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Opinion

Africa In Motion: Accelerating Africa’s Digital Future

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Fadi Pharaon, President of Ericsson Middle East and Africa

By Fadi PHARAON

As a continent with very high potential for growing economies, how can African countries accelerate their digital adoption and leapfrog into a new era of socio-economic prosperity?

This could be achieved by leveraging new technologies that make it easier to conduct business, raise productivity and efficiency while encouraging an inclusive society. Embracing new ways of enabling positive change will boost livelihoods, promote financial inclusion and improve access to health, education, government services and more.

With the ambition of supporting the acceleration of Africa’s digitization journey, we are working jointly with our customers – the service providers – and other stakeholders across the continent to enable #AfricaInMotion.

Digitization Boosting Economies

We believe that Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is the catalyst for digital transformation, with mobile networks being the crucial ingredient in increasing Africa’s economic competitiveness in the global arena. While we have witnessed impressive market developments in recent years, Africa’s ICT sector still has growth potential compared to leading economies.

As digital infrastructure and transaction become increasingly impactful to the development of the African societies and economies, affordable broadband access will need to be extended to over a billion individuals to bridge the “digital divide” and enable them to reap the benefits of the digital economy.

The Ericsson Mobility Report shows us that, by 2025, 77% of subscriptions in the Middle East and North Africa are expected to be for mobile broadband, while in Sub-Saharan Africa mobile broadband subscriptions will increase to reach around 72% of mobile subscriptions. Mobile broadband connectivity not only offers great potential to transform cities and industries, but it enables connectivity as a basic human right; fostering inclusion and making a positive, sustainable economic impact.

With our commitment to innovation and a long history of engaging in Africa’s telecom industry, we at Ericsson are driven to deliver the next-generation technology solutions to Africa. These can enable sweeping changes to industrial production, allowing seamless access to social services and provide people with ways of living harmoniously with their environment.

Sustainability Through Connectivity

Bridging the “digital divide” is a demanding journey both for the public sector and the telecoms industry. This carries the significant potential to contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa. In order to achieve that, we have a continuous ongoing journey serving several parameters.

And the story just begins here. We strongly believe in the importance of education for the economic development of Africa by building the right foundation to propel a steady eco-system. Our efforts to support education in Africa are a continuous determination and for that, we are proud to launch our three-year global partnership with UNICEF that will help map school connectivity in 35 countries by the end of 2023. Our partnership will support the UN’s Giga initiative, a global program led by UNICEF and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) that aims to connect every school to the Internet.

Another key example in supporting education is our “Connect to Learn” program, an initiative that implements Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in schools often in resource-poor settings to enhance the quality and access to teaching and learning resources in a safe, cost-effective, and user-friendly way. The program uses the power of mobility, broadband and cloud solutions. Since 2008, we have helped to connect over 500,000 people, students and teachers at remote villages across 10 sub-Saharan countries with technology tools, digital learning resources and new interactive forms of teaching pedagogies.

Furthermore, another testimony that reiterates our efforts in supporting education, is our recently announced “Ericsson Educate” initiative with UNESCO.  In response to how the global COVID-19 Pandemic, UNESCO and Ericsson have  launched a new portal for teaching Artificial Intelligence (AI) to children. Teaching AI is a learning program, which includes a free, multi-lingual artificial intelligence (AI) skills portal that can be accessed globally by parents and teachers, enabling them to support children and students in-home learning environments to learn about AI.

Additionally, we have also launched recently our Digital Lab program in South Africa. The program represents Ericsson’s commitment to supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals – especially Goal #4, with the aim of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. The Ericsson Digital Lab program is an innovative education program targeted towards older children to support them in their first encounters with the world of programming and new technologies.

The program started in Gothenburg, Sweden, as a collaboration with Universeum, a public science centre based in Gothenburg. During 2019-20 the program was expanded to South Africa. We partnered with “Wot-If? Trust” to bring this innovative digital skills program to the youth in Diepsloot, Johannesburg, South Africa and our ambition is to expand this initiative to more young students across Africa.

On the other hand, we also focus on another fundamental goal and that is financial inclusion through the use of digital technology which is an essential element in furthering the economic development of Africa. Mobile money services have become an essential, life-changing tool across the continent, providing access to safe and secure financial services but also to energy, health, education and employment opportunities. One key example to showcase our efforts in that area is our Ericsson Wallet Platform that allows users to store, transfer and withdraw money; pay merchants and utility providers, and use financial services such as savings and loans.

With connectivity acting as a critical enabler of social and economic change, sustainable technologies that support the SDGs are the need of the hour. According to Ericsson research, ICT solutions could help to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 15% by 2030, amounting to around ten gigatons of CO2e—more than the current carbon footprint of the EU and US combined. Examples of areas where the savings can be enabled by ICT solutions are transportation, energy, industries and agriculture. This is reflected in our initiatives such as Ericsson Weather Data and Mixed Reality for Urban Design.

Clearly, the SDGs provide a unique opportunity for interesting discussions that will lead to more multi-sectoral partnerships and opportunities that will help spur progress towards meeting the goals.

Partnerships and Collaborations for Societal Impact

What is now needed is a framework that facilitates harnessing the power of ICTs to foster inclusive socio-economic development across Africa. However, this bridging of the digital divide – which promises to level the global playing field so Africa can achieve its full potential – requires a well-planned policy and regulatory environment.

A conducive, enabling policy environment that generates regulatory certainty is key to encouraging market development through partnerships, entrepreneurship, job creation and knowledge sharing. Factors like:

  • Timely availability of ample, cost-effective and harmonized spectral resources
  • Support of long-term stable network regulations that uphold the principle of technology neutrality, stimulate investments and foster infrastructure competition
  • Provision of a free flow of data, while ensuring data protection, privacy and security regulation

We at Ericsson Middle East and Africa are constantly looking for opportunities to collaborate and engage with partners across the board to facilitate such policy development to fast-tracking digitization across the African continent and our recent collaboration with the African Telecommunications Union is one clear example.

Fostering and Empowering Local Talents

At Ericsson, we strongly believe in the great competencies of the local talents in each market where we operate and for that, we continue to offer our employees opportunities that guide and supports them from knowledge, competence, and skill development perspective — to foster an innovative, high-impact learning culture focused on continuous development.

Additionally, coaching and mentoring are critical elements of career development at Ericsson. We have best-in-class mentors who guide our people in Africa through every stage of their career, empowering them to seek more learning and growth opportunities.

One of the initiatives we launched in-light of our efforts to supporting young talents is our “Ericsson Graduates Program “, a program that will offer fresh graduates a chance to join experienced Ericsson staff for on-the-job, online and classroom learning followed by recruitment to join the Ericsson world. The program also engages with young talents from Africa -the Change makers-to explore and identify innovative ideas that reflect and capture the needs of the continent with an ambition to accelerate the African markets’ digitalization journey.

The Changemakers attend multidisciplinary sessions with Ericsson specialists spanning across technology, business and entrepreneur to empower and enable them to ideate and work on their ideas in a well-rounded approach. Our ambition is to continue with this program and train and hire more fresh graduates in the coming period.

When it comes to empowering young talents and innovation, we can proudly mention the Ericsson Innovation Awards (EIA), a global competition that gives university students the opportunity to turn their ideas into reality by collaborating with EIA mentors. In 2018, a team from Senegal has been selected as the overall winner of the Ericsson Innovation Awards winning an amount of 25,000 Euros for their idea that addresses lack of school labs in Africa. This year we are excited to launch the same competition very soon and we look forward to receiving ideas from young students from Africa and across the world.

Accelerating the Future

As we look ahead, it’s clear that Africa shows significant promise for economic, technological and infrastructure growth over the coming years. Yet, there are still many challenges we must overcome if we are to deliver real sustainable change for all.

While there are parts of the continent trialling 5G services, majority of countries remain to focus on 3G and 4G as smartphone affordability improves year on year. The development of advanced wireless digital infrastructure is an integral part of Africa’s growing economy. Mobile broadband access has proved to be an essential driver of an inclusive information society that integrates digitization in all critical aspects of life, such as education, transport, health, energy and even homeland security. Never has this been more evident than during the current COVID 19 pandemic.

Ericsson focuses on assuring best-performing networks in Africa, while also offering the best digital services and solutions to our customers. Our aim is to create a unique customer experience evolving from networks adopting automation, artificial intelligence and analytics. One of our focus areas also is reducing time-to-market and flexibility in launching services for our customers towards their subscribers. From an operations perspective, we emphasise driving service delivery efficiency through the adoption of advanced tools. We will continue our purposeful growth of mobile broadband, fixed wireless access and fintech services so that our service provider partners reach out to further communities across the continent.

Our promise to Africa

Tackling the digital divide, continuing to build a robust ICT infrastructure, promoting sustainability, innovation, education and entrepreneurship will be critical for maximizing the role of technology in boosting resilience and inclusive growth in Africa.

By achieving that, Africa will experience a paradigm shift on all levels with new game-changers as e-health, e-government and e-education; the African society will accelerate into a much economically advanced nation. However, a collaboration between the different stakeholders in the ecosystem becomes even more important than ever to achieve this vision.

Our promise and commitment towards Africa are to always support a world where digitalization is transforming the eco-system; enabling sustainable growth, economic development and opening up opportunities for all.

To accelerate our promise to Africa and achieve a true impact, we are looking forward to supporting our customers in their quest, bringing our latest innovation, leveraging our global skill and scale to the benefit of Africa’s digital development.

Fadi Pharaon is President of Ericsson Middle East and Africa

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Opinion

Communications Service Providers Must Transform To Meet Customers’ Ever-Changing Needs

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By Pikie MONAHENG

It’s no secret that CSPs need to transform their businesses to compete in the continent’s highly competitive communications landscape and deliver the experiences that customers are demanding today. However, digital transformation is a journey, which takes time. And there are many tasks to undertake on the way.

So, how do CSPs go about achieving true digital transformation? What are the main challenges they must address?

IT modernisation is a key enabler of any digital transformation and adoption of cloud technologies is central to that. In addition to cost savings, the cloud provides the ability to swiftly evolve, react to market dynamics and launch new offerings. It enables elasticity on demand, creating an always-on environment where the flexibility to do things as a service is much greater and the organisation is not confined to own-premise computing power and IT.

CSPs will necessarily adopt a hybrid approach to cloud adoption with some systems remaining on-premise and others migrating to a private cloud, public cloud and even multiple public clouds (like AWS, Azure and GCP) to benefit from the latest technologies and cost efficiencies.

This complex IT environment creates challenges around managing the hybrid co-existence of the current and the new platforms, which requires careful management. Moreover, adoption of cloud brings new concerns such as the need for continuous optimisation, financial and economic management, regulatory compliance and data and security management.

Data is key for anticipating customer needs. Savvy CSPs will need to start leveraging data more effectively to make more astute business decisions. Here, AI plays a key role, helping CSPs to quickly create new offerings based on what customers are demanding. Injecting artificial intelligence into everything the organisation does will help it make critical business decisions, but also keep pace with an ever-changing, connectivity-first society.

CSPs will also need to inject intelligence into their own operations. To remain ahead of technology’s rapid evolution, organisations will be compelled to introduce AI-driven operations, while making continuous improvements to their IT environments. This is the only way to ensure flexibility and a fleet-footed response to change.

Ultimately, the success of any digital transformation depends on the people and the processes that execute the transformation. This requires getting employees to buy into digital adoption, embrace new technologies, new processes and new ways of working.

CSPs need to adapt their organisational culture to break down barriers and automate and expedite processes. They must instil a continuous learning and innovation mindset in their employees. Steps such as these will allow CSPs to be more agile and ensure their employees have the inherent ability to quickly adapt to the next big disruption.

With the focus on reskilling and repurposing, as well as the automation of manual tasks, employees will no longer have to do repetitive or onerous tasks. Rather, they will be freed up to concentrate more on business innovation and customer service.

One successful digital transformation story is that of a South-East Asian media conglomerate, which recently underwent a digital transformation programme and migrated its business support systems (BSS) to cloud. The aim was to improve the user experience and increase self-service adoption, personalise recommendations and improve usability.

In 14 months – and negotiating Covid-19 challenges – the transformation journey resulted in upfront operational and capital expenditure savings, as well as 10% cost optimisation. In addition, the business was able to decommission data centres and enable updates to individual apps without impacting its overall digital architecture.

In another instance, Philippines-based telecommunications company, Globe, modernised a fragmented and inefficient call centre to deliver an enhanced digital experience for customers.

To deliver better customer interactions and reduce waiting time, increase call resolution rates and enrich their customers’ digital lifestyles, the company’s legacy system was migrated to the cloud (Amazon Connect) and an Amdocs solution was adopted to convert 31 screens to a single, unified agent desktop. This led to a 40% reduction in operating expenditure (OPEX) and an overall improvement in net promoter score (NPS).

Monaheng says digital transformation journeys may come with some challenges, but the rewards are worth the effort. “CSPs that have already embarked on accelerated journeys to transform their businesses are positioning themselves to deliver digital customer services that leverage new opportunities and technologies and elevate their customers’ satisfaction and happiness rates. And frankly, the operations that don’t ride the transformation wave will be left behind.”

***Monaheng is CEO at Amdocs South Africa

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Opinion

SystemSpecs: The Evolution Of An African Technology Powerhouse

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John Tanimola Obaro, Founder/CEO SystemSpecs

Africa’s digital revolution has been hailed as one of the continent’s most historic changes in the past decade. Despite challenges with infrastructure, prevalent poverty, poor health system and weak governance, the 21st-century African business is thriving through sheer innovation and local knowledge by leveraging digital technology. However, before this digital explosion, several African companies had been silently pioneering innovation on the continent.

One of those pioneers of this digital revolution is SystemSpecs, a 29-year-old Nigerian technology firm that has evolved from very humble beginnings as a five-man start-up in the early 1990s to a technology giant with hundreds of staff and a towering influence across Africa today.

SystemSpecs’ story is all about the silent evolution of an African technology giant, an indigenous pioneer whose history is defined by its landmark innovations for Nigeria and the entire African continent.

Seasoned journalist, David Hundeyin, once alluded to SystemSpecs’ pedigree as a pioneer when he tweeted about companies that provided technology solutions in the early 90s, long before the internet became ubiquitous in Nigeria.

SystemSpecs was founded by an ex-banker, John Tanimola Obaro, in 1992. The firm started in Lagos as a value-added reseller of American software solution, SunSystems. It proceeded to launch its own human capital solution, SpecMan, about 3 years later. This was followed by SpecPen which was for pensions processing and then SpecPay which was for payments. All of these three were consolidated in 2000, in a solution known as HumanManager.

Fast-forward to 2020, the firm carried a restructuring and repositioning of its business to adjust to current realities and maximize new opportunities as its profile continues to rise as a leading financial and human capital technology company in Africa.

Human Manager and IPPIS

At the turn of a new century in the year 2000, when endless paper files and long cabinets were the norms in many organisations, SystemSpecs developed HumanManager, trailblazing human relations and payroll management solution.

The first self-service platform in Africa and arguably the world, HumanManager is today an intuitive, ground-breaking, and easy-to-use human capital management solution trusted by many small, medium and large-scale organisations across Africa. Its track record of innovation has been proven across the shores of Nigeria, in various African countries including Benin Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe where its footprints exist through a wide range of subscribing organisations.

In 2006, SystemSpecs executed the pilot of the Federal Government of Nigeria’s Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) as part of an Economic Reforms and Governance Project aimed at transforming the entire public service through a number of carefully selected programmes and initiatives. All of the objectives of the project were delivered by SystemSpecs within a record 6 months!

This phase of the project saved the government about 420m naira on a monthly basis, within a sample size of 50,000 federal government workforce out of an estimated 1.2 million employees. In former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s book on his presidential years, he noted that he was proud that the company that achieved this milestone for the country was Nigerian owned.

Remita and the Treasury Single Account

In 2005, SystemSpecs developed Remita, a technology solution which set the company’s feet in financial technology (fintech) and was adopted by several organisations in the private sector.  Remita was later adopted as the payment gateway into the Treasury Single Account (TSA) of the federal government. This was well ahead of several local and international platforms which also expressed interest in becoming the TSA technology backbone but lacked the capability to meet TSA requirements.

In July 2019, a representative of Nigeria’s Accountant-General of the Federation (AGF) announced that the government had collected over N10 trillion through the TSA from 1,674 MDAs. The AGF also said through the TSA, the government was able to save over N45 billion monthly in interest on ways and means that it used to pay.

SystemSpecs’ monumental role in the drive to improve transparency and accountability in Nigeria’s public sector amidst precarious economic conditions is underlined by its success in powering the TSA. Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, once said that the judicious management of the Treasury Single Account, TSA, saved the country from collapse during the 2016 economic recession.

Remita’s rising presence is, however, much more than the TSA. With its presence in the private sector as the preferred platform for payments, funds collection and payroll management, it is a known brand with some of Nigeria and Africa’s leading organisation and even of SMEs. One of its key propositions is its ability to provide more payment options than any other solution in Nigeria today.

Restructuring

Change, they say, is the only constant thing. It is the reason SystemSpecs, in February 2020, restructured its business operations to deepen its presence in more segments of the economy and help it maximise its potentials within the African market.

This landmark development effectively changes the firm’s brand perception from a software company to an innovative African technology giant and a house of brands operating in different business spaces including HR and Fintech.

This bold move saw the transformation of the company into a holding firm with four Strategic Business Units (SBUs) to maximise the efficiency of the company’s operations. Each of SystemSpecs’ major solutions is embedded within a different SBU.

The first SBU is Infrastructure and Payment Gateway, with the responsibility of providing critical financial processing connectivity with other entities such as banks, payment processors, and other service providers, providing the service as a solution delivered directly to the market.

Another division is the Payment Applications and Vertical Markets which is saddled with the responsibility of providing customer-centric applications like Remita and Paylink to a rapidly expanding market.

A third SBU is focused on providing Human Capital Solutions and services.

The fourth SBU is the Public Sector and Special Projects Division, which encompasses, among others, the firm’s dealings with the public sector, including Remita’s deployment for the TSA and its use by over 22 state governments in Nigeria.

Paylink

Consolidating on the successes of its landmark products, Remita and HumanManager, SystemSpecs launched Paylink.ng, a simple, pragmatic solution directed at the consumer market. It is an instant payment solution, with an eCommerce store, that allows individuals and SMEs to receive funds directly to their bank accounts without exposing their bank details.

Paylink.ng is SystemSpecs’ response to the growth of Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs) as well as a rapidly evolving Nigerian business landscape. With Paylink.ng, small businesses in Nigeria, many of them without infrastructure, resources, and personnel to have a structured operation, can process payment more efficiently and reach their customers more easily.

An Enduring Innovative Pioneer

According to Ginni Rometty, Executive Chairman of IBM, “the only way you survive is you continuously transform into something else. It is this idea of continuous transformation that makes you an innovation company.”

The continued relevance of SystemSpecs as a key player in providing technology solutions could only have happened through continuous innovation. The company has survived, evolved, and thrived for about three decades by continuously evolving and improving, often emerging stronger from every challenge.

In a country where start-ups die out within the first few years of incorporation, SystemSpecs has managed to weather the storms. Obaro’s leadership has seen the company grow to become one of the largest technology firms in Africa with hundreds of staff and a rapidly expanding operational network across the continent and beyond. One can safely posit that, for SystemSpecs, the best is yet to come.

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Opinion

Making Sense Of A Manual ‘Digital’ Directive

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A crowd of Nigerians waiting to be registered for NIN at a NIMC office in Abuja...............Photo credit: Channels Television

By Elvis EROMOSELE

The COVID-19 pandemic is not letting up. It continues to race and rage across the globe. With 92 million cases and almost two million deaths, one expects every hand to be on deck to curb the spread. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises that if COVID-19 is spreading in your community, stay safe by taking some simple precautions, such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning your hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue.

Yet, in Nigeria, where the second wave is blossoming, crowds have besieged National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) Offices across the country. The very thing that we are supposed to avoid – a crowded place.

The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami is directly responsible for this crowd. In December 2020, he issued a directive that made it compulsory for all SIM cards to be linked to the National Identity Number (NIN). So, Nigerians from all walks of life who are yet to get the NIN are forced to visit NIMC offices in an attempt to get it.

The minister initially gave telecoms operators two weeks to link subscribers’ registered SIM cards on their networks to their NIN, which is currently being issued by the NIMC.

The directive stated that the submission of NIN by subscribers must take place within two weeks, December 16, 2020, and end by December 30, 2020 – it has since been extended by six weeks following the public outcry. It also stated that after the deadline, all SIMs without NINs are to be blocked from the networks.

Well-meaning Nigerians have questioned the wisdom of the directive. Some have asked, “Must it be done right now in the midst of a global pandemic whose second wave is proving deadlier than the first?”

Clearly, the answer is No! It can wait. In fact, it should wait.

Some people have taken to blaming those who are rushing to obey the directive. They are missing the point. Nigerians are afraid of being cut off, of losing their lines and of being deprived of the link to the world. They have a right to be afraid. Today, connection is the currency of the information society, the lifeblood of the digital economy and the heart of the social age.

Naturally, any threat to cut off that connection would produce the crowd we are experiencing at the NIMC centres. Nobody wants to be cut off.

There is no surprise here. Today, nearly everything rides on the phone. Contacts, financial services, internet connection and even health care apps are all available on the smartphone.

Nobody wants to be cut off.

In over two decades of democracy in Nigeria, the most direct benefit to the masses of the country is access to mobile telephony. The liberalization of the telecommunications industry and the subsequent success of the auction of digital mobile licenses made telephone a thing for everyone.

Think about this, from less than 400, 000 connected lines in the year 2000, we now have over 200 million lines. The progress has been massive. Nearly everyone that wants can get a telephone line. Today, Nigeria has one of the largest telecom markets in Africa. Nobody wants to be cut off.

In addition, the sector continues to generate humongous investments both foreign and domestic. Indeed, telecommunications investment has been identified as one with a strong potential to spur economic growth and create employment.

Within two decades, the telecom sector contribution to GDP grew from less than one per cent to over 10 per cent. The sector is resilient, capital intensive and tightly interwoven with every other sector. This interconnectedness is precisely why nobody wants to be cut off.

The good book says that “the law is made for man and not man for the law.” The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy is insisting otherwise. He appears bent on carrying on with the exercise even though it is now obvious that the timing is wrong. The risk rises every single day the directive is in place. It is time to put it on hold.

Some have made excuses on the minister’s behalf. They say that before issuing the directive, he met with the CEOs of telcos and none raised any objection. This excuse is lame.

Who doesn’t know how Nigeria works? Nigerians are aware that you can’t contradict a ‘Nigerian big man’ unless you are ready for the backlash.

The telcos had little choice in the matter. This is all on the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy. He gave the directive and has refused to reconsider it

The whole idea of the digital economy is not only about nomenclature it is about agility. According to Wikipedia, “Business agility refers to the rapid, continuous, and systematic evolutionary adaptation and entrepreneurial innovation directed at gaining and maintaining competitive advantage.”

Since the change of name of the ministry, it has shown little or no understanding of agility. This must change. The ministry should focus rather on a national database or establish the framework for the harmonization of the existing databases – SIM Registration, Voter Cards, NIN, BVN, Drivers’ License, International Passport.

The NIN and SIM link directive has today become a monster, a coronavirus super spreader. The Chinese say that “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago and the next best time is today.” The whole exercise ought to have been suspended two weeks ago, today is the next best time.

Dr Pantami, Stop the NIN and SIM link directive now!

It has become a travesty. Is the linking of NIN and SIM important? Yes, by all means!

Must it be done now? No!

It is not a matter of life and death. Verification and harmonization can wait.

Coronavirus infection doesn’t give notice. It won’t wait. The crowd at NIMC Centres is not helping.

Suspend the directive. Put the process on hold. Let this COVID-19 wave blow over. For genuine progress, directives must make sense in this digital economy.

**Elvis Eromosele, a Corporate Communication professional and public affairs analyst lives in Lagos. 

 

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