Budget 2019: Next ICT minister could fiscally be a sitting duck

The ministry of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) may not be on the same level  with ministries like oil and gas in terms of revenue generation for the government, but it is no less important to the development of the country’s economy.

In fact, the next frontier of economic growth – the digital economy – would certainly be determined by the steps the stewards in the ICT ministry take. The sector is also quoted in the ICT Roadmap 2017 as the arrowhead for weaning Nigeria off oil and gas and consequently, diversifying the economy.

Unfortunately for Nigeria and whoever the new minister of ICT would be, the budget to power that growth is anything but hopeful.

The total budget approved for the 2019 fiscal year by the national assembly and assented by President Muhammadu Buhari was N8.92 trillion. The President’s assent came two days before the end of the current administration and over five months after the appropriation bill was presented at a joint session of the National Assembly by the President on 19 December. The National Assembly increased the budget size from $8.83 trillion to N8.92 trillion, translating to an increase of N90.33 billion.

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A breakdown of the 2019 budget showed that recurrent expenditure will claim the lion share at N4.07 trillion while capital expenditure gets N2.09 trillion and debt servicing at N2.14 trillion.

The federal government has several projects it is embarking on in the fiscal year in ministries it considers priority including transport, power, housing, works, health, water resources, agriculture and rural development; industry, trade and investment; education; and Niger Delta.

Interestingly, the ministry of ICT does not feature on this priority list and they are probably right to judge so. The total budget for the ICT ministry at a little above N12 billion, about $33 million and less than the $50 million a startup (OPay) in Nigeria secured recently, is deficiently unambitious considering the huge communications technology infrastructure gaps and ICT education and research that Nigeria require to grow its digital economy.

Olaolu Samuel Biyi, co-founder of SureGifts and who has also been purring through the budget lately, told BusinessDay that the biggest challenge for the ICT budget is the over-bloated recurrent expenditure. The ministry budgeted N3 billion to pay for the people that will administer only N5 billion (about $13 million) earmarked as capital expenditure. Out of the N5 billion expenditure, a good percentage is for building or improving the ministry’s various offices.

Priority spend will go to six projects including improvement of security solutions for teleport which was allocated N100.6 million; WiFi network implementation in Lagos will get N150 million; Nigeria-Kanet Network Expansion Upgrade gulps N113.5 million; NigComSat/Public Access Satellite TV channel gets N154 million; completion and operationalization of incubation hubs in Nasarawa, Enugu, Oyo and Katsina; and N95.4 million goes to insurance of NigComSat1r and upgrade.

“In general, it is clear that there is no coherent technology development plan for the country, and this budget would have been inadequate even 20 years ago,” Biyi said.

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There could also be potential transparency issues for the new minister as there is little public information on the progress made so far on all the projects that are top priority for the ministry. NigKaNet, launched in 2015, is a Ka broadband services that offers high speed connectivity and data downloads at great speed and affordable prices. It was first unveiled for rural dwellers in Kubwa, a suburb in Abuja by the Nigerian Postal Services (NIPOST) in partnership with One Network. Since it was launched, there has been little or no information as to the progress made in that community as a result of the project.

The WiFi Network Implementation in Lagos is also another project that also has scanty information regarding its existence. One would also wonder why NigComSat will receive three major interventions given that little has been achieved from previous investments made in the satellite technology.

It must said that while infrastructure remains Nigeria’s biggest challenge to digital transformation and sadly gets denied the attention it deserves, other countries have moved on to setting new trends in ICT. The minister of ICT in Singapore recently announced that all pupils in the country will have compulsory coding classes from next year as part of the government’s goals to develop a healthy pipeline of tech talent for the digital economy. In Rwanda, the ICT minister who is just 36 years old is already positioning the country as the hub of ICT and attracting investments from different places.

“Given this budget, the most positive outcome would be for the first year to be a waste; that is, poor implementation of this budget will likely be better for the country,” Biyi said. “The next minister should focus on preparing the ministry to operate more efficiently and begin to structure the next budget for real, impactful interventions.”

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