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How police brutality poses threat to Nigeria’s tech industry, foreign exchange

While Nigeria is fast becoming a prime spot for technology startups and investment, police brutality on players of the young but growing industry makes ease of doing business difficult and thus poses threat to the growth of the sector.

The continuous harassment of Nigerian professionals who are riding on technology to make ends meet, either as software developers, content creators, podcasters, and online marketers could mean that Africa’s largest economy could be losing millions in salaries and investments.

“I lost an opportunity to raise funding for my tech company because I was illegally detained by SARS for almost one week,” a Lagos-based tech CEO lamented to BusinessDay at one of the protest centres in Lagos.

“They stopped me, went through my laptop and they didn’t understand most of the things on it. They were only able to establish the fact that I have had email conversations with foreigners and so I was asked to pay some ridiculous amount of money, I was detained when I refused to pay, as a result, I lost the deal,” the tech entrepreneur who simply identified himself as Peter said.

Just like Silicon Valley in the southern San Francisco Bay Area of California, home to companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google, Nigeria is said to have almost a replica in Lagos, home to the largest tech hub ecosystem in Africa.

Located in the suburb of Lagos is the Yabacon Valley, the high-tech innovation hub, which started life in 2010 with one building earmarked as an incubator for talent and has since spread across different parts of the city and states.

Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world are moving to a service-driven digital economy, and Nigeria is not left behind as the obvious rise in unemployment in Africa’s most populous nation has pushed more young people into finding innovative ways to generate revenue while leveraging technology for remote work.

From trading cryptocurrencies, running online advertisements, making comedy skits, copywriting, content creation, graphic designs, to working remotely as software developers, a geopolitical intelligence platform, SB Morgen (SBM) says young Nigerians have created a service economy that appears independent of government patronage.

Isa Ibrahim, Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy believes Nigeria’s tech industry which currently contributes about 13.8 percent to the nation’s GDP will in the next two to three years, double the 8.8 percent contribution of the oil and gas sector.

“The recent statistics by NBS shows that the future is indeed in ICT. This is a clear indication that at the pace ICT is growing in Nigeria, most probably in the next two or three years, the contribution of the ICT to the GDP will at least double that of the oil sector,” Ibrahim.

But, according to industry players, the incessant harassment from the police and especially the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit is one of the reasons why the sector is yet to attain its full potential.

“In many reported cases, persons found with laptops or “expensive phones” are arrested and bogus charges slapped on them even after they show their ID cards and proof of legitimate sources of income. They are often forced to enter unmarked vehicles, are driven to unknown locations, have their phones seized, and are given no opportunity to call friends or family for help,” SB Morgen said, adding that “these are scare tactics and continuous police brutality undermines this service economy currently being championed by young Nigerians.”

While the reported cases of some young Nigerians who are involved in cybercrime and internet fraud cannot be swept under the carpet, the police brutality of the few professionals in Nigeria’s technology industry is bringing a huge loss to Nigeria in form of foreign earnings.

Narrating his ordeal with SARS, Yele Bademosi founder Bundle, a social payment app for cash or crypto said he was kidnapped by SARS in October 2019, at a location that was less than 2 minutes from his home.

“They took my phones, wallet, house key, my Apple Watch, didn’t care about my ID cards and claimed I was a Yahoo Boy because I had messages on telegram with foreigners. They demanded N1m from me, made a “fake” phone call to their commander, and said I would sleep in prison,” he lamented.

Whereas Nigeria’s unemployment rate is at a record high of 27.1 percent in the second quarter of 2020, tech companies have continuously lamented over the scarcity of IT professionals and lack of graduate that fit today’s job roles which require a high level of soft skills, a problem resulting from Nigerian universities teaching students how to use a computer on the blackboard.

Jessica Akano, a recruiting manager for Africa at Andela, a company that offers software engineering as a service, says one of the major challenges of her role has been “scarcity of very solid talent due to pay competition and multiple opportunities at home and abroad for software engineers. There’s always another company willing to pay more or do more.”

Instead of relying on the export of crude oil for over 90 percent of Nigeria’s foreign earnings, industry analysts have advised that Nigeria should train most of its young population for IT export and in exchange, attract more foreign earnings and investments.

According to analysts, the export of services is a major contributor to the GDP of some of the world’s biggest economies. Startuplist Africa – a data-driven platform that focuses on African start-ups shows that Nigeria tech start-ups attracted over $85 million in the first 10 months of 2020 with over 80 percent from foreign investors, a source of foreign earnings for a country that has been suffering from dollar shortage since the collapse of oil price.

Meanwhile, the protest by predominantly, young Nigerians for the reform of the police force has entered its sixth consecutive days even after the Inspector General of Police announced that SARS has been dissolved, the firth dissolution in four years.

“At this point, this goes beyond the tech sector and cuts across all aspects of life. As a young Nigerian living in Nigeria, we should not live in fear of people who are supposed to be the one protecting us against harm,” Bademosi said.

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