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ICT University? Not Again!

The problem with Nigeria is much more a leadership deficit than it is a followership disorder. It’s only in Nigeria that you see an engineer assigned to teach history while a history graduate is assigned the portfolio of superintending the building of bridges. Such dysfunctional work delineation has been of old but it seems to have grown more teeth under the present government.

One of such disproportionate assignations of portfolio is to be found in the Ministry of Communication. Note that in the 21st Century, such a ministry is also called Ministry of Digital Economy in some climes. Thailand, a rising Asian nation, had to change the Ministry from Communication to Ministry of Digital Economy about two years ago. The reason was to make the ministry more attuned to impacting on the economy of Thailand in a manner that is measurable and directly impactful on the people. And that is exactly what it is. Communication in the 19th century may mean something else. It could mean information management using the various media of radio, television, print and what have you; but not anymore! In this century – the century of geeks, gizmos, Google, twitter, Instagram, Netflix, Whatsapp, Flickr and a whole lot of gobbledygook in an ever expanding geekdom – communication has acquired an entirely different meaning.

Therefore, anybody minding the Ministry of Communication must be digitally savvy, must understand the dynamics of the increasingly transforming industry, first as an enabler of other sectors and as a sector that reinvents itself at the most dizzying speed. But what do we have in Nigeria? A clear case of a carpenter being saddled with the task of performing a surgery. The incumbent Minister of Communication, Adebayo Shittu, is a lawyer; not just a lawyer, an analogue lawyer with medieval ideas. In his barely two years as Minister of Communication, he has been fixated on one idea: turning the Digital Bridge Institute (DBI) into an ICT University.

First, he spent his first year learning the rope, understudying a terrain he has absolutely no knowhow about. But give it to him, he was humble enough to admit that he does not know anything about the sector he was asked to supervise. There is danger in asking a man to do a job he does not possess the capacity to do. Such a man would be led by the nose and would fall for any advice, from the mundane to the daftest. This, perhaps, may have been the misfortune of Barrister Adebayo. He fell for the dumb advice of turning a special technology institute specially created for honing of skills to deepen the nation’s digital economy into a university. Knowing what happens in Nigerian public universities, the proposed ICT University will all too soon lose its focus and grossly undermine the vision of setting up the DBI.

Has anybody bothered to find out what has happened to the various Federal Universities of Technology set up by the Nigerian government in the past? All of them without exception have gone the way of other universities, offering courses and programmes that have little or no bearing with technology. A designated university of technology ought to be a special technology ecosystem from where should graduate men and women already prepared for the challenges of modern technology. Graduates of such universities should be primed and ready, needing no supervision in their chosen specialized fields. But this is not the case. They are no different from engineering graduates or graduates in other disciplines from regular universities.

And you cannot blame the students or their teachers. They only made the most of what was available. These so-called universities of technology are under-funded and under-equipped. Their lecturers who ought to be the cream of nerds and techies in the academia are not exposed to further trainings in their respective fields, the type that ought to distinguish them from their counterparts in regular universities. The effect of such is that you cannot tell thre difference between a graduate of a university of technology and his counterpart from any of the regular universities. So why does Barrister Adebayo want to turn DBI into an ICT University. To leave behind a legacy? Not quite. If he wants to make a mark, he should liaise with his colleagues in the Ministry of Education and lobby the National Assembly members on how more funding could be provided for the relevant ICT departments and courses of study in these universities of technology. No serious nation should play games with an institute like DBI in this century. India has many universities, over 800 of them. But none compares to India Institute of Technology (IIT) which has campuses in most of India’s many cities. IIT is India’s answer to the global knowledge quest. It is not for dull heads or persons who just want to acquire a degree. As they say in India, if degree is your passion there is always a degree-awarding university near you, but certainly not their IIT; the foundation of India’s might in today’s ICT world especially in software engineering where India rules the roost.

At the moment, Nigeria does not have a version of India IIT. The closest institute to it is the DBI which has begun a new life of imparting 21st century digital knowledge in Nigerians. DBI is focused on churning out graduates in core areas of ICT including software engineering. The style of training is hands-on, not theory. This is not about university degree. Global ICT is not driven by long university degrees. Some of the men and women running the mill today are university drop-outs.  The two trending global software application icons Tanmay Bakshi and Mohammed Ali both of India parentage have yet to see the four walls of any university before their software products became global raves. Barrister Adebayo should not ruin the DBI with the typical Nigerian obsession for university degrees. Turning a specialized ICT institute to a so-called ICT university is to turn a focused training institute into another education bureaucracy where degrees are awarded according to quota and admissions granted in accordance with catchment area or the selectively applied Federal Character. Nigeria does not need such now. What the minister should do is to work closely with relevant ministries to improve the quality of teaching and ergonomics of learning in the existing Federal Universities of Technology. Nigeria needs the DBI as a finishing school for those who graduated from the poorly equipped universities; as a nursery for next generation nerds who would without a university degree astound the world the same way Bakshi, Ali, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and others made the world a better, happier place with their products. Enough of this obsession for university degrees. ICT thrives on pragmatism, not on long university degrees, albeit ICT University degree. It is no respecter of degrees. It only respects your brain power, your IQ quotient and your ability to connect the dots in the realm of cognitive logic and algorithm.

The minister should worry more about Nigeria without the cheap fortunes that comes with crude oil, a product that the first world, Nigeria’s major customer, has served notice that it would cease to be on their service menu in the coming decades. What is the minister’s strategy for this? His predecessor, Dr Omobola Johnson, created Nigeria’s silicon valley, the co-location hub (CcHub) in Yaba, Lagos, which did not only attract Zuckerberg to Nigeria but also got him to invest in one of the projects (Andela).

But Barrister Adebayo has shown he is not cut out for such out-of-the-box reasoning. He has severally admitted to his lack of understanding of the workings of the knowledge economy hence he should be forgiven for all his official foibles. He will do well, indeed very well, in other areas but certainly not the ICT turf where a little bit of technical knowhow is required to decode what the techies are coding.

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