Footprints of Information Ministers at Abuja ICT assembly

The third ordinary session of the African Union’s Communication and Information Technologies Ministerial Conference (AUCITC) had come and gone. But participants who came from over 23 African countries got the feel of strong attachment Nigeria has for the ICT as reflected in the presentation of Vice President Mohammed Namadi Sambo while declaring the second and final segment — the Ministerial Session — open last Friday in Abuja.
THE theme of the conference — ICT for Development — is instructive. Elsewhere, especially in the developed climes, revolution in information and communication technologies is being appropriated to drive development in all ramifications of human lives. But the tale is different in the continent of Africa. And the reality is that Africa must not allow this golden opportunity to slip away without making judicious use of it.
This concern was the focus of the third ordinary session of the African Union’s Communication and Information Technologies Ministerial Conference (AUCITC) held from August 3 to 7, 2010 in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja attracting
Structurally, the assembly had two segments: the experts and ministerial sessions. The second segment, which ran for two days (from August 6 and 7) had the strong representation of the government functionaries led by the Vice President, Alhaji Mohammed Namadi Sambo. He actually declared the session open with the message that “information and communications technology (ICT) has become the live wire of both business and governance, and Africa must not be left behind. That is why this conference is not only crucial but timely.”
The VP made reference to the first and second editions of the conference hosted in Cairo, Egypt in 2006 and 2008 respectively.
“The conference signifies our collective vision for ICT as a fundamental premise for establishing an economy based on knowledge and innovation.
“For Africa to achieve rapid and sustained economic, social and human development therefore, we must overcome the knowledge and technology gap that divides us from the developed world.
Acknowledging the fact that appreciable progress has been made in the continent with the achievement of over 350 million mobile phone users and 86 million internet users in the last five years, Alhaji Sambo said, “our ICT strategies and policies as well as regulatory frameworks still need to be harmonised to enable us reap the full benefits of this achievement.”
He therefore recommended development and application of broadband and improvement in internet services to accelerate development in areas of national security, e-governance, tele-medicine, public safety and education, among others.
In Nigeria, he recalled, “the telecom liberalisation has allowed for massive inflow of investment in the sector from USD50 million in year 2000 to over USD12 billion as at present. The total tele-density has risen phenomenally to 56.32 per 100 inhabitants. This development has generated employment for millions of Nigerians; promoted business and services, and improved efficiency and productivity.
In furtherance of this policy, Nigerian government, the VP said, “have put in place an agency, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), to develop information technology in the country and also to establish Software Development Centres and Information Technology Parks.
“We also established an Internet Exchange Point Project to ensure broader Internet penetration to all parts of Nigeria. The government is also reviewing the nation's IT Policy that will enhance e-commerce and e-governance.”
He told the august gathering that the federal government is perfecting arrangement for the re-launch of NIGCOMSAT-1 next year.
It was first launched into orbit in September 2003 to enhance the penetration of ICT in the country.
Continuing, he said, “In our Postal Service, ICT is being deployed in conformity to International Postal and Financial Systems. This sector is about to be fully liberalised to open it up to private participation and inflow of capital and innovative ideas.”
He later charged the gathering to focus “deliberations on the harmonisation of telecommunication policies and regulations and building a strong broadband infrastructure to reinforce the African Internet Network,” while inviting fellow African governments “to support the noble cause.”
Earlier in her welcome speech, Information and Communications Minister, Prof. Dora Akunyili expressed satisfaction about the fruitful deliberations the conference had during the technical session, which kicked off the conference on Tuesday, August 3. “I am very pleased with the outcome of the discussions you had in the last three days. I congratulate all of you for a job well done.”
According to Akunyili, “It is a well known fact that ICT and economic growth alleviate poverty, promote social equality and address MDGs within certain policy regimes and institutional arrangements. In order for Africa to harness ICT for sound economic and social policies, continental and national ICT strategies must be integrated into broader policy agendas and coordinated with different policy agenda such as Poverty Alleviation Programmes.”
She underscored the fact that “ICT as a system driven by innovation and delivery change has its pre-conditions for policy frameworks and implementation strategies.
“Therefore, ICT’s role in national development is crucial for the overall process of development. One measurable factor that enables us to see whether ICT is meeting the challenges of development is affordability. Falling prices on products and services are the key for delivering ICT product and services for low income people. In Africa today, mobile telephony is a typical example; it has evolved from high-end to low cost technology within the reach of low-income people, thus improving the lives of our people.
“Our conference as the highest ICT policy-making entity has to set up policies that will make ICT affordable to our people. Consequently, the conference has since 2006, been exploring the best ways to promote the development of the ICT Sector in the continent. In 2008, Nigeria along with Kenya, Zambia, Chad and Egypt, were mandated to implement harmonised ICT Policies and regulatory framework to address the developmental challenges, to promote and accelerate ICT development in the continent. Let me thank them for the wonderful work within the period.”
Prof. Akunyili specifically thanked the Government and people of the Republic of South Africa for accepting to host the Extra Ordinary Session of   the conference coming up between November 2 and 5, 2010.  “This singular act shows that each member state wants to help when the need arises. South Africa’s gesture of hosting the event was aimed at supporting our collaborative efforts towards implementing the 2008 Cairo Declaration and our joint desire at promoting and accelerating the pace of ICT development in the continent.”
In the same vein, Minister of State for Information and Communications, Labaran Maku also addressed the conference noting, “the meeting of Experts which preceded today’s meeting in the last three days has been very challenging.”
According to Maku, “it is no longer news that Africa needs to take the issue of Telecommunications/ICTs with all the seriousness they deserve for the corporate development of our people.
“The Heads of State and Government recognised this and dedicated the last January 2010 Summit to ICTs. The theme of the 14th Assembly was “Information and Communication Technologies in Africa: Challenges and Prospects.” The outcome was that the development of the sector should be the priority of all member States.
“The huge digital gap that separates Africa from the rest of the world has been identified as a collective challenge that our countries must meet to boost economic development, commerce and good governance in the continent.
“All over the world, manual labour has been replaced with knowledge-based systems in industry, Agriculture, services and in all facets of society. Africa keeps lagging behind because we often act too late on the major issues that shape the fate of humanity.   
“Now that our Continent through the AU has identified this key sector as the bridge we must cross to the Promised Land, our Conference must provide the leadership required to lead our people onto the new information age.”
He made reference to the advice of one of Africa’s brightest minds, Phillip Emagwale, a Nigerian in the US who has contributed most outstandingly to the evolution of the Information age and the Internet, that Africa should zoom in onto the ICT age to fast-track our development and prosperity for our peoples.
That advice, Maku said, “has become even more critical now that countries in Asia who started with us are already playing leadership roles in the ICT age. Africa risks being left further behind if we fail to put the right emphasis on ICT in order to place our countries on sustainable path to ICT development and economic transformation.”
He recalled that in 2008 in Cairo, “we adopted a document that focused on developing a common understanding and framework to create the enabling environment for ICT in Africa. We all acknowledge the need to act fast and in a concerted manner.”
The ICT environment, he warned, “is changing rapidly, and keeping the policy and regulatory frameworks in line with the constant evolution of technologies, applications and services, poses very serious challenges for policy makers not only in the African continent but also around the globe.
“The harmonised ICT policy and regulatory framework decisions adopted during our second Ordinary Session in Cairo, Egypt on 4th May, 2008 and approved by the A.U. Executive Council, was designed to address this challenge, promote and accelerate the ICT development in Africa.”
He situated the challenge appropriately. “The challenge for us at the moment is the development of the broadband infrastructure to optimize the possibilities of ICT services in the economy, social services and in governance. Presently, efforts are being made to deepen public access to ICT services through the implementation of the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) programmes.
“We also are working with stakeholders to deepen ICT access and quality of service. This conference should create the opportunity to share experiences and utilize best practices as we implement agreed policies and programmes for ICT development in our countries.”
And with the various reforms taking place in the ICT sector across the Continent, the Minister of State said, “the leadership is further challenged to adopt stronger but more flexible regulatory measures in order to expand the scope and capacity of the market, improve and make services available to the generality of our people.”
He expressed optimism that the Abuja outing “will create a pathway forward.” The consciousness among African countries to create a more conducive environment, he believed, “is so strong now that our conference had been stabilized.”
He hammered on the need to come up with “realistic strategies that will strengthen the quality of respective National ICT policies by facilitating the sharing of experiences and evidence-based policy making” during the ministerial session. Adding that “we should also come up with ways to follow-up on the reference framework that guide countries towards harmonious ICT strategy, facilitate cooperation in key areas, and enhance active participation of Partner States in Global Regimes.”
“The Institute especially the Lagos branch has been very active in the past ten years and credit must be given to the practitioners who have steered its since then. Since the vibrancy of an Association cannot be divorced from that of its members, it therefore means that the Institute is on the right part towards achieving its objectives if her individual members are doing well. Like every human organisation, there is room for improvement. Like every human organisation, there must be room for improvement.”   
Assessing the marketing communications industry, he underscored the prospects and problems of the sector. “Marketing communications succinctly, is the science and art of communicating information that an organisation wants to make known to the public. The information could be related to the marketing of a product, talk about a new product launch or any other initiatives by the company. In Nigeria, the industry  has been very dynamic in the past fifteen years. I still remember that in the early 90s, most advertising companies regarded themselves as integrated marketing communications firms. A situation whereby a single company would claim to be an expert in advertising, Public Relations, Events Marketing etc.
“But today the situation is quite different. There is more specialisation in the industry. We now have firms that specialize in  advertising, branding, direct marketing, graphic design, sponsorship, public relations etc. In the next ten years, I foresee a situation whereby the industry will be more fragmented. Internet or online marketing is definitely going to gain more ground in Nigeria very soon. Also, because of the restlessness of many practitioners and the desire for self actualization, I expert more companies to spring up in the industry. This could be a curse or a blessing to the industry. Before you ask me what I mean, let me state that I strongly believe that competition is a sine qua non for growth in any industry. This growth can however  come about if the new companies that are springing up are professionally run and they have fresh ideas. However, if the promoters of the new firms are driven only by pecuniary motives, they may end up giving the industry a bad name.
“A major problem already plaguing the industry, which may be worsened by the proliferation of firms is that of inadequately trained manpower. It is unfortunate that today, most companies in the industry do not invest in manpower development. We therefore have a situation whereby the few well trained personnel are either being poached by the telecommunications and financial services firms or  recycled within the industry. There is therefore the need for a concerted effort towards manpower enhancement.
“The global economic downturn has not spared the Marketing Communications industry. Furthermore, marketing budgets are becoming learner, if the trend continues, I foresee a situation whereby, in order to survive, firms in the industry will adopt a leaner and fitter strategy. It is also a known fact that Economics and Politics are closely related or intertwined. So what happens next year in the political arena will have a direct impact on business and the Marketing communications industry. You cannot be talking about promoting goods and services in an atmosphere of chaos, that is why it is absolutely  imperative  that the 2011 elections are properly conducted in such a way that will engender more confidence in the country’s democracy and economy.

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