Muhammad Bello Abubakar: Sustaining Nigeria’s digital upsurge

Before he took over as Managing Director/CEO of Galaxy Backbone Limited (GBB), he was the accounting officer and a director and a principal start-up for the establishment and development of the National Centre for Petroleum Research and Development (NCPRD) of the Energy Commission of Nigeria. At NCPRD, he was the spearhead of cross-cutting edge research that developed the conceptual exploration model deployed in the successful oil and gas exploration in the frontier basin of the Northeast Nigeria. He was also a research consultant to NNPC on oil and gas exploration.

So, there were high expectations of what Gombe-born professor of petroleum geosciences would do with GBB in the context of a global economy driven by digitization and in which no country can afford to be left behind in either provision of related infrastructure, its application or investment in the sector. 

At its inception in 2006 as a public enterprise wholly owned by the Federal Government of Nigeria, the mandate of GBB was well defined and straightforward – setting up and operating a unified Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure platform that addresses the connectivity, transversal and other technology imperatives for Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of the federal government. The company was also charged with operating a nationwide network backbone to help facilitate the digital inclusion of underserved areas and rural communities towards the realisation of the federal government goals as enumerated above.

In doing this, the organisation takes the lead in the federal government effort to set its Digital Economy agenda – to leverage ICT to drive economic growth through creating jobs to enable Nigerians improve their standard of living. It has set up critical Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure for services — connectivity, hosting and security — to businesses in private and public sectors.

Abubakar attended Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, where he obtained B. Tech in Applied Geology and M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Sedimentology/Petroleum Geology. He is also an alumnus of German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and is a recipient of several awards, among which is the National Universities Commission’s best Ph.D. thesis award in physical sciences from all Nigerian universities in 2006.

His first test was presented by outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic that precipitated an economic lockdown of a global dimension. In Nigeria, it threatened the attainment of government objectives. There was an urgent need to develop digital platforms for keeping the economy up and running.

As government activities leaned heavily on ICT during the lockdown in order to reduce physical interactions that could spread coronavirus, one of the value propositions of Galaxy Backbone was born of innovation in time of necessity.

GBB rose up to the challenge of the time. With the support of the parent ministry, it launched virtual interaction platforms that enabled communication and collaboration in government from the federal executive level to intra-MDA functions. Connectivity was provided at the residences of key government functionaries, which provided seamless government operations, meetings and decisions for the effective management of the pandemic. 

Before Professor Abubakar came on board, GBB was faced with a range of challenges. Its organisational structure was sub-optimal, leading to inefficiencies and challenges in decision-making processes. This was made optimal. Prof. Abubakar then introduced innovative approaches to the company’s procurement process that resulted in a phenomenal boost to bandwidth capacity of the organisation. This has increased its competitiveness as well as enhanced cost savings.

One area in which GBB has made tremendous strides is the establishment of data centres in parts of the country worth highlighting. GBB lacked relevant across the nation infrastructure. To redress this, on 20 December, 2022, the National Shared Services Centre (NSSC) was formally opened in Abuja. The NSSC, which houses the nation’s TIER 3 Data storage facility, is meant to serve as a strategic and significantly important resource to stakeholder organisations in both the public and the private sectors. On 30 January, 2023, the TIER 4 National Data Centre and Northwest Zonal and Marketing Office were opened as fully operational. The Kano Data Centre serves as a backup to the Abuja Data Centre. The Lagos office was also upgraded to a Regional Zonal and Marketing Office. 

The Kano data centre is a major component of the phase 2 of the National Information Communications Infrastructure (NICTIB) Project which started in 2021. Through this project, Galaxy will connect all the 36 states of Nigeria into ICT infrastructure to power the nation’s digital economy. The forward-looking objectives of this expansion include the need to grow GBB’s infrastructure and services in all locations by ensuring proximity to GBB Points of Infrastructure Presence and facilitating project delivery. It is also aimed at improving revenue generation by leveraging GBB infrastructure assets to harness untapped opportunities by sweating assets delivered in NICTIB projects across Nigeria, as well as provide technical support to locations where GBB services are being consumed to ensure customer satisfaction and reduce service outages.

On 17 March 2023, the GBB Northeast Zonal and Marketing Office was launched in Gombe. According to Prof. Abubakar, the launch marked “another landmark in the nation’s journey towards establishing world-class digital infrastructure and ensuring that the country has a robust and reliable digital economy for the greater benefit of today’s and tomorrow’s generations, through deliberate, painstaking and concerted efforts.” This Zonal and Marketing Office also houses the Safe City infrastructure that will form a seed for Gombe to function as a Smart City.

Through the establishment of in-country data centres, under Abubakar’s leadership, Galaxy Backbone made possible for federal government to recoup several billions of naira lost to hosting data outside Nigeria.

He has set the organisation to pursue high-level short, medium and long-term objectives, including to redress low revenue flow, steps were taken to increase the revenue-base of the organisation, especially from internally-generated revenue sources to ensure self-sustainability in two years, bringing the ICT services of all the MDAs on-board the GBB network in four years; developing transversal applications and automation of all government processes for majority of MDAs to support attainment of their mandates over the same period; developing GBB’s infrastructure for the whole country in five years; and making GBB a partner/competitor to all ICT providers primarily in Nigeria and in Africa, especially West Africa, in five years.

The strategic thinker that he is, he has a vision to reposition GBB internally and externally to attract new markets. He has raised Brand Ambassadors within and outside the organisation that will champion a customer-centric experience and the renewed objectives of the organisation around Galaxy 3.0.

He was determined to match and surpass the level of ICT growth in the country in terms of digital infrastructure spread, broadband penetration and the growth of the nation’s Digital Economy. He aimed to build a strong brand that can compete on the African and Global stage. These led to the decision of the MD and the management to embark on a Rebranding exercise which is about to birth a ‘New Galaxy Backbone’ that will highlight where it came from, celebrate the future it seeks, enhance its reputation within the market and make it more attractive to stakeholders globally.

According to Cletus Eze, digital technology investor, “In the past five years, Prof. Abubakar has led the nation to show ambition in the provision of infrastructure for a digital revolution. His vision and dedication to ICT Development in Nigeria aligns perfectly with the Renewed Hope agenda President Tinubu has promised Nigeria and the international community.” 

Another stakeholder Ibrahim Mohammed, who runs a chain of digital training centres, attested to the fact that GBB has made business favourable to small and medium enterprises. “We enjoy specialized services from GBB, such as high speed bandwith and also a secure and reliable platform for developing, and maintaining an online presence.” he says. 

Dr Muftau writes from Abuja