4 March 2004

Nigeria: Linux, Internet And Project 'Nigeria'


Lagos — The increasing importance of the Internet in communications, education, business and commerce is reflected by the increase in the number of cybercafes, ISPs and numerous Internet based businesses in Nigeria. The Internet has spurred the economic and social growth of most developed nations and the same effects are being seen in many developing nations.

Knowledge is the engine that drives economic growth, and Nigeria cannot eliminate poverty without first increasing and nurturing its intellectual capital. Using the internet to increase the country's intellectual capital would lead to increasing its wealth in many different ways. Nigeria's Internet problems are exemplified by the growing internet culture among Nigerians youths representing more than 80 per cent of Nigeria's population. Young minds due to lack of awareness, low number of Nigerian website on the internet, lack of Nigerian specific e-payment system and poor e-learning culture throng cyber cafes only to check their email accounts, visit pornographic sites, shop online with stolen credit cards and so many other negative vices.

This growing cancer if neglected could deny the country the numerous benefits of the internet and further lead to a generation of cyber criminals. IT stakeholders' inability to manage the country code top level domain (ccTLD) domain; an issue that has been bogged down in politics, posturing and scramble for commercial gain exacerbates the problem. The controversy dates back to General Abacha's government when the question of who is responsible for management of Nigeria's country code top level domain (ccTLD) first came up. The then government's reluctance to embrace the Internet led to the .ng domain being managed in Italy. The domain is now currently managed for free by an individual in the United States. The fact Nigeria's .ng domain has been managed for so many years by Internet hobbyists who are not Nigerians, outside the country shows how lowly Nigeria is placed in the Internet arena. To date less than 600 .ng domains have been registered and this has led foreign observers to believe that Nigeria lacks not only the infrastructure but the people with the skills required to manage the domain.

It must be said however, that, managing Nigeria's ccTLD is a fairly straight forward process for people with skills and proper understanding of how the Internet works. Linux, UNIX and Open source software has been the bedrock of the Internet for many years before its commercialization. In order to positively develop Nigeria's Internet culture and use the internet as a platform to increase the country's intellectual capital, Nigeria needs to embrace the technology and culture of Linux and open source.

Linux and open source software is freely available from the Internet. The availability is hinged on a philosophy defined by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation that in order for individuals and nations to empower themselves they must be allowed to have access to and share computer source code thus getting an insight and understanding into how technology works and then using this knowledge to improve or customize the existing technology as appropriate to suit ones needs or environment. This philosophy has led to the existence of thousands of Internet communities dedicated to the support and improvement of open source software such as Linux.

The Nigerian Linux User Group http://www.nglug.org.ng/ is an online community that brings people together who are interested in Linux, open source and IT in general to discuss and learn about these technologies and wider issues surrounding Nigeria's IT industry. The User group has a number of specialist forums including a forum focused on defining projects to build Internet and e-mail infrastructure and services for tertiary institutions using Linux and open source. This user group is embracing the philosophy and vision of Richard Stallman. As more people from different areas of life join this User group it is obvious to any visitor to the user group that projects will emerge from it that will enhance Nigeria's Internet and IT development. It has been a long time coming but this is what happened in other parts of the world. The Nigerian Linux User Group has been instrumental in helping people register .ng domains by working with one of its sponsors to provide an easy to use interface for the registration, thus showing that the belief held by many that Nigeria is incapable of technically managing its top level domain to be incorrect. It is groups such as the Nigerian Linux User Group that will show vision and direction and be able to harness technology and human resource to advance Nigeria Internet culture and per adventure increases the country's intellectual capital.

For over twenty years Linux and open source software has been building momentum in the technical cultures that built the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Internet evolved as it did because of open standards and open source software which has been responsible for key functions of the Internet. Most open source software falls under GNU, General Public License, which makes it possible to legally improve and adopt software developed by others, at the same time facilitating continuous improvement. Linux, the most well known open source software is an operating system used for networking, software development, and as an end-user platform. Linux is the server operating system behind a dominant number of Internet sites; it is also favoured by Internet Service Provider's because of the manner with which it handles the Internet.

Other popular open source applications include Apache, a web server that runs over 50 per cent of the world's web servers, Perl, the engine behind most of the "live content" on the World Wide Web, BIND, the software that provides the DNS (domain name service) for the entire Internet, Sendmail, the most widely used email transport software on the Internet, MySQL and PostgreSQL, databases on which a large percentage of the information on the Internet resides. The cost of open source software is usually the distribution costs or nothing if downloaded. It can be copied and generally speaking, used freely with no restrictive copyright problems. Nigeria can greatly improve its growing Internet culture and national IT vision by embracing and sponsoring open source projects.

A major and probably most obvious benefit of the Internet is access to information. The Internet has become a universal electronic library that can be used by anyone to conduct research; an extension of this benefit is education and learning. Efforts need to be increased towards building more Nigerian specific e-learning portal like http://www.nu-learning.com/.With over 800 courses covering a wide range of information technology and business courses from the very basic to advanced courses that allow subscribers acquire a range of skills relevant in today's IT driven world at cost effective prices. The portal allows for interaction between the learners through its discussion boards providing a basis for future user groups for those who decide to embark on a career in information technology. The portal was built using open source software on a Linux platform

Another key importance of the Internet in Nigeria is the ability to conduct commerce (e-commerce) with the Naira. A vibrant Internet infrastructure is required in order for e-commerce systems to thrive. An e-payment system developed with open source software and using the Naira as a payment facility exists called Nijacol Wallet http://wallet.nijacol.com/ The payment system is used to buy products such as domain name www.nijacol.com/domains and web hosting www.nijacol.com/hosting/webserv.htm (generic top level domains or gTLDs like .com and .net are not free) and e-learning courses among others. The payment solution provides the needed option for Nigerians, who do not have credit cards to shop online and more importantly, addresses the problem of the growing menace of cyber crimes in Nigeria.

Leadership and development of Nigeria's Internet sector must increasingly come from sources outside the government and familiar computer associations. Internet communities like Nigerian Linux User Group are producing a new generation of young dynamic enthusiasts hungry for knowledge and skills to develop themselves and change their communities or institutions and now even commercial companies are associated with the user group. Datasphir Solutions is an example of such a company and at the request of the Nigerian Linux User Group has provided an easy to use online interface and Name Servers to help users in registering .ng domains at http://www.datasphir.com/ngtld/.

Datasphir builds solutions that leverage the internet to provide some of the key benefits that the internet offers; communication, commerce and education. Solutions include electronic mail for corporate organisations and customised messaging solutions such as business instant messaging which covers communications, an e-payment system for e-commerce and deployment of an e-learning portal for education. The solutions are built with Linux and open source software. The GNU/GPL licensing for allows solutions to be deployed and managed at a fraction of the cost equivalent closed source solutions from companies like Microsoft. Many Nigerian corporate organisations are starting to understand the technical and commercial benefits that Linux and open source solutions offers in terms of costs and licensing and are starting to adopt the technology. As security and the persistent threat of viruses and malware takes increasing prominence open source solutions on Linux platforms are proving to be far more secure and robust than closed source.

Just like the evolution of Internet itself, the modern enterprise now relies on the fruits of the success of open source software. The Linux operating system, compilers, and servers only scratch the surface of what is possible. All sorts of infrastructure software can benefit from the open source model as indicative of the examples previously described. Business software all of which is not necessarily proprietary or closed software can use the open source model too and the existence of the Internet solutions described previously indicates that if Linux is fully embraced, Nigeria's internet presence locally and globally will be very much accelerated.

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