Can one conclude that all of the projects discussed above have merits because they are truly assisting the country through education, provision of Internet connectivity infrastructure, policy advice, and capacity building? Can one say that the sight of hungry but cellular phone wielding Nigerians on the streets and in internet cafes are true indications of how these projects have been assisting development in the country. Perhaps without the benefit of deeper reflection, one may even give kudos to the Nigerian government for giving Microsoft the monopoly of digital technology in Nigeria.
Let us say development is a process of achieving the personal and community potential to live a good life. As simple as that is, it is still difficult to convincingly say that the projects discussed above have assisted majority of Nigerians to live a good life. It is even more difficult to believe that a Microsoft monopoly will do that.
As laudable as some of the digital projects targeted at helping development in Nigeria seem, the merits in them pale into relative insignificance when placed into the context of the reality in Nigeria.
Quick questions: Of what use is Internet access in a village without water? What use is half a gigabyte of RAM when the people need food? How will digital technology be available to all when the national provider of energy source is an epileptic government agency? The answers to these questions give more insight to the possibility or otherwise of the digital technology to assist development.
The main problem with these digital projects is that of access. How many people really have access to telephones and the Internet. Many a Nigerian that quickly acquired mobile/cell phones at the introduction of the GSM project in Nigeria are currently unable to afford the cost of charging the phones to make vital calls. Internet access is especially a good measure of the availability of digital technology to all in Nigeria because it requires the integration of individual components like computers, telecommunication and skills. The proliferation of Internet cafes is still largely restricted to cities and urban areas. Even then, many city dwellers still do not know how to use a computer. The few that can still find it hard to afford the increasing cost of Internet use because of the instability electricity power supply and the large dependence on gasoline powered generators. Of course many of the computers available in these Internet cafes and many government offices in Nigeria are the old and antiquated ones either donated by humanitarian agencies or refurbished at the Ikeja computer village in the suburb of Lagos.
In lauding the UNDP/CISCO and USAID initiative of targeting education, one still needs to raise the question of how accessible this technical education is to the people. How can people in the rural part of Nigeria learn how to use the Internet and make use of its advantages when CISCO academies and the USAIDS centres are in a few universities and urban areas respectively? What kind of access is even available in a country where, according to African Internet status report of 2002, has only 60000 dial up internet subscriber and 15000 internet outgoing bandwidth kbps for a population of 120 million people? Obviously the gap in the digital technology needed for development will continue to increase as richer countries have immediate access to emerging (and therefore expensive) technologies whilst Nigeria and other African countries continue to manage cast-off old technologies. The digital divide is just a manifestation of the global wealth/power divide. The centralised regulation and control of digital technology in Nigeria by the National Communication Commission (N.C.C.) and the large domination of foreign interest in the Internet Service Provision (I.S.P.) in the country are other factors that hinder enhanced access and the ability to benefit from the gains of digital technology.
Given the status of poverty alleviation as the overriding theme in development efforts in Africa, in order to be accepted as a development focus area, Information Communication Technology-oriented efforts must demonstrate their relevance to poverty reduction.
The Microsoft open cheque to dominate Nigerian cyber space, coupled with the series of economic and institutional reforms like the dismantling of the government telecommunication provider, NITEL, leaves a free rein for foreign multinationals to wire Nigeria as they deem proper. The danger in this is that rather than for digital technology to assist in poverty reduction, education, health care and other human development projects, it would be propelled by market forces which may introduce more structural adjustment policies that will further widen the gap between the have and have-nots. Again, this is intricately linked to the issue of access.
The award of a monopoly of software operation in Nigeria to Microsoft may thus be a fresh evidence suggesting the ignorance of the Nigerian government to the current trend of embracing open source/free software by developing countries as an alternative to huge dependence on expensive software technology.
The Obasanjo administration should stop basking in the euphoria of making GSM phones available to people that either too hungry or too harassed by religious conflicts to actually be able to use the gadgets.
Rather in addition to the Network training provided by CISCO and the ICT centres established by USAID, the Nigerian government in other to be able to genuinely use digital technology for development should also begin to invest in local technology players. Rather than award monopolies to economic partners, the Nigerian government need to work with development partners. There is need for a new configuration of the relationship between the Nigerian civil society, government authorities and the private sector to make digital technology work for schools, health care and poverty reduction in Nigeria.