Muhammad Bello Abubakar: The magic wand of a Top Digital Legacy Driver of the Buhari Era

When President Muhammadu Buhari leaves office on May 29, 2023 as Nigeria’s President, he would undoubtedly be very proud of his administration’s legacies in digital economy where Galaxy Backbone Limited, one of the key agencies in the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy, led by Prof. Muhammad Abubakar Bello, is making waves.

In 2015 when Buhari’s administration took off, one of the major elements of his agenda was the diversification of the economy using the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) subsector as one of the key drivers of the diversification agenda. To emphasize the importance of ICT in the scheme of that agenda, the President restructured the existing Ministry of Communication and rechristened it Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy and appointed frontline professionals to man the ministry and agencies under it.

Nearly eight years later, on the eve of his exit from office, an elated President has looked back with satisfaction at what he and the ICT team of his administration have achieved.

Speaking during the commissioning of the National Shared Services Centre (NSSC), in Abuja in January 2023, the president said the economic diversification agenda of his administration has been boosted by the ICT sector and improved the country’s GDP. Quoting the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), President Buhari said the sector contributed an unprecedented 18.44 per cent to the GDP in the second quarter of 2022, close to three times the 6.33 per cent contribution of the oil sector in the same quarter.

Specifically, the President said the impact of the ICT manifested recently with the realisation of the $547 million from the sale of 3.5GHz spectrum to MTN and Mafab Communications for the provision of 5G network, which is a plus to the nation’s revenue drive. He said the whopping sum of money realised from the spectrum sale was an indication that the digital economy is driving growth, employment and wealth creation in the country.

The President was quite effusive with his praises for the contributions of and prospects for the future of Nigeria’s digital economy: “As part of our efforts to expand our digital infrastructure, we increased our 4G base stations from 13,823 to 36,751 from August 2019 to date, and this has increased the percentage of 4G coverage across the country from 23 per cent to 77.52 per cent, also from August 2019 to date. We have also followed this up with the roll-out of 5G services.

“It is noteworthy that the digital economy sector has excelled in generating revenue for the government. In particular, at the Ministerial Retreat that I chaired from the 18th to 19th of October 2022, our independent analysts adjudged the digital economy sector to have generated 594 per cent of its revenue target from the 2019 baseline. This is very commendable.

“As part of these unprecedented achievements, the sector generated over $547 million from the auctioning of the 5G spectrum alone.”

The President also said that his administration had created the enabling environment “to ensure that the digital economy sector remains successful and in order to reduce the burden on citizens, I recently approved the suspension of the proposed excise duty in the telecoms sector, as any initiative that will lead to hardship for the citizens would not be pursued.”

He added that “Our administration’s commitment to promoting data security and privacy is receiving praise across the world, and we have increased our digital identity enrolments from 39 million in October 2020 to about 92 million today.

“The massive increase of about 63 million in about two years is a global success story and has led to several requests for partnership from countries within and outside Africa. I also approved the establishment of the Nigeria Data Protection Bureau on the 4th of February, 2022, to provide an institutional framework for data protection in Nigeria, in line with global best practices.”

It was not by mere coincidence that the President used the occasion of the commissioning of NSSC to tell the success story of the country’s digital economy.  The huge NSSC edifice, located within the Central Business District of the nation’s capital, is managed by the Galaxy Backbone (GBB) Limited, one of the key agencies in the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy that are behind this glowing appraisal of the digital transformation drive of​​ the Federal Government. Galaxy Backbone is the Network Communications and Shared Services platform that powers digital services in the nation’s public sector. It is led by Professor Muhammad Bello Abubakar as Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer.

When GBB commenced operations in 2006, ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) were operating in silos with little or no impactful digital services observed. There were no common systems or platforms that enabled these government establishments relate with one another in a seamless way. There was also a lot of file carrying from one department of government to the other. 

A critical review of where most of these MDAs were then in comparison to where a good number of them are now reveals a great deal of improvements. These MDAs have not been fully digitized because governments, not just in Nigeria, but across the world, is a huge enterprise where innovations take time to become standard practice. But there is no question that significant progress has been made in Nigeria’s digitization process. And the organization that has relentlessly worked behind the scenes, in most cases without making so much noise, but deliberately moving government to adopt what may be called e-government or digital processes, is Galaxy Backbone. 

The real catalyst for the transformation being experienced now came with the appointment of Professor Abubakar as GBB’s MD/CEO by President Buhari on December 23, 2019.

From the day he assumed office on January 2, 2020, Prof. Abubakar clearly sought to bring back the pride of Galaxy Backbone (GBB) as a key public sector organization that would help in transforming Nigeria into one of the leading Digital Economies in the world. In his first year in office he focused on and was determined to ensure GBB met and delivered on its assigned mandate. He believed in the potential of the Galaxy Backbone Infrastructure to serve all of government thereby helping the Federal Government reduce IT spend across Federal Government Ministries, Departments & Agencies.

During his first year, Prof. Abubakar ensured that a government circular went out to all MDAs from the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, mandating them to make GBB the first point of call for all ICT projects.

This was to enable GBB achieve its set objectives and actualize its mandate of being the Government Agency responsible for providing Government with ICT services and also reduce duplication of ICT services in MDAs.

He also introduced organizational structure changes that have shown GBB’s renewed ability to provide quality ICT services and meet service delivery expectations.

For the first time in the history of Galaxy Backbone, and under the leadership of Prof. Abubakar, GBB now has a department focused on Research, Digital Innovation and Skills (RDIS). This department is charged with the responsibility of driving capacity development across the public and private sector organizations and further improve service delivery of Galaxy Backbone.

 Other strategic departments that Prof. Abubakar created include: Solution Design and Supply Chain; Policies, Strategies and Mandate Projects; and the Enterprise Business Group.

Prof. Abubakar saw his mission as that of ensuring that GBB successfully implements the Digital Economy and Strategy document designed by the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy towards the digital transformation of Nigeria.

Ultimately his plan was to get all MDAs on board the GBB platform and ensure superb quality of service and optimum service delivery. This included developing transversal applications and automating government processes for majority of MDAs.

To ensure all these come through, he developed a 5-year Strategic Business Plan anchored on six pillars which include: Government Priorities; Data Sovereignty; Financial Sustainability; Customer Satisfaction; Operational Excellence; and Improved Capabilities and Capacities.

Prof. Abubakar’s arrival at Galaxy Backbone coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19, the global pandemic which killed millions of people, threatened human existence itself and forced total lockdown of governmental, business, economic and social activities in virtually all countries of the world, including Nigeria. For GBB and its new MD/CEO, the pandemic presented both an uncommon challenge and opportunity. The economic lockdown challenged the attainment of government objectives. A new and unprecedented demand was placed on the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy 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 ministry by launching 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.

This robust virtual platform consistently powered the virtual Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings, National Council of States Meetings and other inter-Governmental and intra-Governmental meetings. GBB facilitated more than 25 virtual FEC meetings using its state-of-the-art Network and Communications Infrastructure.

The awareness forced on MDAs by COVID-19, coupled with the initiatives, policies and infrastructure introduced  by GBB under Professor Abubakar’s leadership in the last four years have resulted in the achievement of major milestones that contribubuted to the success of the digital transformation drive highlighted by the President. For instance, initially, GBB’s national ICT infrastructure backbone project covered about 13 states from Lagos going through the south western states; some states in the south-east, south-south, then the north central and then to Abuja. Now the new project is going to cover about 21 states. “So, roughly we are going to have about 34 states almost closing in on the 36 states, meaning that we are almost covering everything,” the MD/CEO revealed in an interview. “In terms of infrastructure backbone, we are connecting from here (Abuja) to Plateau and Bauchi states, then to Gombe state, to Adamawa state, to Yobe, Borno and going back to Kano, Katsina, Sokoto and other places and also going to Niger and to link back to Lagos again to create the redundancy we are looking for. It’s going to link back to Lagos through Niger state this time around and get going to some of those states in the south-west creating connectivity across these states.”

Going by its mandate, GBB is supposed to build and manage government data centres, provide email and IP telephony platforms under a common platform that enables public officials function from whatever part of the country they find themselves in. To date, Galaxy Backbone has provided over 40,000 email boxes and provided thousands of IP and video telephony devices to MDA officials across the country.

Galaxy Backbone has, in the last four to five years, installed fibre optic cables cutting across over 17 states in the country.  The fibre optic cable, which was about 15,000kms in 2015 had increased to more than 60,000kms as at January 2023. Fibre cables are the fastest mode of internet connectivity, which is the platform to drive e-government initiatives and services. The goal is to connect the 36 states of the country via fibre through the National Information Communication Technology Infrastructure Backbone (NICTIB).

A significant part of the NICTIB project is the building of world class data centres and network operation centres across the six geo-political zones of the country to support the digital transformation process of the nation.  The NSSC which was commissioned by the President in January this year is a common services platform that would bring together technology services for all MDAs under one platform to ensure proper coordination amongst MDAs and effective management of IT services under one secure platform. Within NSSC are several secure digital communications and network management facilities. One of such facilities is the Network Operations Centre, where the teams at GBB work 24hrs every day to ensure the services of all their customers are kept up and running consistently in a secured form. As at January 2023, over 400 MDAs had been connected to the National Shared Services Centre.

With regards to Data Centres, Galaxy Backbone launched its Tier IV Datacentre in Kano into the public and private sector space of Nigeria in early 2023 considered to be the first of its kind in northern Nigeria and the best so far in the country. It had, in the previous seven to eight years, successfully run the only Tier III Datacentres, located in Lagos and Abuja.  It is now deploying state-of-the-art digital infrastructure and applying international best practices to backstop public sector organisations with sensitive data and a growing number of private sector organizations to provide services. The level of professionalism on offer has become a reference point for other organisations that are considering getting on the platform.

GBB Tier IV Datacentre storage has capacity of about 2.2 petabytes. This translates to huge amounts of data that can be securely stored.

The first Tier IV Datacentre in the nation’s public sector and the only one of its kind, built out of the nation’s commercial city of Lagos and political capital, Abuja, now situated in another commercial hub of the country, Kano, for disaster recovery, back-up and redundancy purposes. It will in no small measure enhance and deepen Nigeria’s Digital Economy drive towards becoming one of the most recognized digital economies of the world. At the official commissioning of the centre by President Muhammadu Buhari, minister of communication and digital economy, Prof. Isa Pantami, said that the centre will improve the digital economy, provide job opportunities and enhance cyber-security while supporting the country to consolidate the gains of the digital economy.  Also speaking at the commissioning the managing director of the Galaxy Backbone Limited, Prof. Bello said the Kano centre will contribute in the grow of the Nation GDP. He said the centre will bring more achievements and provide enabling environment for doing business.

Assessing the global ICT sector vis-a-vis Nigeria’s place in it, Prof. Abubakar said:  “In today’s 4th Industrial Revolution, World of rapid changes driven by ubiquitous connectivity to the Cyber world and advanced digital technologies such as Cloud Computing, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence Augmented Reality, Robotics, etc, it is no accident also that most capitalised corporations from Apple, to Google, to Amazon to Microsoft, etc, are the leading enablers of the World’s digital economy. Evidently, failure to embrace the new digital age will leave a nation stuck in the sands of time.”

To keep up to speed with global standards, he said, Galaxy Backbone has also made significant  strides to inspire the confidence of its customers, including becoming the first public sector establishment  to attain prestigious  International  Certifications that include  the ISO 27001 in information Security Management; the ISO 20000 Certification in IT Services Management as well as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards(PCI-DSS).

GBB also made significant impact in the 2023 general elections when the agency deployed its vast proficiency and capabilities to forestall over 200 cyber attacks against the servers of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), thereby protecting the Commission from desperate hackers. ”We were able to block over 200 attacks on servers  on election day and subsequently blocked over 1.2 million attacks,” Prof. Abubakar said during the Ministerial Training for Board Members and Management of Galaxy Backbone in March 2023.

According to the GBB boss, the agency evolved from debts to save about N4.69 billion between 2020 and 2022 through optimization of its technical services.

Like President Buhari, the GBB supervising ministry –  the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy – has been full of praises for GBB under Prof. Abubakar’s leadership. Speaking at the same Ministerial Training in March 2023, the minister, Prof. Isa Pantami, lauded GBB for saving such huge amount, amid other achievements, called for more efforts to achieve the mandate of the agency.

He said: ”I initiated a memo to the Federal Executive Council for special intervention for Galaxy Backbone and it’s the first of its kind. You have saved N4.69 billion and I strongly agree that Galaxy has not just played a significant role but it plays it when it comes to making our virtual Federal Executive Council meeting very successful.

”I am glad with what I have seen with regards  to the achievements of Galaxy Backbone  limited , the efforts of the Board and  Management are  highly commendable and  I urge the Management and Board to work harder to maintain our performance.

For his visionary leadership whose impact has extended beyond GBB to the nation’s public sector, and the economy at large, the agency’s Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Professor Abubakar has received many awards from different organizations, both the public and the private sectors.

Abubakar’s background in the sciences recommends him for the position he is currently holding, making the Gombe State indigene the proverbial round peg in a round hole. A holder of a Bachelor of Technology in Applied Geology from the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University in Bauchi, he has an M.Sc. and a Ph.D., both in Sedimentology/Petroleum Geology, from the German Academy Exchange Service (DAAD).

He has over two decades of working experience spanning the academia, oil and gas exploration, research and innovation. He is a strategic thinker, with strong leadership and management skills, and wide exposure to global practices in energy. Before his appointment as Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Galaxy Backbone, he was the Executive Director and a principal start-up for the establishment and development of the National Centre for Petroleum Research and Development of the Energy Commission of Nigeria. On that position, he spearheaded the cross-cutting edge research that developed the conceptual exploration model that was deployed in the successful oil and gas exploration activities in the north eastern part of the country. He also served as research consultant to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).

A professor of Petroleum Geosciences, Abubakar is widely travelled, and has attended several ICT training programmes that include Cisco Academy Networking certification; several local and international programmes in leadership and strategic management, as well as sustainable development trainings in energy.