Speculation is not a baseless pastime nor is it in the character of the lazy. It is a perfectly rational discourse, grounded in factual assumptions. I intend to indulge in one form of speculative discourse here and as I said, speculation is rooted in point of facts. Let me start with the factual to lay the basis of my speculation. It is a fact that we have moved from the era when government officials blithely told us that telephones were not for the poor to one in which government officials now routinely bemoan the digital exclusion of the poor. Today even the most rapacious business executive is wont to complain about the digitally excluded. Of course, they do this not from any moral ground, essentially because they see those left behind as an economic loss to their businesses and the country. Digitally unconnected people are a loss of telecommunication traffic which in itself is a major indicator of economic activities; not to talk of the money that users have to spend to generate this traffic or the business transactions that are facilitated by such traffic. Education, healthcare, commerce, communication and all sort of businesses benefit from connectivity.
And thus, it is, we have moved from a defensive position of government that it cannot cater for the telecommunication needs of the poor to one in which government is worried that the poor are being digitally left behind. It wants to provide access to the poor.
Suddenly, we have all joined in the discourse about connecting the unconnected. Government officials routinely speak about what the government is doing to connect the unconnected and to bridge the internal digital divide. Somehow, in this, they assume or pretend to assume, unproblematically, that the internal dimension of the digital divide is sufficient to address its external dimensions but this is not possible and this is one problem of the discourse.
Bridging the internal divide is about national leveling, that is getting everyone to access connectivity. It is improving teledensity and other similar indicators. But it tells us nothing of the fundamental differences in the insertion and use of digital technologies by different countries. By raising connectivity, we assure that more Nigerians are able to consume bandwidth, which we do not produce but procure from other countries. We consume more handsets and other digital devices that are manufactured in other countries and sold to us. We consume content that is uploaded by others, relegating us to downloading. We set up more websites only to host them in other countries where infrastructure is better and more reliable, contributing to the capital outflow from our country. We give out freely our data to data miners and entrepreneurs who make profits out of it while our citizens continue to live in their poverty that is exposed by the lack of digital privacy.
Three things remain starkly disturbing, which are all related to the international dimensions of the digital divide. One is that the digital divide is not just about teledensity and indicators but about the production and consumption of digital goods and services. In this, Nigeria remains a mere consuming country with no contribution to the global stock of production. Second, we remain largely consumers of content, with little contribution to the global cyber content. Third, and more significantly, we are further pushed to the edge of knowledge production in a world that is knowledge-based and knowledge-driven. And once you are left out of the effort at pushing the frontiers of knowledge, you will remain at the bottom of the development ladder. That is our situation today.
But there is another aspect to our peculiar discourse on the unconnected which leads me to my speculation. We talk about the unconnected in an abstract and dehumanized way that we do not know who they are or see the unconnected beyond mere figures. We do not even know how many of us are unconnected beyond the normalized euphemism of impersonal percentage that hides lot of things. In doing my speculation and in keeping with my premise that all speculations are grounded in facts, I start by using a government figure. In the National Broadband Plan document that is signed on behalf of the government by the Hon Minister of Communication and Digital Economy and with a foreword by no other person than the President himself, it says that there are 114 communities that are classified as either “underserved” or “underserved”. Stripped of the technicalities, this means these are the communities where GSM signal is either too week or is lacking altogether. These are officially the “unconnected.” Never mind that it is not clear what the definition of community is here as it can be misleading, given that we have many thousands of communities, 114 is not a significant proportion. However, it is said that the combined population of the people in these 114 communities is around 50 million people. This means that about 50 million Nigerians out of 200 million are unconnected. It means that one out of every four Nigerians is unconnected. This is more informative than just stating that there are 114 underserved and unserved communities.
But access is not the only factor that limits against the use of digital systems. One significant factor is affordability. Of course affordability is relative as what was unaffordable yesterday could become affordable today or what is unaffordable for one group of persons could be affordable for another. Yet we know that affordability is a function of economic status. The poor are hardly able to own and maintain access. With a population of about 100 million living below the poverty line, it is reasonable to expect that at least a quarter of these people are living under extreme poverty and cannot afford access, meaning that at least 25 million more people cannot afford access. Added to the people lacking access, this gives us a figure of 70 million being digitally excluded.
We now turn to people living with disabilities. Nigerian ICT sector is not known for its being disability-friendly. People cannot afford the special interface devices such as for those with either hearing or vision impairment, but even for physically-challenged people, we have known ICT facilities are located in buildings where there are no ramps. Now the Joint Association of People Living with Disabilities (JONAPID) has estimated that there are about 20 million people living with disabilities in Nigeria. Let us assume that about half of them cannot use ICTs either because they do not have the skills, or cannot afford it or do not have the appropriate interface devices. When we add these 10 million people to our tally, that takes us to 80 million being left behind.
The next significant factor for effective use is awareness. People need to be aware about what ICTs could do to their lives before they can use them. We may assume that awareness has percolated the society but this is not true. I have seen academics who are not aware of what ICT meant for them and they do not know how to use them. I have seen many professionals, including journalists, judges, etc who think ICTs are not for them. Let us say about 10% of Nigerians do now know what ICT could do for them and do not want to use it. We now add this number to our tally above and get at least 100 million Nigerians that are digitally excluded.
The last major militating factor relates to women and girls. This is both about culture as well as about the specific insertion of technology in society. With respect to culture, patriarchy has been resistant to allowing the autonomy of the female when it comes to communication because communication is a tool for control and for exercising powerful. Thus many women are literarily prevented from using digital spaces by their spouses. There are also those who prevent their wives from using digital spaces out of concern to “protect” the women from exposure to harmful and culturally corrupting content. Many parents who prevent their daughters from using digital technology fall into this category. Finally, women themselves have internalized the fear of harmful content online such as gender violence online, sexual harassment and loss of privacy to keep off from the internet. Women constitute about slightly more than half of the population of Nigeria, that means there are over 100 million of them. Let us say that it is just about 20 percent of this number that do not use the internet either because of fear or patriarchy or parental control, that gives us additional 20 million to add on our tally which takes us to about N120 million Nigerians who are left behind digitally.
So when government talks about the unconnected, it is actually hiding this huge number away from us, that is more than half Nigerians are digitally excluded. What actual strategies does the government have in order to include these people who are currently digitally included? As of now, we do not even have a national digital inclusion agenda. We do not have an ICT and Disability policy; we have no real affordability bridging mechanism in spite of the University Service Provision Fund (USPF). We have no national strategy for transforming the economy from an ICT consumer to one that can be both producer and consumer? Are there plans to address our poor knowledge generation infrastructure in the country such that can deal with the issues that ASUU is raising in our universities for instance?
My questions, like the figures, are speculative, only a government answer can dismiss speculations and bring out a certain sure-footed narrative that will address the issues raised here.