From Adanna Nnamani, Abuja
When Mr. Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi was appointed the director-general of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) in 2019, many wondered what a rather young person was going to achieve, as most government agencies were usually headed by much older people.
But, two years down the line, the 41-year-old technology expert has injected fresh ideas into the agency, including engaging talented tech-savvy Nigerian youths to protect government’s websites and portals by detecting the vulnerabilities therein.
He captured the engagement as the Bug Bounty Programme, which he describes as a huge success.
Abdullahi graduated with a Bachelor of Technology degree in Computer Science from Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi State, Nigeria. He later attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he trained as MIT Sloan Strategist and has over 14 years of working experience in information technology operations, business transformation and solution architecture, across private and public sectors.
In this virtual interview, he speaks more about NITDA, his challenges as the CEO and vision for the agency.
NITDA was created in April 2001 as the prime agency for e-government implementation, Internet governance and general IT development in Nigeria. Has this objective been achieved? Are all government institutions e-government-compliant in the new millennium?
We have made substantial progress in e-government implementation in Nigeria. You may be aware that Nigeria has been a country of reference for many countries in Africa. Our Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), Government Integrated Financial Management Information System (GIFMIS), Bank Verification Number (BVN), etcetera, are some of the IT systems that have served as reference points for other countries. Our aim with the implementation of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy for a Digital Nigeria is for Nigeria to become the digital economy capital of Africa.
What strategic programmes is NITDA undertaking to boost ICT start-ups in Nigeria?
We have several strategic initiatives aimed at boosting the ICT start-ups and the ecosystem in Nigeria. You may be aware of our Startup Friday, Startup Clinic, FutureHack, and several other programmes that we have been running over the years. You may also be aware of our strategic initiatives of exposing Nigerian start-ups to global events such as ITU TelecomWorld, GITEX, CES and so on.
It may interest you that, as part of our 20th anniversary celebration, we recently unveiled the NITDA Strategic Roadmap and Action Plan (SRAP), 2021-2024. The strategy, anchored on Seven Pillars, has a number of initiatives targeted at boosting the ICT start-up ecosystem in Nigeria. Pillars such as Developmental Regulation, Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Emerging Technologies and Promotion of Indigenous Content have specific initiatives that focus on developing the start-up ecosystem in Nigeria.
We also have initiatives such as the development of framework for appropriate funding to catalyse innovation at all levels; development and issuance of regulatory framework for the promotion of digitalisation of educational content; developing the guideline for the use of e-commerce services; developing framework for implementation of government digital services; implementing Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Support (TIES) scheme; Implementation of MIT REAP and implementation of National Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship Policy (NDIEP). We are also implementing the national outsourcing strategic framework; organising hackathons/innovation challenge and conducting research to turn ideas into products and services; creating a sustainable communication platform between government and the start-up ecosystem; collaboration and partnerships on the development of emerging technology projects/programmes and POCs; designing and developing a framework for collaboration with academia, and development partners to create centres of excellence in emerging technologies; programming for the adoption of home-grown innovation for a digital economy; implementing an African Market Access programme; implementation of pilots for public sector innovation sandbox framework; and implementation of instruments for the creation of an indigenous software quality assurance industry in Nigeria are programmes strategically designed to catalyze the development and boosting of the start-up ecosystem in Nigeria.
We understand that the role of government is to provide the enabling environment that will catalyze the development of digital innovation and innovation ecosystems for economic prosperity, in line with the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy for a Digital Nigeria. We in NITDA are working with relevant stakeholders to ensure that the goals of these laudable initiatives are achieved.
What is NITDA doing to steer Internet-savvy Nigerian youths away from cyber fraud? Is there a programme to harness their brilliance and knowledge and turn them to propel Nigeria’s technological advancement?
You are aware that Nigeria is blessed with a highly talented youth population – the digital natives. In line with our mandate, we have a series of programmes aimed at harnessing the talents of our youths.
In line with our mandate, we have provisioned a “Bug Bounty” programme where we engage these talented youths to look for vulnerabilities on government websites and portals and also provide mitigations to discovered vulnerabilities. This programme has been very successful as a series of ingenious solutions came out of it. We have also sponsored a number of cyber-related hackathons, organized in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, where we follow up the development of the solutions to ensure that they are adequately supported. All the issues highlighted in the earlier question are also applicable here.
How are you helping to tackle cyber fraud and cyber attacks with regard to government agencies?
You may be aware that cybersecurity in general and cyber-fraud/cyber-attacks in particular are critical areas of concern for us at NITDA. It is because of this realisation and the need for us to have a coordinated approach to tackling cybersecurity issues that we established the cybersecurity department.
One of the effective means of tackling cybersecurity issues is creating awareness. This, we know, is not only our best defense but also a means of being in line with global best practices. We have held such awareness seminars at least once in each of the six geo-political zones and have proved to be very successful.
As part of our activities, we monitor government websites/portals on a 24/7 basis. We proactively monitor to ensure websites are not hacked and when they get hacked, we instantaneously analyze the attack pattern and offer strategies towards resolving the attack and bringing back the website/portal online. We also collaborate with other cybersecurity organisations, both nationally and internationally, to access trending cyber threats and use the information to send out advisory to all MDAs to ensure security measures are implemented before such attacks hit the Nigerian cyber space. These have been helping us a great deal towards mitigating the threats of cyber-attacks.
We also conduct periodic cyber drills for network administrators of MDAs, with the aim of improving their capacity in responding to cyber threats. In addition, we conduct an annual “October Cyber Security Awareness Event”, in collaboration with other regulatory agencies as well as private sector organisations.
In an effort to consolidate these efforts, we identified cybersecurity as one of the pillars in SRAP and we have initiatives such as: creation of framework for adoption of indigenous cybersecurity solutions; implementation of the information security and digital assets management guidelines for federal public service; harmonise national Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) implementation initiatives; capacity building training for national cyber defence team; and establishment of local cybersecurity/information security professionals certification authority/body.
All these are aimed at consolidating our efforts towards ensuring that the vision of transforming Nigeria into a leading digital economy, providing quality life and digital economies for all is realised. This cannot be realised without having digitally literate and adequately cyber-aware citizens. This is a task that we in NITDA are making efforts to successfully achieve.
Every agency has its challenges. What are yours?
Certainly, every organization, whether public or private, has challenges. However, what is important is what the organization is doing about these challenges. We in NITDA, the agency that is proactively facilitating the development of Nigeria into a sustainable digital economy through the creation of an enabling environment where Nigerians develop, adopt and derive value from digital technology, we are strategic in handling our challenges.
To give you an example, you will agree with me that, the world over, the COVID-19 pandemic posed serious challenges to organizations. It has led to a serious challenge on infrastructure networks, disruptions to the supply chain and reduced availability of components needed to function normally. This situation has led to lower revenues and budget reduction for new projects, while focusing on making existing features more reliable and dependable.
We in NITDA saw the challenge as an opportunity and came up with a series of initiatives that helped in cushioning the impact of the pandemic, not only to the sector but citizens in general. We were able to work with relevant stakeholders and provided an enabling environment especially for IT start-ups and entrepreneurs, launched and unveiled a virtual learning academy that provided free certification programmes from industry players like Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, Huawei, IBM, etc. We also supported the initiative that facilitated the hosting of Virtual Federal Executive Council meetings.
Furthermore, we also set up a 10-member advisory committee made up of industry stakeholders to advise us on measures that could be taken to further cushion the impact of the pandemic on the ICT sector. The committee worked assiduously during the period and came up with far-reaching recommendations a number of which have been implemented already.
Challenges to us are always turned into opportunities as we always try to be at the top of our responsibilities as we strive to deliver on our mandate and responsibilities under all circumstances.
Do you have foreign partners in sharing ideas on ICT development in Nigeria?
As you are aware, the ICT sector is dynamic and you cannot make progress in isolation. It is the realization of this that we have made deliberate efforts in identifying critical stakeholders within and outside Nigeria with the aim of achieving our mandate.
As indicated in my earlier responses, we have established partnerships with a number of foreign partners on our different initiatives. As an example, we have a partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the aim of building our entrepreneurship ecosystem. MIT’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme (MIT-REAP), is a dynamic global initiative that engages with communities around the world to strengthen innovation-driven entrepreneurial ecosystems and transform economies. Under the leadership of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, we are part of Cohort 7 of the programme, which is made of Denmark, Fukuoka City, Japan, Ha’il and Northern Saudi Arabia, and New Taipei City, Taiwan.
We have other similar partnerships with organizations such as MassChallenge for the Bridge to MassChallenge Nigeria programme and the Clayton Christensen Institute, all with the aim of strengthening the digital innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in line with our Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship Pillar of our Strategic Roadmap and Action Plan. We have similar partnerships on many of our initiatives outlined in SRAP.
What are your medium and long-term programmes and projects? How do you see NITDA in the next 10 years?
We believe in strategic planning and making sure that whatever we planned is effectively executed. As mentioned earlier, our Strategic Roadmap and Action Plan (SRAP) 2021-2024 outlines about 63 different initiatives, aligned with the 7 pillars that we plan to execute by 2024. The plan was crafted in line with the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS) for a digital Nigeria which effectively has our long term plans with programs and projects also outlined for the next 10 years. It will therefore be a challenge to list all the 63+ initiatives outlined in SRAP but the few outlined in response to your previous questions should suffice.