sector became active in development initiatives. However, in the ICTs industry, the private sector has been the driving force in moving Nigeria from telephone penetration of 0.45 percent in 2001 to 38.09 percent by 2008. This rapid development has been tagged 'a revolution’ by many observers.

In a section detailing patterns of ICTs usage, the book examines the development of policies and focuses on usage by four ministries and the Presidency. This case study approach enabled the author to examine how policy statements on ICT usage and diffusion were translated into practice. In one chapter, the book focuses on patterns of usage based on responses to questionnaires administered to 408 National Youth Service Corps members in Port Harcourt, Lagos and Abuja. Some of the conclusions from the analysis were predictable and Akpan-Obong recognised this. For example, she acknowledged that her respondents belonged to age groups most likely to be users of ICTs. Her data also confirmed that while the penetration level of many ICTs continued to rise, diffusion remained uneven.

Interviews and conversations with many key players in the ICTs sector paint an optimistic picture of Nigeria’s prospects for socio-economic development, but Akpan-Obong argues that potholes and detours on the information superhighways will hamper growth. Some of these hurdles are the state of the country’s infrastructure and public power supply. Consequently, the success of ICTs as tools for economic growth is dependent on other factors. This, notwithstanding, the author notes that the optimism expressed by those she interviewed was well founded because ‘at the policy level, it would appear that the appropriate institutional framework has been developed through the formulation of policies and establishment of implementing agencies.'

As a late comer to the ICTs arena, Nigeria has recorded significant achievements in the utilisation of the technologies and quickly recorded some of the highest growth rates in the penetration and diffusion levels of ICTs. It is on that note that Akpan-Obong writes that Nigeria is a major actor in the ICT sector in Africa. She holds the view that the African giant could provide continental leadership as a result of its ‘interesting policy approach to growing its ICTs sector’ and the active role of the private sectors. Unlike other African countries where the state spearheads the growth of ICTs, Nigeria’s more flexible approach could enhance its chances of becoming a front-runner in Africa. Akpan-Obong suggests this could be achieved through the development and production of ICT hardware and software for export to the rest of Africa. The country could also lead the way by developing local content for the internet.

Given these possibilities, it is understandable why Akpan-Obong is optimistic that Africa’s crippled and sleeping giant could wake up and lead the way in harnessing ICTs for socio-economic growth. Her arguments are convincing and are supported by credible empirical evidence. In essence, Akpan-Obong believes that there are prospects for development and economic growth through the application of ICTs, despite the poor state of the country’s infrastructure. Given the dramatic penetration of ICTs in major cities in Nigeria, her conclusion is not unfounded.

 
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