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New challenges, old problems.

Nigeria's computer industry is growing fast. And it is increasingly becoming a professional body of suppliers and users. But, given its legendary inefficiency, can the Nigerian Government benefit from this new information culture? Pini Jason and Jato Thompson report.

While some sectors of the economy lurch from one catastrophe to another, Nigeria's information technology industry is streaking ahead, with new firms regularly entering a market teeming with new products.

From huge mainframe systems to the smallest software package, everything is now on offer. But while competitors do fierce battle in the computer marketplace, they are also creating a brave new information culture through reorganising the industry itself.

Every month a conference on information technology or related services is being held somewhere. Data Communication and Networks was the theme for an impressive gathering of experts from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) and the private sector in July. In August, it was the turn of telecommunications technology. But the industry's professional groups are also on the move.

The Computers Association of Nigeria (COAN), the biggest of its kind in the country, settled a long-running dispute over leadership in May by electing Mr Tim Akanbi the new Executive of the 17 year old association. This will allow it to forge ahead with new plans.

Mr Akanbi wants to upgrade COAN's professional examinations to the point where they can become an "internationally recognised catalyst for the improvement of computing skills to the benefit of members, their companies, and the nation at large."

But a further, and perhaps more daunting task Mr Akanbi has set his association is in rationalising the ailing computer systems used by the Nigerian Government.

Although there is no shortage of computers, proudly displayed on the executive desks of Ministers or Director-Generals, these machines are often mere items of furniture.

Victims of technology

Indeed, the problems encountered by several Government departments - enthusiastically involved in computerisation programmes since the 1980s - are legion. As if to prove the point, the Internal Affairs Minister Mr Baba Gana Kingibe, recently admitted that computers installed for the National Identity Card project have become so obsolete they are useless. The project's total cost to date is N3bn, and if it is to continue, yet more vast sums of money will have to be spent on more modern machines.

Other victims of the rapid advancement in computer technology include organisations like the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), and the national telecommunications company, NITEL, which use computers for their billing systems, yet still send bills months late, and confuse customers with out of date accounts.

Nigeria Airways has actually had to abandon its computerised booking system for the same reasons. It now resorts to the archaic methods of manual reservations, resulting in frequently muddled bookings and the turning down of requests for unsold seats.

Even the Customs and Excise Department has been affected, ceding its collection duties to Government-appointed banks, when a computer system could have maximised revenue collection and minimised already widescale corruption.

Mr Akanbi believes that COAN can cut out all this embarrassing waste by availing the Government of its expert advice. It plans to make such advice available to private companies as well. But while enthusiastic officials have applauded the suggestion, some argue that it is up to the Government to ask for assistance first. As yet the Government has not accepted that there is a problem.

Yet there are plenty of areas where COAN's assistance could be of use. In June, the Nigerian Police declared that more of its operations are to be computerised, with the Interpol and Anti-Fraud sections of the Federal Investigation and Intelligence Bureau (FIIB) having already made the change. Nigerians are now waiting to see whether the money spent will translate into increased crime prevention and detection. Without the sound advice of the experts, it may well not.

But while this and regional Government initiatives like it give the impression that things are moving fast, the reality is different. The most pressing problem is a lack of funds, strangling efforts to computerise and keep up vital maintenance and repairs. The situation is worsened by the usual civil service attitude towards public property.

Another obstacle to successful computerisation is the chronic instability of Government itself. Decisions to computerise any department are still made by the Chief Executive of that department, and are not the result of laid down Government policy.

Frequent changes in personnel mean that a new Chief Executive may not - and often does not - consider computerisation his priority, instead deciding to refurbish broken-down vehicles or complete an abandoned building project. Half installed computers are often allowed to break down completely.

Like many Nigerian Government matters, computerisation is dogged by a lack of sustainable policy. With a rapidly evolving computer industry on its doorstep, the Government does not need to go far to change that.
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Title Annotation:Nigeria's computer industry
Author:Jason, Pini; Thompson, Jato
Publication:African Business
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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