Nigeria pursues aggressive IT drive

The Nigerian government is pursuing an aggressive IT drive meant to shed the image that Africa’s most populous nation and one of the continent’s largest economies is a technology laggard.

A national IT policy was released in April of this year, with objectives of providing an environment that encourages private sector ventures and helps them to flourish and to develop favorable fiscal policies that will help Nigerian-produced technology products and services compete globally. Already, the national policy is spurring action that has officials, IT executives and Nigerian residents speaking excitedly about the nation’s technological future.

President Olusegun Obasanjo was elected in May of 1999 under a new constitution and a move to a civilian government after nearly 16 years of military rule that hobbled oil-rich Nigeria economically and left it behind smaller regional neighbors such as Ghana, which has exhibited more technological savvy. But a project aimed at providing affordable PCs to all Nigerians, coupled with strong advances in mobile telephone services indicate that the technological tide is turning.

Vice-President Atiku Abubakar and Senate President Anyim Pius Anyim were among the dignitaries who participated in the official launch of the Computerize Nigeria Project earlier this month at Zinox Technologies Ltd., a Lagos-based PC manufacturer that recently was certified by Microsoft Corp. as a Windows Hardware Quality Laboratory.

Zinox, which in September produced 1,200 computers per day, plans to boost production to 1,800 per day to meet demand. The project is a joint venture with Stan Technologies of Nigeria, Mustek Inc. of South Africa and Alhena Ventures of France and is designed to produce PCs, laptops, servers and peripheral products assembled at the Zinox plant. The PCs will be “quality systems” offered to Nigerians “at the price of clones,” Zinox chief Leo-Stan Ekeh has been quoted as saying.

He has described Zinox as the “Nigerian dream” and in published reports has said the goal is to provide computers to at least half of the nation of 126.6 million by 2005 with at least 2,800 jobs created at Zinox by 2003.

The plant produces laptops that are compatible with GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), an important part of the country’s mobile telephone service push. Although the cost of a GSM phone is still prohibitive for the average Nigerian – 45 per cent of the population is estimated to live in poverty – the advent of GSM service in the nation is seen as significantly changing the way Nigerians conduct business and interact socially, according to Bello Haruna Mohammed, the country’s minister of communications.

Those sentiments were recently expressed on his behalf by a representative at the opening of the first Nigerian international technology exhibition in Lagos, where it was forecast that the licensing and operations of three GSM vendors would lead to millions of more telephone lines in Nigeria over the next several years.

According to estimates from last year, Nigeria had 500,000 main telephone lines in use, but the telecommunication system overall is inadequate, poorly maintained and in need of major expansion. However, the licensing of the three GSM operators – Econet Wireless Ltd, MTN (Nigeria) Ltd. and Nigerian Telecommunications Ltd. (NITEL), is widely viewed as a significant advance expected to boost the number of mobile phone users substantially.

The Nigerian government has set a minimum target of having 100,000 GSM lines within the first 12 months of operations for each licensed vendor.

With the IT initiative well under way, government officials have predicted that the lives of millions of Nigerians will be transformed for the better.