telecommunications

By Okoh Aihe

IT’s obviously refreshing to hear things that make sense and are also well presented; far away from the avalanche of campaign dust and induced violence, far away from the political drama and hugger-mugger that have become a depressing hallmark of our politics. The gentleman was speaking about the Startup Act of 2022.

The voice enjoyed some pellucidity in response to questions, but I enjoyed the little confusion between calling it a Bill or an Act. Oswald Osaretin Guobadia still has not come to the full understanding that the Bill has made its rounds at the National Assembly and that President Muhammadu Buhari has assented to it. That doesn’t mean comprehension in the literal sense, but rather an overwhelming sense of accomplishment that a difficult journey has come to a beautiful conclusion. 

He was saying something about the Act establishing a Council for Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which shall be domiciled at the offices of the National Information Technology Development Agency, NITDA. There they go again. An inner voice warned, always looking for ways to load the system with more agencies and councils.

A long time ago, a friend who is an interesting mischief-maker took on the exhausting and unrewarding task of listing Federal Government agencies and parastatals in order to demonstrate that some of them are unremarkable and only exist to collect government allocations for which they will never be held accountable, like money for the boys.

In all my years in journalism and later in the civil service, I had never heard of three quarters of them! Is the Startup Act of 2022 yet another attempt to create fictitious entities? Looking at the slow-grind of lawmaking in Nigeria, the Startup Act metaphorically flew on supernatural wings. The first draft of the Bill surfaced in July 2021, hit the floor of the National Assembly in December 2021, Public hearing was in June 2022, the Bill was passed in July 2022, and assented to by the President in October 2022. What a journey! 

Guobadia can enjoy some days in the sun. He is Senior Special Assistant on Digital Transformation to the President of Nigeria and the Programme leader of the Nigeria Startup Bill. It is absolutely nourishing to be given an assignment and deliver on it in record time. My little experience is that people in that kind of position simply fritter away opportunities and responsibilities.

Guobadia has presented a bright exception. President Buhari’s annotation to the Act demonstrates a measure of confidence in the entire process and what the Act is expected to achieve. “The Act is aimed at ensuring that Nigeria’s laws and regulations are clear, planned, and work for the tech ecosystem.

This, we believe, will contribute to the creation of an enabling environment for the growth of the ecosystem, as well as the attraction and protection of investment in tech startups,” the president said. The Startup Act makes a good read, but with a sprinkle of confusing presentation.

The following are the objectives of the Act: provide a legal and institutional framework for the development of startups in Nigeria; provide an enabling environment for the establishment, development, and operation of startups in Nigeria; provide for the development and growth of technology-related talents; and position Nigeria’s startup ecosystem, as the leading digital technology centre in Africa, having excellent innovators with cutting edge skills and exportable capacity. 

The Act establishes the National Council for Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship, referred to as the Council, whose membership shall include: the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, who shall serve as the Chairman; the Vice-President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, who shall serve as the Vice-Chairman; the Minister responsible for Communications and Digital Economy, who shall preside over the Council in the absence of the President and the Vice-President; the Minister responsible for Finance, Budget and National Planning; the Minister responsible for Industry, Trade and Investment; the Minister responsible for Science, Technology and Innovation; the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN; four representatives of the Startup Consultative Forum established under section 12 of this Act; one member to represent the Nigeria Computer Society; one member to represent the Computer Professionals (Registration Council of Nigeria); and the Director-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency, who shall serve, as the Secretary of the Council. 

Here is my observation on the foregoing. Must the President, his Vice President, and the Minister be engaged in a process to determine its seriousness? Except for the purpose of flaunting power and being able to influence some decisions at the snap of a finger, their inclusion in the Act is superfluous and intended only for influence peddling and power manipulation.

If your response to my observation is to the effect that their inclusion will enhance accelerated decisions, I will point out that President Buhari has been the Minister of Petroleum for nearly eight years; yet, the sector remains in chaos, and both chambers of the National Assembly have not even been bold enough to invite him for any explanations. So, what happened to accelerated decisions!

The Secretariat, which is housed at NITDA, with the approval of the Council, establish a Startup Support and Engagement Portal, which shall be managed by a coordinator. Code named, the “the Startup Portal”, the Coordinator shall ensure that the Portal, among others, shall: facilitate the issuance of a permit or licence to a labelled startup; provide a platform for interaction between a startup and the Federal Government, private institutions, angel investors, venture capitalists, incubators, accelerators and other relevant institutions; and create opportunities for a startup to participate in beneficial challenges and programmes including, incubation and accelerator programmes, showcases, pitch competitions, fellowships, and other related programmes.

There are quite some opportunities and advantages that startup organisations will enjoy after due recognition from the Council. For instance, the Act recognises the establishment of the Startup Investment Seed Fund (not less than N10bn annually) which shall be managed by the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority through a Fund Manager. Startups will have access to this fund.

What is NITDA doing here, playing host to this young council? I asked myself. Elevating is the answer for me. The NITDA Act of 2007 says it is a development agency that should have its imprimatur on technology growth and adoption across the various sectors of the economy and the entire tech ecosystem. The organisation is fulfilling one of its cardinal assignments, although I disagree with some of the functions it has appropriated lately.

Since President Buhari described the Nigerian youths as lazy in April 2018, some of them have demonstrated a capacity to rule the world through tech startups (some acquiring the status of a unicorn), entertainment (music and movies), and other businesses where they have literally been in front of the line, attracting the world to Nigeria.

The Startup Act seems to me an apologia from the Presidency. Our young people are our most valuable natural resource, at home and abroad. President Buhari has finally acknowledged “their ingenuity, creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit are evident to all”.

While I recommend this document for your reading, I want to appeal that the fund and other activities of the organisation, like the Startup Portal, be properly managed and not used as favours for family and friends. History teaches us that the management of funds, especially in parastatals under the supervision of overbearing ministers, can really be embarrassing, even as the head of government looks on nonplussed.

Disclaimer

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