Notes for Nigerian Minister Bosun Tijani

When Nigerian President Bola Tinubu announced ‘Bosun Tijani as a Ministerial nominee, it felt like a seismic move to align with  the nation’s burgeoning youth population.  Leaders in traditional political quarters did not receive Tijani’s appointment well. Far from a political hack, social media pages were awash with his strong-worded criticisms of previous governments.  Despite calls for the rescission of his appointment, Tijani won the fight and was appointed Minister of Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy.  With this move, Tinubu took a step towards   strengthening Nigeria’s digital economy and created a bridge to the young Nigerian entrepreneurs whose ideas in fintech, agritech, and the like have achieved enormous success.  Tijani’s appointment also underscored the government’s recognition of technology’s crucial role in driving development in this new age. I fully endorse Tijani’s appointment and speak to his ability to execute on this significant mandate. However, I have had the opportunity to execute projects in the public sector and know how vastly different it is from the private sector, so I understand the difficult work ahead of Tijani.

Since his appointment, Tijani has come under fire for his attempts to crowdsource ideas on social media.  Some have criticized his ideas as whimsical at best and nonsensical at worst. Tijani’s thick skin has so far kept him from caving to online pressure (save a few deleted tweets here and there). Thick skin or not, Tijani is not all talk. He is a doer with a proven track record.  When Tijani and his partner decided to start Co-Creation Hub (Cc-HUB), a centre located in Lagos, where young people develop technology driven ideas for solving social problems in Nigeria in 2010, it was hard. Not many people could have mustered the courage to start something so novel and impactful. Tijani has grown CcHub into four countries, and that’s testament to his ability to execute. However, the public sector does not reward execution, it is designed to incentivize greed and disincentivize meaningful change.  Yes, the public sector favours mundane activities over actual progress and the way to solve this is not to do more talking or more activity, you have to do more uprooting.

The Honourable Minister has a lot to do. I am looking forward to Tijani’s budget defence session with the National Assembly to see how he intends to leverage the bureaucracy of public finance to achieve his lofty goals; for he must not expect the rich private sector to fund all his initiatives. I have outlined seven steps which the Minster must take to give himself and his team a chance of lasting success.

  1. Harmonize the Ministry of Communication, Innovation and Digital Economy with the Ministry of Science and Technology

Nigeria has historically suffered from a duplicity of agencies which has often left agencies in perpetual contest, hampering their ability to deliver critical public goods. Tijani faces a similar conundrum with the Ministry of Science and Technology. There is no clear distinction between the roles of the Ministry of Science and Technology and Tijani’s Ministry of Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy. Both ministries lay claim to overseeing the innovation and technological advancement of the country and this is grounds for tension between both ministries. Tijani must take urgent action in this regard, or he will fall into political landmines or bureaucratic puzzles that will limit his impact. There is no need for such duplication. The ministry of Science and Technology should be scrapped or merged with the Ministry of Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy. Several other agencies under Bosun’s oversight also need more supervision. A key example is National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP). NOTAP is essentially Nigeria’s Patent office but in 2020, number of patent applications for Nigeria was 410. This contrasts with countries like China that filed around 1.58 million patent applications in 2022, the US (505,539), Japan (405,361). Filing patents is often seen as a measure of a country’s commitment to innovation and can contribute to economic growth and competitiveness on a global scale. On a sidenote, Uche Nnaji the Science and Technology Minister describes himself as “the minister in charge of overseeing innovation and technological advancement of the country”, it would be interesting to see Tijani’s job description.

  1. Power a Digital-First Government

Tijani should facilitate a full-scale e-government transition. He seems to enjoy the goodwill of the President and must leverage that to take the first step towards ameliorating the rot in our public service. Digital government initiatives can play a crucial role in tackling corruption in Nigeria by promoting transparency, accountability, and efficiency in public administration. Providing government services online reduces the need for face-to-face interactions, minimizing opportunities for corrupt practices. Social media and digital media platforms can function as important mechanisms for governance accountability, grievance redressal, and policy feedback (alongside trolls, sadly). These platforms will enable Nigerians to interact with their government representatives away from the traditional constraints and often hierarchical nature of the physical infrastructure.  In Africa, we see Kenya’s model of e-government to enhance public services through technology and how this has greatly reduced corruption. I jocularly call Kenya my second African home and have had the opportunity to use most of their services and I know how disruptive the Kenya e-Citizen platform has been to the age-old corruption that long held sway there. Even if Tijani has to copy Kenya, that will be a good start. We need to solve for the duplication, fragmentation, and bureaucracy that cripples productivity in Nigeria’s public service.

  1. Support the proliferation of VMNOs

We need to allow “small boys” play in the big spaces. Young people should be able to come together and create subscription plans designed to meet the cellular needs of various demography (just like Mint Mobile in the US) and start a Telco. Virtual Mobile Network Operators (VMNOs) will democratise access to the cellular industry. I personally will be interested in replicating Mint Mobile’s business model in Nigeria, if Tijani makes market entry easy. I know the NCC recently began issuing VMNOs licenses, but the Minister must shepherd and support this process. It will be a catalytic gamechanger in creating wealth and enterprise for young people, which is why he must chaperone the process to ensure gatekeepers do not take over. The trajectory has always been that a very successful VMNOs ends up being acquired by an MNO, so success in this will potentially create a huge liquidity event à la Paystack.    

  1. Crash Data Cost

He needs to eliminate the data floor cap imposed by the NCC. Nigeria’s data cost needs to be closer to zero. Get everyone on the internet. A random search on X (formerly Twitter) will show that most people who participate in online giveaways are mostly asking for money for “sub”, a colloquial term for data subscription. A country like Nigeria should be aiming to have everyone on the internet, especially given the absence of free public internet services in our public spaces. Back in the 2000s, Chris Sacca spearheaded a Google project that sought to provide free internet for the people of San Francisco. I think the Minister can leverage his public goodwill with the private sector to have them sponsor free internet in public parks, libraries, and schools (some Federal universities have this already, albeit at slow speeds).

5.  Fix NIPOST

There’s not much to be said here. It’s as clear as day. The United States Postal Service (USPS) is loss making and continues to be subsidized by the U.S Government owing to the importance of last mile infrastructure to business and trade across the U.S. Tijani must fix NIPOST and not just the aesthetic makeovers that previous Postmaster-Generals have tried to do. He fought valiantly to have his preferred candidate as the PG, and I hope she delivers. The first win is to standardize our addressing system in Nigeria and turbo-charge last mile service delivery across the country. An effective addressing system is so crucial and cuts across social welfare, security, governance and trade. Delivering NIPOST from its macabre is no easy task but the Minister must get this done if he is serious about using technology to power the service layer in this country.

  1. Become the Yahoo Minister

We don’t talk about it a lot, but fraud is eating up our young generation. A little anecdote here; I went to a rural community in Oyo State sometime this year and while the community lacked basic amenities, I noticed a group of young boys who could not possibly be more than 16 with motorcycles exuding flamboyance and flashing phones. I was curious and began asking questions and the villagers cheerfully mentioned that they were “yahoo boys” who are very rich. I asked if these boys were in school, and I was told they had dropped out. They did not have laptops, so I was curious to know how they were perpetuating this fraud only to be told it was all done on their iPhones. This is just one tiny community out of many where the dividends of democracy have not been felt but they already knew how to make connections with people from the western world and defraud them. If 16-year-olds have the presence of mind to do this, then they can also learn how to code and work for legitimate companies. But the way to get them out is tedious and convoluted. And Tijani and his team must find a way to solve this menace. We need to create “tech farms” across the country where we employ young people to work in tech and earn good income while at it. Dhaka has done this, India continues to do this, and it is quite interesting that when Alexandr Wang wanted to find people in Africa to train AI models, he went to Kenya instead of Nigeria. We have more people in Nigeria so one must think of why Nigeria was not an attractive option. Tijani needs to create large demand of low-level tech talents, or demand for roles with a very low barrier to entry. People should see a data entry job as a better path than hawking, and software engineering as an alternative to internet fraud. We need to turn the beggars of Birnin Kebbi into Python Engineers, the louts of Osogbo into SQL Analysts, the market runners of Aba into Frontend engineers and the illegal refinery workers of Port Harcourt into JavaScript enthusiasts. Pay them to learn, build learning centres that are more aesthetically pleasing than Night Clubs, lure them in and capture them by the excellence and thrill.

  1. Become The Open Minister

Tijani is a beacon of hope for some of Nigeria’s successful young men who made a fortune working in tech or finance both at home and abroad. They are all closely watching Tijani to see how he fares and possibly reignite their desire for public service. Most young Nigerians that I meet want to help fix this country, if ‘Bosun fails, it might have disastrous consequences for these desires. He is the archetypal role model, technocrat who became successful building privately and then tapped up for National Service. ‘Bosun did it at 46, he must work to ensure the next person does it at 36. How? By being very open and accessible. Show people how government works, the process to prepare for FEC meetings, budget defence, agency oversight, the full shebang, do the Tiktoks “day in the life”. Historically, governments in Nigeria has not been accessible to the public, Bosun can and should bridge that gap. Show people what it is like to be a Federal Minister, what can you do and not do. Allow people ask you questions, visit your office, and do not block people on social media, even the trolls. You are the torchbearer and forerunner for a new generation to come and like John the Baptist, he must see his travails as akin to the proverbial wilderness that John went through.

Given the fickle nature of public sentiment, Minister ‘Bosun Tijani must act fast. In the dynamic nature of Nigerian politics, speed is of essence and his ability to harness and capitalize on the current goodwill will do him a lot of good especially for an outsider like him who will always be at risk of being chopped if his Boss decides to rejig his cabinet. I wish him well.

Stay True!

Miracle Roch

This article was originally published on Premium Times.

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