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Political will needed to implement e-governance

Professor Charles O. Uwadia is the President of Nigerian Computer Society (NCS), and the Director of the Centre for Information Technology & Systems (CITS) at the University of Lagos.

uwadiaAs CITS boss, he oversees everything that has to do with IT at UNILAG. In the interview below, Uwadia, whose origins are in Delta State but speaks Yoruba with the fluency and inflection of one from the hinterland of the South-West believes that much political will is needed if the dream of actualising IT in our educational institutions and governance is to be realised, but revealed that the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) programme is not being pursued with the necessary zeal. He also added that much progress has been made by indigenous software engineers, but the public does not know this as their products are not being patronised. Excerpts:

You are the President of Nigeria Computer Society.  In the last few years, it seems ICT in Nigeria has been driven mainly by advancement in telecom sector and IT usage appears to be lagging behind. Do you agree with that?
I don’t think so.

If you look at telecom sector, the development there is mainly in handset-driven devices or telephony. Of course, in the last nine to ten years in Nigeria, it has come in form of GSM because it wasn’t here before. GSM itself is not a new technology; it is something that has existed and adopted by other countries.

Unfortunately for us, our leaders did not adopt it until the previous government came. But if you look at the IT industry, the main device still remains the computer. Of course, the cost of computers is going down, but not as rapidly as you find in hand held devices in telephony. But as we talk today, the cost of computers is going down, even the conventional computers, the laptops, the desktops and of course don’t forget that even at hand set, we have palm top computers that are relatively cheap.

So, the development in telephony is quite rapid, but we also have development rapidly going on in ICT. Now, we have a framework, a policy that is tied on replication of IT.

We didn’t have that before, but there is a document now. Aside from that, we also have development at the concept of one lap top per child. The motivation for that is for education in institutions. It is meant for children or pupils in elementary schools. Even in kindergarten level will soon be able to have a computer, affordable, usable, and then of course robust enough for a child at that level.

That was the idea. But that programme  is not going on successfully though the idea has been imbibed. If  we check out OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) like Zinox, Omatek, they have computers at that level, which are affordable, of which government can purchase for use in schools.

But we don’t see much of that the way we see that kind of penetration in telephony, where many children now have handsets, but can’t get them the laptops.

I think we are still getting
there. The functionalities are different. The handset for telephony only concentrates on communication, with little memory and little processing power. But in IT, or computing, you need higher memory and processing power in order to be able to store usable software.

Those are very critical differences. But if you look at the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, the design was to minimize the cost of memory as well as processing power. And when it came initially, we said one hundred dollars lap top per child. If you do the conversion, the exchange rate of dollar and naira, you will get  N15, 000 or thereabouts. There was even a promise that with large volume, that price will crash. I see in very near future the computers that will compete price wise, even with the cheapest of telephony devices.

Let’s talk about e-governance. What is your own appreciation of developments in that sector?
I think what we have currently on ground is still a far cry from what it should be. The first  thing is that there must be political will, for us to be transparent.

Employing IT and imbibing IT culture, computerization, or e-governance by whatever means require a level of transparency. Some of our people don’t want that to happen. An example is the deployment of the so called e-payment system in ministries and other paratatals. But for the political will, some people were already bringing it down. Some said it was not going to work, while some said  it was going to bring problems.

They were just looking at the negative side. Even at the level it is now, what we have now is not full e-governance. But it is something. It is already achieving some good result; we will derive more money from it. I believe government can do more than it has done; there are several areas that we can benefit from e-governance in all levels of government activities, but it requires political will because the moment you do that, you are going to have some loopholes. Some may not want it to happen.

For instance, in some  states, if you want to renew your vehicle papers, you go to the bank and pay. You do not need to go the licensing office again. Many payments made now to government are done electronically. Some states now have ICT-driven payroll system, and that has assisted them to sort out so many ghost workers. You can go on and on in different areas. But we do not have this culture that ICT should drive governance in Nigeria. We have it as a policy, but this policy is not really being implemented the way it should.

That takes me to the issue of Nigeria having ICT as a culture. Are there software developed by indigenes for use in various sectors?

We have. I think one of the things the NCS is looking at is to work in conjunction with software developers to compile a brochure of software solutions developed locally; software with higher level of local content.

When you see that, it will be obvious to you that we have not actually done badly. However, in key application areas, we already have software. In banking, which seemed to be a very complex application, we have companies here that develop banking software and in some other applications.

In most of the critical applications, that we need locally, to drive our activities, governance, industry and commerce, we have their software here. But it goes beyond marketing; some people believe that products developed outside the country are better in quality. That is the perception.

Locally-made computers don’t bring out needed Nigerian characters like the Naira sign on the keyboard. Why is it so?
I will not speak for the OEMs, but I do know that it is available. What I feel is that, we should encourage them, so that they can improve on their products.

Twenty years ago, if you bring something made in Taiwan, people will think it is of inferior quality. It has changed now because they have continued to improve. I think that what we need do for our local OEMs, while we blame them, we should continue to address them on it, so that they will improve on their product quality. I believe that if they are supported, if they have number in terms of quantity produced, they will improve with time.

In the area of developing Nigerian languages, don’t you think that by  now we should be having applications in some of our major languages?

I agree with you. That still remains a challenge for ICT professionals in Nigeria. Even though, IT didn’t start in Nigeria, it also didn’t start in many other places. But in many of those places, they are already culturizing and localizing it. I believe we should be doing that also.

The National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) is taking that up. I also know that this year, it is one of the areas of priority NITDA is going to focus on. In fact, it is very likely that there is going to be research and development group to take this up, so that we can begin to see how we can culturize, to be more attractive to ordinary Nigerians in its basic elements, irrespective of your tribe. It is going to take a lot of effort, even beyond IT. What you find now is that our children are no longer taking to our languages.

Now on NCS; what it is the membership like and what is the total of computers in Nigeria today?
A. I don’t have the number of computers in Nigeria. I think NITDA should be able to give us an idea from the base line of study it conducted sometime ago. IN terms of the membership of NCS, NCS has about 100,000 membership computing on different cadres, including student members. We have different categories: fellows; members and the associate members.. Affiliate and corporate members and then students.

Who is an affiliate member?
An affiliate member is someone who is not a core IT professional, but uses IT very well.
Tell us about yourself.

My name is Charles Uwadia, a  Professor of Computer Science at the University of Lagos. I am currently, Director, Centre for Information Technology and Systems also at the University of Lagos. That is the centre that oversees all IT activities in the campus.

I was born on 7th June, 1956 at Ibadan. I had my primary education at Ibadan, secondary school at Oshogbo and I went to University of Ibadan for my tertiary education.

I proceeded to University of Lagos for my masters and subsequently my PHD. I have fellowships in different parts of the world, from almost all the continents. My area of specialization is computer engineering. But  with my exposure in the industry, I have actually moved away going into networking in information technology. My primary area however remains software engineering.

I’m currently the President of Nigeria Computer Society (NCS) and also council member of Computer professionals education council of Nigeria (CPECN), council member of board National Information and Technology Development Agency (NITDA). I hold liberal views about life and am a practicing Catholic. I’m married and blessed with three children; two girls and a boy. My hobby is football, long tennis and boxing.


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