Professor Simon Adesina Sodiya is the President, Nigeria Computer Society. In this interview he assessed the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC’s) project aimed at building a robust, secured and valid national database for the country.
He also looked at the security situation and solutions viz-a-viz the NIN-SIM integration policy of the Federal Government.
He discussed other fundamental issues in the Nigeria’s information technology ecosystem. Excerpt:
In a new area of ICT development in Nigeria, recently the Federal Government lifted ban on new SIM cards registration, which has been an issue; Nigerians complained that the decision was very harsh on them and businesses. Would you say we achieved the purpose of that ban? How do you see the security situation in the country now?
Prof. Sodiya: Talking about security in the country and how we have been able to tackle it viz-a-viz the policy that the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy brought to bear some times ago; as a nation, we actually needed to link the SIM cards and our National Identification Number (NIN) together.
The policy is actually a good one, because all along we have been emphasizing the need for us to know ourselves (Nigeria’s population with valid identity).
There are many foreigners in this country that we know nothing (no identification) about them. Some of them ran to this country without proper documentations. Essentially, it is a good thing the Ministry took steps towards ensuring that we have a unified national database.
Of course, the security challenges we have in Nigeria is still there even with the NIN registration. I think as at the last count the total number of registrations is 51 million plus. Of course, we know that we are close to 200 million now. It then shows we have less than 50% of the populations covered (registered). One could have expected that the majority of Nigerians by now should have been registered.
Don’t forget that the immediate registration target was meant to close by January 2021, it was extended; and the Ministry has continued to extend it to give room for more registrations. We are thinking that the database should be close to 90% in terms of NIN enrollments. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve gotten to that.
I think we are just around the average. The truth is that we cannot completely solve security problem in this country overnight, especially if you don’t have a safe and secured national database.
We’re also talking about adopting technology to solving the security challenges. The primary technology here is a valid national database.
If you’re able to match fingerprints to suspected criminal then you are making ahead way. In other words, if you fail to match fingerprints and financial records to a database, you will not be able to know where to start in solving large scale security challenge like terrorism.
So, we need to know ourselves and we need to continue to encourage ourselves. The policy that government is trying to push is that every citizen of this country must register. I want to encourage Nigerians to get registered.
Government’s policy has not yielded expected results because not everybody has registered. We don’t want to get to a situation where this policy direction fails to assist law enforcement agencies to be able track criminals.
There are also occasions where some of these criminal elements perpetuate their evil acts and run away. There are so many things we can use to know who these people are.
We should also be considering getting our forensic acts together to be able to interpret fingerprints in-country. Some of the criminals or bandits leave fingerprints on some surfaces. You know, some of them attack villages and people using motorbikes and in some cases they leave these bikes behind.
Those tools can still be used be track them. So, if we are going to fully adopt technology (ICT) to assist in solving problem of security in our nation, we need this national database; that policy is good and we are hopeful that it will become more impactful in the fight against insecurity.
We are encouraging NIMC to continue in this direction. They should also continue with mobilisation and encouraging citizens to enroll. There are times when the application of force fails to achieve the desired result. We have seen that even with the threats by the Ministry that failure to register within certain period, a SIM card user stands to get disconnected and so forth; the registration hasn’t improved as desired. But we take solace in the fact that we have moved from the situation in the past. Definitely we shall get it right. A time is coming when NIN will be needed for JAMB examinations and some fillings with the government agencies.
You just said that the NIN-SIM integration policy is good, although insecurity persists. Do you see the NIN-SIM integration addressing insecurity in the country? On the issue of national database, there are data residing in silo data centers which ought to have been integrated, so how is NCS supporting NIMC in this regard?
Prof. Sodiya: Let me start by saying that when the present government came on board about six years ago, Nigeria Computer Society was pushing on the need a national integrated database. And we were talking to the then Secretary to Government of Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal. In fact, NCS at that time constituted a committee to come up with a model that is suitable for the purpose; a model that we can use to actually integrate our different databases. We made a presentation to the SGF. We also made other proposals including suggesting the policy on whistleblowing. The government adopted that policy (on whistleblowing) without ever recognising the body (NCS) that presented it to them.
So, on the issue of databases operating in silos, we are even wasting resources where the National Population Commission will have its data warehouse, the Immigration Service operates a separate database; Police, Customs, and others. So, our presentation centered on the fact that we must have a primary record.
The primary and/or foundational record will harmonise these different databases. And that is the direction NIMC is going now. Don’t forget NIMC had told us not to expect any plastic card so soon. What is important now is the NIN with which they will have handshake with other agencies. When the records are harmonized we will have the primary key, because in any national database you cannot have just one feed.
You will have the NIN with primary biometrics information; fingerprints, etc. So, there will be other information relating to different agencies like call records, registration, vehicle registration, vehicle numbers, the owner, year of purchase, etc., these are to be generated by these sister agencies. But information that has to do with personal identity will have to be retained by NIMC. Even the ones by banks have to be linked to NIMC’s database.
We are happy to have a DG who is ready to interact with stakeholders. We’re also presently developing a training programme for the staff of NIMC. So, NIMC is working with us and any time we have insights to assist the work we present to the Commission. That is not to say it is now uhuru with regards fully ready national database. They still need to improve on their program, because if they’re not at a situation where about 95% of the citizens have NIN, I think we are not yet there. Building a robust national database is work in progress.
How about the issue of NIN-SIM integration in terms of security; do you see that policy as key to addressing insecurity in the country?
Prof. Sodiya: There are different angles to insecurity in Nigeria. Some of the kidnappers do not even use their phones to perpetuate the crime. They use the phones of the victims to make calls. And the truth is some of them use pre-registered SIM. The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) is battling this alongside the telecommunication companies. We also have situations where people send anonymous messages and so on. The idea [of the present policy] is that anybody using any SIM can be traced.
There is this apprehension among the people like a situation kidnappers use the victim’s phone to make calls and the victim now turns the hunted by the law enforcement agencies. It is dicey. But you know there is also another intelligent technique that captures voice; and that is why one of the things we are recommending is for the agencies to look in the direction of voice (recognition) technology.
Another angle to that is people can twist their voices in order to beat the system. But even if you change your voice there are some underlining tone that can be recognized. Therefore, with regards NIN-SIM integration we need to properly ascertain the identity of people that are using the SIM cards.
The mobile telecom network operators also have some important information. When you buy a SIM card, they take your fingerprints and other biometrics. However, we may not rely on the independent businesses to provide our national identity that is why NIMC’s job is very important. By linking SIM to NIN government might not need to always rely on the telcos to harness some data and intelligence for national security.
Let’s look at professionalism in the ICT sector. There are a lot of experts under the umbrella of NCS, are you not worried that the Federal Government is not tapping from the pool of skills in NCS because when certain ICT project fail government would say ‘they lack skilled manpower’ to deliver on these project. In some cases government rely on expatriates to deliver on certain ICT jobs. What is your view in that area?
Prof. Sodiya: In the Nigeria Computer Society we have experts in all areas of IT. We have people that possess global competitive skills that we need as a nation to drive our IT/ICT projects. What we believe is that the government needs to look inward; provide enabling environment, supporting indigenous experts to deliver when and where needed. For instance, one of our members just launched meetings app that can compete favouably with Zoom, GoTomeeting, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and that app is Konn3ct.
We are not saying it is 100 per cent optimum at the moment, but we have been using it since January 2021 without major glitches. We are even pushing for the government to adopt it. During the launch the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) was involved, because we want to showcase our own and encourage private organisations to adopt it too.
The target we have set for ourselves in NCS is that nobody will be using foreign related meetings app before the end of the year, especially when Konn3ct is available. There are other organisations coming up with a lot of solutions. FinTrak has a lot of products in the financial sector.
They are competing at the global level; receiving recognitions. So, in the area of software, there is no software we cannot develop as a nation. We have the talents and skills. But patronage is the issue. I am aware of a bank (in Nigeria) that spends about $200million on foreign software annually. You can imagine if we have that money injected into Nigeria’s economy; we will be able to create jobs.
Meanwhile, with the development of the Financial Technology startups (FinTechs), the banks are beginning to understand they can’t continue to look outside.
On the other hand, most of the banks have retained the services of the foreign software (companies) because they have deployed them over the years and have remained reliable. Generally, most organisations are slow to adopt digital transformation; they want to retain the old system.
In that light, we shall continue to educate and engage them in discussions. If you spend $200miilion on a foreign product, is it not possible to cut your cost down to $20million by adopting indigenous software? Why are you wasting such resources?
On our part, NCS will continue to promote our members and their products and services. I had to introduce the MD of Newwave (the owners of Konn3ct) to the Director General of NITDA because we need to patronize ‘made in Nigeria’ solutions that meet required standards. NITDA is going through a process to adopt that solution and we are confident they will achieve that purpose.
In the area of hardware, we still have challenges. Our Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) need a lot of supports….
I was coming to that. The likes of Zinox, Omatek, Brian, etc., came up to compete with brands like HP, Dell, Asus, etc., so, how do we get them to that level of global competitiveness?
Prof. Sodiya: Hardware does not require just technical competences; it is capital intensive. That is why we are thinking government would have provided these (indigenous) brands with more supports. Production of hardware components does not come cheap all over the world.
You have seen a situation some components of a particular system are manufactured in different countries by different organisations. In addition, we need to get to that level of production of durable hardware. Before we can get to the level where Zinox, Omatek, etc., can compete like the foreign brands – HP, Dell, Asus, Lenovo, government must come in by introducing incentives for them. You can’t compete when bank loans are at double digits; electricity supply isn’t at certain level, etc.
Nevertheless, we can start by encouraging these foreign brands to set up production factories in Nigeria for onwards technology transfer. We conducted a study on number of computers Nigerians buy monthly and the numbers are in millions.
These are encouraging enough for them to consider manufacturing from Nigeria. By so doing, they are creating opportunity for our people to venture into manufacturing different components of the systems. Presently, I am aware that Transsion has taken up the challenge to build a factory in Nigeria. From available information they are going to complete the construction in no distant time.
Apart from seeking government interventions what are other factors that the indigenous OEMs need to consider in their pursuit to manufacture computers or components?
Prof. Sodiya: At a point in time, the OEMs formed an association aimed at attracting more government’s attention. Be it as it may there are lots of factors affecting the OEMs such as price of the sourcing raw materials, import duties, electricity and more. These need to be fixed.
Despite Executive Orders 003 and 005 and the claims in government quarters that there are improvements, the feelings among the business community appear different. How would NCS assess Ease-of-Doing Business in Nigeria?
Prof. Sodiya: At the back of anyone venturing into a business is for it to thrive. Nigerians are super intelligent; looking at the products and services our people are coming up with. But in a situation where you have a business that relies on power generating sets for about 20-hours of the day, is that sustainable? Before government came up with the Executive Orders, we have had other policies aimed at ensuring ease-of-doing business, but the issue has been multiplicity of agencies playing almost same roles. If you consider the indicators of ease-of-doing business Nigeria still tilts towards the end. Government needs to concentrate on providing the basic amenities that will impact the small and medium scale businesses positively.
As a Society, we shall continue to provide necessary assistance to our members. It is when their businesses flourish they can support the body.
For instance, we have a building project on-going; in the last two years we have not received supports from corporate organisations. They would want to support, but the environment isn’t favourable coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic that affected global economy mostly last year.
Let’s look at the issue of infrastructure and broadband target. The current National Broadband Plan has target to achieve 70% penetration by 2025. Do you see the country achieving that target based on infrastructure on ground taking into cognizance that we achieved the 30% target set in the previous plan?
Prof. Sodiya: Yes, this question directly speaks to me, because I am a member of the broadband implementation steering committee. Our focus presently is how to extend bandwidths to underserved and unconnected areas. The government is looking at connecting tertiary institutions and secondary schools, and hubs that will connect SMEs.
The targets are actually low-income businesses so that any business could be able to promote products and services online. There are considerations for the government to provide assistance to the Infrastructure Companies (InfraCos). Mostly, the complaints are; right-of-way (RoW) charges, cost of deployment (equipment) and other multiple charges. For the RoW the federal government cap is N145/per linear meter. Some States have adopted that, others have even extended theirs to zero-naira while the rest are still considering what to do. However, the challenge is now the other hidden charges these States are leveraging to milk the telcos. The Minister has been engaging the Governor’s Forum and we shall continue to discuss with them.
For the target, we are coming up with strategies towards achieving the 70% broadband penetration mark by 2025.
What is NCS’ position on the present calls on the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy to either resign or get sacked due to allegations against him?
Prof. Sodiya: Well, as a society we are not politicians. NCS is purely a professionals association and Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami) is a fellow of the Society.
He has been up and doing as a member. Since he became a Minister we have had good working relationship. This is the first time we are having a core IT professional heading the Ministry and we want to see development happen in our country. That is our major concern.