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Keep The Visa. Give Us Broadband!

by 'Gbenga Sesan, www.gbengasesan.com

I have been denied many visas. The UK embassy started the trend in 2002 with a transit visa denial; and as we say here, the other flies came calling while I was on the no-visa-for-you dunghill. The US embassy followed suit, even though I had spent the night before my visa interview dreaming of which hotel to stay in New York. So did the French. Did I also get a no from the South African, Spanish and Swiss embassies? I almost did… but the story has since changed. However, many other young people are still sweating it out on the queues - or at the mercy of mercenaries who have promised them escape from this complex environment.

Please take a quick trip back in time, with me, to 1991: two young Indians who had applied for US visas had to spend the entire day occupying their time and mind with various activities while awaiting what they thought - at that time - was the final verdict on their future (what am I saying here, their destiny actually)! And the "decider" was of course the consular officer. Please come back with me to 2006 and consider how tough it is for today's Indian youth to get a US visa. But can the same be said of Nigeria? Your guess is as good as mine. And if you need a fair idea of how some Nigerians are at the mercy of consular officers, try an early morning ride through Eleke (oops, Walter Carrington) crescent. I actually hold a personal view that that crescent should be renamed after the Nigerian who has been the most frequent visitor to embassies - and is yet to be issued even half a visa. Why does an average (mind you, not all) young Nigerian believe that a lizard in Nigeria can become an alligator in North America or Europe - and increasingly, Asia? The answer is simple: precedence! Many of their friends were struggling until they escaped, traveled honourably or got lucky through the opportunity of winning the US Diversified Visa lottery (by the way, my friends understand my thoughts on the relationship between visa, lottery and slavery). So, even though many of these travel-out-and-succeed friends are cutting odd jobs, the assumption is that it is better to slave in a system that works than work in a system of slavery.

There is, however, a different class of young people in Nigeria. They are passionate, focused, daring… but not empowered. The world they live in is a different one and it has been referred to by those who should know as a global village - in fact, Thomas Friedman dared to call it a flat world. In this world, location should not matter. In this world, the Internet, new technologies and other forces of globalization should enable a young Nigerian (like his Indian or Ghanaian counterparts) earn more - and live better - without the need to apply for a visa. Unless, of course, he decides to travel for a well-deserved vacation or necessary appointment. Why is it a should-be story? I would argue that the reasons are not far-fetched: young Nigerians see the new opportunities on cable networks and on the Internet; we hear of them when we connect with our friends through Skype; we dream of them after reading past editions of The Economist or Time's features on Innovation. But one single factor that can help us take the next leap is missing. Internet access in Nigeria is plug and pray, not plug and play - and that is even if you can afford it. To play on a global stage and in a flat world, we need time online and not just any type of access but broadband access! Guess what, if you give us broadband access today, my favourite embassies will miss me - and they will most likely start placing online adverts to attract young Nigerians to the embassies. Keep the visas, give me broadband - and see how fast Nigeria will get to the global map of innovation.

The flight is about to commence its descent into the Abuja airport (so this laptop has to be shut down), and I am on my way to another conference where we hope to look deeply into the relationship between ICTs, youth and better livelihoods (with a special focus on education). While I understand the place of discussions, I am honestly getting tired of meetings - I want broadband Internet access! "What will young people do with the access," you may ask. I wouldn't debate the fact that - like every good thing in life - Internet access is being abused. Fortunately, there is a high-level discussion today in Abuja to discuss the issue of cybercrime - and hopefully extend the arms of the law against the shameful act. It is interesting to also note that the earlier meeting I mentioned, the Digital World Conference (hosted by the NCC, GBF and the Club of Rome) will showcase the famous $100 laptop and talk about how ICTs can improve education and lifelong learning. But there is some good news though. NCC has been speaking of the State Accelerated Broadband Initiative (SABI), Wire Nigeria (WiN) campaign and has now taken off full-steam with the Universal Access Provision (UAP) in its much-needed help for rural development. While this is laudable, there needs to be some sense of acceleration and support from every possible quarter to make this a reality in next to no time.

While on my way to the venue of the meeting, and thinking of the other terrible issue that needs to be resolved, I met the best person who could discuss the issue. Your guess is right; it was power that occupied my thoughts. Even if broadband access was available everywhere, how much time can even laptops go for? Please don't talk about generators and inverters as they should be the exception and not the norm. As it would happen, the man who shared the airport cab with me (incidentally going to the same venue to discuss power supply issues in Nigeria) shed some light on the real issues, and spoke convincingly of the way forward - while also adding some icing to the cake by offering some dynamic opportunities to the students that we have trained at the Lagos Digital Village, who have had to constantly fight their IT knowledge from getting rusty (from lack of use on any job).

Take this from me, if you give us broadband (and stable power supply), we will transform Nigeria into one of the most desirable nations in the world even ahead of the 2025 deadline that this generation seems to have set for itself. As long as there is broadband access, you may please advise all consular officers that they would soon need to place adverts that will read AFOVGACVF, "Apply For Our Visa, Get Another Country's Visa Free!"


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'Gbenga Sesan is an Information Society Researcher, Program Manager of Lagos Digital Village, member of the (Nigerian) Presidential Task Force on ICT Harmonization and Vice Chairman of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa's African Technical Advisory Committee. He has his online residence at www.gbengasesan.com and spends time sharing thoughts with people-groups on the use of ICTs for development. September 11, 2006.

 


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