Nigeria has the 7th highest number of mobile phone users in the world; 172 million in 2019. More impressively, the country currently has 128 million mobile internet subscriptions, according to the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC).
As large as these numbers are, they are expected to grow quite significantly. Once we account for people with multiple phones or subscriptions, the number of users drops to 56 million. By 2023, that should be 76 million.
It is clear that Nigerians are adopting mobile phones at an impressive rate, but what impact is our digital accomplice having on the economic and political landscape?
The mobile internet and its economic power
Research points to growing mobile internet usage as good news for economic prosperity. In 2017, Imperial College Business School examined data from 135 countries and found that a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration could boost GDP by 0.6% to 2.8%.
In Nigeria, our growing mobile phone internet base is spurring commercial activity through sectors like e-commerce and applications like video streaming services. Nigerians can now save and invest on mobile apps and legally watch Nollywood movies on mobile applications.
All walks of life have been impacted. Another good example is the transport sector which has seen a burst of new businesses that have only been made possible by the mass usage of mobile internet. Think delivery or ride-hailing services (except for bikes in Lagos). Clearly, a lot of jobs have been created.
GDP numbers provide evidence. The latest figures show that information communication and telecommunications (ICT) contribute to 13% of Nigeria’s GDP. Telecommunications has been one of Nigeria's main growth drivers as other sectors have lagged in recent years.
But things are not all rosy for mobile phone usage in Nigeria. A few roadblocks exist.
Nigeria currently ranks 112th in the mobile internet speed index, with less than 50% of mobile internet users having access to 3G & 4G technology in an age where countries are already adopting 5G. Additionally, the use of mobile internet is not well spread across the country. National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) data indicates that only ten Nigerian states account for over 50% of mobile internet subscribers in Nigeria.
So, even as Nigeria’s rising mobile penetration numbers are good for the economy, we must actively work to prevent regional inequality. More attention should also be paid to internet speed and reliability. Key to growth in the sector is ensuring that productivity is high.
Mobile internet has political impacts too
Evidence by recent international revolutions, mobile internet can drive significant political change. In tandem with social media, mobile phones played a significant role in the Arab Spring of the early 2010s.
Here in Nigeria, good governance movements such as #OccupyNigeria, #ENDSARS and #Stoprobbingus were made possible by widespread mobile internet access. While the tangible impact of these mobile-internet-driven movements remains unclear, it is worth noting that governments’ attempts to bridge the government-citizen divide have often centred around new media.
As far as major political outcomes (e.g. elections results) are concerned, it appears that political parties are recognising the potential contribution of the mobile internet. Researchers at the University of Birmingham identified an increasingly sophisticated use of mobile communication platforms like WhatsApp to promote political agenda at national and state levels during Nigeria’s 2019 elections.
As indicated by government-sanctioned internet shutdowns in a number of African countries during elections, the mobile internet is increasingly considered as a threat to existing political orders.
In the future, mobile phones may even play a part in voting; there is an appetite for it in Nigeria. Whether it comes to fruition is another story. There is every possibility that increased use of mobile phones in entertainment, banking and social interaction can also be translated to the political scene.
More education is needed
Having said all of this, mobile internet access is of little use in the hands of a Nigerian ill-equipped to make informed choices or advocate for good governance and social change.
This means that improved access to mobile internet should be complemented by investment in civic and business marketing education by government initiatives to ensure that we can enhance the technology to the best of our ability.
Currently, only about 12% of mobile phone subscribers in Nigeria are active social media users. There is a lot of civic engagement that many are missing out from as well as the business opportunities that arise from understanding the mobile internet market and technology.
What is clear is that mobile internet in Nigeria has come to stay. The impact it has will depend on how well we can use it.