By Yushau A. Shuaib
I arrived at GITEX 2022 in Dubai with the hope of waylaying Professor Ali Ibrahim Pantami for an exclusive interview on politics, alongside the challenges, excitements, disappointments, and accomplishments of his ever-inspiring exploits in public office, particularly since his appointment as the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy.
Pantami remains one of the few cabinet members in President Buhari’s administration who is a highly pragmatic, charismatic, and results-oriented administrator. He boldly builds partners with sincere allies, surmounts hurdles and never shies away from the good fight towards accomplishing what has been described as unprecedented feats in his Ministry. He is truly Nigeria’s Digital Economy maestro.
The results are certainly obvious for many to see: Apart from the digital economy sector now playing a pivotal role in lifting the Nigerian economy out of recession, it is continuously recording the highest growth rate in the country’s public sector.
Just as parastatals under his Ministry are remitting trillions of naira into the coffers of the Federal Government, a lot more in taxes and duties are also being paid by ICT companies and other sectoral players into the national treasury. It’s a case of the golden goose that is being properly tended to and which continues to lay the golden eggs that expand the national fortunes, especially in a period of global fiscal crisis.
I was interested in asking him about the spirit behind the significant number of policies developed and the hundreds of projects executed by his Ministry towards providing an enabling environment for the sustainable growth of the communications and digital economy sector.
Rather than being granted what I had expected to be a straightforward interview, the Minister rather got me into covering the week-long activities of the Nigerian delegation at the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), which he led. This was the 2022 edition of the annual Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (GITEX Global), from the 10th of October 2022 in Dubai.
The delegation led by Professor Pantami was a powerful one, having officials from Nigeria’s public and private sectors, including regulators, academics, media practitioners, change makers, and young entrepreneurs. Nigeria has been attending GITEX because of its enormous benefits, especially in attracting foreign direct investment to the country.
Some of the distinguished personalities on the entourage were the executive vice chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Professor Umar Danbatta; the Director General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Kashifu Inuwa; the Director General of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), Engr Aliyu Aziz; and the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Galaxy Backbone Limited, Professor Muhammed Bello Abubakar and Chairman of the Board of Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST), Barrister Maimuna Yaya Abubakar.
As the Minister went about attending a series of summits, meetings and exhibitions, I had the opportunity of being able to engage him intermittently, and I learnt a lot both from him and in my coverage of some of these events.
While inaugurating the Nigerian exhibition pavilion, Pantami informed the audience of how, in the last three years, the Federal Government had launched several programmes, policies and projects, which have been yielding results in great leaps and bounds that have contributed to the flourishing of the country’s digital economy sub-sector.
Immediately after the inauguration and tours of numerous stands, the Minister led the team to the Startups exhibitions, where at least nine Nigerian young technology innovators had spots in the semi-final of the GITEX tech-invention competition, known as the Supernova Challenge Pitch Competition, organised by North Star Dubai.
The Challenge is the biggest pitching competition in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, where startups have the opportunity to become the next unicorns, with up to $200,000 in cash prizes up for grabs.
The Minister interacted and took pictures with promoters of the startups. He also had words of encouragement for the Nigerian semi-finalists, including Identity Pass, 9JaCodeKids Academy, Floews, Medtech, Paddycover, Pricepally, LiveBic, Technyon Technologies, and Wellness Health Technologies.
On the second day, at the Nigerian Pavilion, the Minister received visitors and also held a series of meetings with representatives of governments and big corporations seeking partnerships with Nigeria in the areas of digital identity, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence, among others.
Pantami held bilateral conversations and meetings with the Minister of Artificial Intelligence and Digital Economy of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Omar Sultan Alolama and the Minister of IT and Telecommunications of Pakistan, Mr. Syed Amin Ul Haque, among other top global public figures.
The Minister also met with officials of the Dubai World Trade Center to explore areas of collaboration, as Nigeria is the largest Africa digital economy. A Senior Vice President, MEA of Oracle, Antonio Mesa consulted with Pantami towards the deepening of collaboration with Nigeria on the growth of the digital economy, through universal licences and corporate social responsibility. A strategic meeting was equally held with Vice-President of Amazon, Isabella Groegor-Cechowicz on a similar level of partnership. A dollar vault of investment opportunities was opened for the start-up community, as the Nigerian team engaged with Amazon Web Services (AWS).
One of the greatest attainments of Nigeria at GITEX 2022 came in the form of the opening up of massive opportunities as the Minister signed, on behalf of the Federal Government, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the global tech giant, Microsoft Corporation. This is for the training of five million Nigerians on high-demand technological skills that are needed for consolidating the capacities of citizens as native players in the burgeoning digital ecosystem and economy.
The Microsoft representative, Mr Deen Yusuf, said the gesture is bound to enlarge knowledge bases, and capabilities, and create massive spinoff potentials that will enhance careers, livelihoods and the national fiscal well-being.
While commending Microsoft for the prospects afforded Nigeria by this gesture, Pantami said Nigeria would continue to provide an enabling environment and ensure that regulatory instruments are developmental and flexible for Microsoft and other businesses to flourish.
The Deputy Governor of Lagos State, Dr Obafemi Hazmat met with the Minister and discussed how Lagos could benefit from the Microsoft offer. Lagos is the only state from Nigeria that sponsored startups to #GITEX2022.
It is necessary to state that out of over 800 applications received for the Supernova pitch competition from 37 countries across 13 categories, nine Nigeria startups emerged among the 140 semi-finalists. The 26 startups that made it to the finals of the Supernova competition also had two Nigerian startups. Eventually, a Nigerian startup, ShapShap emerged as Global Best in the Mobility and Smart Cities category, winning a cash prize of $8,000.
The Minister was elated by the success stories of Nigerian participation at this year’s event. Apart from the award to the winning startup, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) was equally honoured with the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC)’s Most Valued Partnership Award in recognition of the agency’s extraordinary dedication and service at the startup and tech event.
Similarly, at the end of a discussion on “Digital Inclusion: Aligning Regulators and Network Providers to Bridge Digital Divide,” Professor Pantami was presented with the prestigious Dubai World Trade Centre’s Leadership and Commitment Award 2022, in recognition of his commitment towards advancing the digital economy at both the ATU and ITU this year. He was the only person honoured with this highly prestigious award this year.
Speaking at the Summit, the Minister said Nigeria has a lot of policies to close the digital divide and promised that the government would soon pass the Start-up bill into law for enlarging the vibrancy of the sector.
Less than a week after his assurance to the global community at GITEX 2022, on the eve of Professor Pantami’s 50th birthday, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Startup bill into law.
Not only was this carried out as a tribute to the very significant achievements of Pantami on clocking 50 years, more so the President Buhari praised him saying that: “The appointment of Pantami was one of the best choices I have made because he has added tremendous value to good governance.”
Buhari went further in his testament on an invaluable pioneer that, “Pantami’s depth of knowledge of complex issues is amazing and remarkable,” and “his loyalty and dedication to duty is worthy of emulation.”
Just as President stated, I also join numerous well-wishers in praying that may Almighty Allah continue to guide, protect and bless our very honourable and worthy Minister, Professor Isa Ali Pantami with good health and wisdom in the service of the country and humanity.
Yushau A. Shuaib is the author of An Encounter with the Spymaster