By Yushau A. Shuaib
It was almost late into the night when the calls came in. Since I didn’t have the number in my phone’s list of contact, I was initially reluctant to answer it. But when the call came again, this time with the ID Caller displaying ‘Isa Pantami’, my heart skipped a beat.
The quite critical article I did on Dr. Isa Ali Pantami, the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy quickly flashed back to my mind.
I had received different comments on the said article, with some friends saying I was not fair to the notable Islamic scholar and digital worldview professional.
Prior to the publishing of the said article, I had only seen him at a distance when he served as a guest speaker at the book presentation of a childhood friend and forensic detective, Dr. Abdullahi Bello, and also at the conference of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR), both in Abuja.
Still, on the two occasions, one thing I found impressive was Pantami’s promptness to the events, even arriving earlier than some of the organisers, and then the extempore manner of delivery of his remarks, in which he spoke to subjects and issues that he displayed a captivating command of.
Meanwhile, on October 17, 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari had approved Pantami’s submission for the expansion of Ministry of Communication’s mandate to cover the novel and future-looking area of an encompassing digital economy that captures the direction of the global economy which the Nigerian one seeks greater participation in, particularly as anticipated in the strategy laid out in the National Economic Growth and Recovery Plan. As such, he is the first driver of the Nigerian economy in this regard.
I am equally aware that apart from preaching against terrorism for over a decade as an Islamic scholar, Pantami as a digital professional has been in the forefront of advocating for the implementation of ICT-based solutions to tackle insecurity in Nigeria. I with his bosom friends, Jaafar Jaafar of the Gandollar fame and award-winning investigative journalist, Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, had causes to discuss, analyse and report the incessant threats of Boko Haram to the minister in our different media platforms.
With all these running through my mind within a span of seconds, I picked the phone that night hoping it could however be one of those scam calls by the growing legion of increasingly sophisticated con artists, known as yahoo-yahoo boys, looking to another victim.
“Assalam alaikum.. My name is Isa Pantami. Am I speaking to Mallam Yushau Shuaib?”
Immediately, I recognised the soft voice and responded in the affirmative, “Yes, Sheikh Pantami.”
“I have been reading you for a very long time and I am impressed by some of your contributions to national discourses,” he continued.
I was quite flattered, but being fairly familiar with this sort of ritual, I knew that such praises at the beginning of a conversation could easily take a sharp turn and nosedive into accusations and abuse.
Surprisingly, rather than expressing any reservation, he commended the efforts of our media platforms in the objective reporting being carried out. As he went on, the news instincts of the journalist in me sought some quick responses from him to certain media reports about his alleged conflict with other public officials.
However, he quickly interjected by saying that he was grossly misunderstood and attacked in the media, and that he was not even aware of some of the actions being attributed to him. He ended by saying that, “Surprisingly, I hold in high esteem and respect, some of the officers behind these reports.” Yet, I could sense his feelings about the unfair attacks on his person by the media, as we rounded up the call, with his promise to see me soon.
Weeks later I received an invitation from the Director-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Kashifu Inuwa to attend virtual commissioning of ICT projects in the first year of President Buhari’s second tenure in office.
I was amazed at the unveiling of dozens of ICT projects across the country within a few hours. In attendance at the virtual commissioning of the projects in Abuja were the Ministers of Information, Lai Mohammed; Interior, Ogeni Aregbosla; Aviation, Hadi Sirika and the Minister of State for Works, Abubakar Aliyu. Governors Inuwa Yahaya of Gombe, Hope Uzodinma of Imo and Mohammed Abubakar of Jigawa State were equally present at the unique event.
The two phases of the event were beamed live on big screens. Gracing the occasion at the other end on different locations were university Vice-Chancellors, public officers, religious leaders, traditional rulers and security chiefs, among others.
Some of the digital projects commissioned during the two phases of the event included the School Knowledge Centres (SKC), Tertiary Institution Knowledge Centre (TIKCs), ICT Innovation Hubs, Digital Skills for Entrepreneurs and Innovators, Community IT Training Centres, Virtual Examination Centres, and the newly completed Emergency Communication Centres (ECC).
More significant is the E-Health Centre, which aims to improve access to healthcare service delivery at medical facilities and the E-Accessibility Project that promotes digital inclusion of persons with disabilities through the provision of ICT and assistive technologies for institutions catering for their needs
All the facilities were delivered with adequate infrastructure and tools for ICT teaching and learning, including the Virtual Academy, which provides digital skills to citizens for economic empowerment (digitalnigeria.gov.ng).
Apart from these facilities provided within a year of Pantami’s tenure, his Ministry has also developed many policies to address concerns in the sector. These include the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy 2020-2030 (NDEPS); Roadmap for the Implementation of the NDEPS; the National Broadband Plan 2020-2025; SIM Card Registration Policy; and the National Policy for the Promotion of Indigenous Content in the Telecommunications Sector (Draft). Also, the National Policy on Virtual Meeting in the Federal Public Institutions (Draft); National Dig-Once Policy; and the National Policy on Internet.
Meanwhile, concerned about efficient productivity, the Minister also commissioned the Computer Emergency Response and Readiness Centre, the Digital Media Studio for Virtual Learning and the Digital Conference Centre for Remote Collaboration at the Nigeria Information and Technology Agency (NITDA).
NITDA’s IT Project Clearance (ITPC) also successfully cleared the Unique IT Projects of the ministries, departments and agencies of government (MDAs) and saved the government N5 billion, while it commenced enforcement action against MDAs that flout the Local Content Policy of the Buhari administration.
Presently, the structures of the Emergency Communication Centres (ECCs), a project under the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) are now available in 34 states of the federation, with the toll-free emergency number, 112, activated in 19 of these states.
In the attempt to improve the efficiency and modernisation of the Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST), the Minister has approved the unbundling of the service into five companies, to cover Banking and Insurance, Property Development, Logistics Transportation, E-Government Service, and the E-Commerce Service. He also suspended cash payment for the services offered by NIPOST to promote the entrenchment of a national digital economy, while also fighting corruption.
Similarly, in a deliberate commercialisation effort to encourage private sector investment, Pantami endorsed the creation of Strategic Business Units within the Nigerian Communications Satellite Limited (NIGCOMSAT), which now operates the Satellite Infrastructure Company and the Satellite Broadband and Broadcast Company. Also, the Galaxy backbone, another agency under the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy, has securely hosted the Open Treasury Portal to track all government expenditure above a certain threshold.
In accomplishing these tasks, the Minister ensured a synergy across the different parastatals under the Ministry, which now work together as a team and complement each another in their respective mandates. It is therefore not surprising that the broadband penetration in the country has hit over 40%, while the contribution of ICT to the Nigerian GDP reached 14.07% within a year.
In all his remarks, Dr Pantami gives credit to President Muhammadu Buhari for providing him with the enablement for the projects. I won’t be wrong to describe him as one of the keenest supporters of the President in the cabinet.
Shuaib is Publisher, PRNigeria and Economic Confidential