Communication forms an integral part of human existence. In a world that has gone global, countries are increasingly taking advantage of the provisions of communication to foster cooperation between leadership and citizenry, build stronger partnerships with other countries that promote political and economic growth and portray their strengths on the world stage in a way that builds enormous goodwill. The government of Muhammadu Buhari fully aware of the immense benefits of communication has saddled the Ministry of Communication with such responsibility. In this interview with Diplomatic Vista (DV), Hon Adebayo Shittu, the Minister of Communication who is also a lawyer with over 30 years of professional experience both private and public. This former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Oyo state, spoke on his reformative strategies that ensures an effective, robust and productive ministry.
How has Nigeria fared in the areas of communication, information and technology over the years?
Well, we remember some 20 years ago or far beyond that, Nigeria had not really arrived. For instance, in the area of telecommunications, we had a system called NITEL then which had a total of about 500 lines for a population of about 150 million. You will recall that when you wanted to make a call, you had to take the trouble of going down to a NITEL office and you had to queue up over several hours and it was also very expensive. In the last 16 to 17 years, we thank God that our government facilitated the introduction of Global System for Mobile (GSM) Communication which are hand-held wireless sets. Things have been moving very fast ever since. Initially, two operators were licensed but now we have five, and the five have been doing very well. Nigeria today has not less than 150 million subscribers who trunk to the GSM telecommunications.
In the area of internet, we had low tele-density at that time, but again things have changed, things are improving, the government has been doing wonderfully well and the private sector has been contributing. Of course, they make a lot of money from it, which is okay. It improves lives, it creates jobs and it adds value to life, so I think we have come a long way. There is still a lot to be done particularly by the government and the private sector to improve and deepen accessibility throughout Nigeria.
You have unveiled a road map for the Ministry of Communication, tell us more about this.
Let me start from the known to the unknown; what is known is the post office or the postal services. We know that in the past, the postal services or NIPOST were known to be sellers of stamps and carriers of mails. Today, we are looking beyond that because with the introduction of GSM technologies people no longer write letters like before, although companies still write letters but I am sure the volume is not as high as it used to be. For individual citizens, what you want to transmit through letter, in a minute you can connect through GSM and convey your words or message to the man in the next city, state or region. Because of that, there is low emphasis on the use of the post office.
Today, we are looking at a NIPOST which is everything in one, a NIPOST which not only carries letters but a NIPOST which can also provide financial inclusiveness to people in rural communities. We are now looking at the new post office system which will have services that relay financial inclusiveness available for particularly what we call the unbanked segment of our society. We are also looking at the possibility that if you want to renew your passport or do a passport, you can go to the post office, fill the necessary forms online, pay the necessary fees online and then in a day or two or within seven days your passport is ready for collection even from your local community. The post office should be a comprehensive all comers centre where you go to and get any service accomplished. I mean these are some of the things we are looking at.
Again, if you look at the post office service, in most of the communities where they exist, they are on very large pieces of land. We want to ensure that the government also builds shopping complexes on these lands so that the government would be able to make money from them. As part of our effort to make the system more robust and effective, we are inviting business people to partner with government in the provision of these services. This private / public partnership arrangement will be such that profits accrued from the process will be shared between the government and the partners.
What is the source of these innovations?
That is an interesting question. I want to say with all humility, it is my own humble idea. You see, we know that it was by providence that President Muhammadu Buhari became president of Nigeria and his coming, to me, is an opportunity for Nigeria to break away from the conservative reactionary past to a progressive and beneficial present and future. So for we whom he brought on board to assist him in governance, we have to rack our brains and think out of the box and create new institutions and new services that will be very useful to the Nigerian people.
The other part of the roadmap is the idea of ensuring that every Nigerian is hooked unto the GSM lines because communication is human. Communication is what makes us different from animals. As human beings, we need to communicate and to facilitate this human communication, there must be facilities and programs resulting from technological research and development in order to ensure that life is made better and convenient.
The other thing is, we believe that there must be internet penetration in every part of Nigeria. Through the internet, you have the information of the whole world on your laptop. So this requires what is called bombard penetration. We are working very hard and our roadmap emphasizes the need for Nigeria to take every needed step to ensure there is internet access in every home in this country. We are doing our best and also encouraging the private sector to invest in the telecommunication sector of the economy.
How can Nigerians in the diaspora participate in the telecommunication sector?
We have five GSM operators; I think we can do with two or three more. So if we have Nigerians who can encourage companies to come and invest, it will be great. There is hardly anything that doesn’t sell in Nigeria, so I believe people should come home because a lot of our people think they are living well but in essence it’s a form of modern day slavery that they live overseas. When you come home, there will be self actualization.
There is no area of our economy in which prospects of investments are not enormous and the biggest potential is in the ICT. Every Nigerian aspires to be put unto ICT because it betters our lives and because everybody is affected or influenced by it. There is no how that anybody will not aspire to have the opportunity of owning a handset, or a computer. Even in schools, millions of children want to have the ICT devices with which they can learn or play. For me, the opportunities are limitless and I want to encourage all Nigerians in the Diaspora to come home and invest and they can be rest assured that we have a government that is prepared to support, assist and create an enabling environment for business to thrive.
Finally, talking about President Buhari’s change agenda in Nigeria, how would you say things have panned out?
I have watched political events unfold in Nigeria in the last 40 years. This is perhaps the first time we will see a Nigerian leader who by his antecedents, is incorruptible. This is a man who over the years has been known to live a very frugal life; he has been a state governor, and a Minister of Petroleum Resources. Furthermore, the passion President Buhari has for selfless service is unmatched in the history of Nigeria.
If you look at the team he has assembled, you can see that it is the first class assemblage of people. I think for now, we must continue to pray that we don’t miss the opportunity to transcend into a developed and prosperous country. We have had opportunities in the past, which we missed. The first opportunity perhaps that Nigeria missed was the fact that Chief Awolowo never became president. I know that if he had been president, Nigeria will not be where it is now. The second opportunity we missed was when Murtala Mohammed regime was cut short. He had all the commitment and zeal to take Nigeria to greatness. The third opportunity we missed was when Muhammadu Buhari came to rescue Nigeria but corrupt elements again, got him removed just as he was laying the foundation for a new Nigeria. The fourth opportunity which came and every Nigerian missed was the fact that Chief Moshood Olawale Abiola never became president. With his exposure and commitment, he was supposed to take Nigeria to the highest level.
Now we have the coming back of Muhammadu Buhari; this is the fifth opportunity for Nigeria. Buhari should be allowed to take Nigeria where it deserves to be and we all have a commitment and obligation as Nigerians to pray for him, support and ensure we collaborate with him to take Nigeria to the Promised Land. Thank you.