A news item I read on Yahoo last week convinced me, against a stand I took much earlier in the year, to say something about economist Jim O’Neil’s recent classification of Nigeria as an emerging global economic power house.
Interestingly, the news item centered on O’Neil himself. Titled, “Improve leadership to fulfil potential, Nigeria told”, the report quotes Jim O’Neil as saying Nigeria needs to improve the way it does business if it is to fulfil its potential to become one of the world’s top economies.
Here’s the gist.
On January 6th this year, I was a guest of the BBC Radio to share my views with listeners on the grouping of Nigeria by former Goldman Sachs Asset Management chairman, Jim O’Neil, as part of the MINT nations. Jim had pointed the attention of the world to a group of nations he acronymed MINT, which stands for Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey, who he thinks will soon emerge the next generation of pace-setters of emerging markets. Mr O’Neil looked at the demographics of these nations and identified a similarity: huge population with a strong and growing workforce. He also observed, in three of the four, strategic locations: nearness to existing huge markets. Only Nigeria lacks this second advantage, yet being the biggest country in Africa and the strongest economy in West Africa counts as an advantage. If Nigeria gets productive in her manufacturing sector, the West African market is ready to consume the products.
There’s a reason the world took Jim seriously. He was the same man who predicted the emergence of BRICS nations as an emerging economic power bloc. The BRICS nations are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
As is the case with analysts, essays on MINT have since saturated Nigeria’s public space. Many were in agreement with Jim, sounding extremely excited about Nigeria’s chances of sharing rank with the known global big boys. Some scoffed at those who dismissed the report as unrealistic, branding them perpetual cynics and unpatriotic citizens. One popular columnist with a national newspaper even wondered, in his column, why we don’t believe in ourselves when the world believes in us. I was almost going to tell him that the world doesn’t wear our shoes with us: we bear the pains from the pinch of our under-size shoes.
I fall into the category of those who aren’t excited about Mr Jim O’Neil’s prediction. And I told this to Nkem Ifejika, my host at the radio programme. I told him that nobody has ever doubted that Nigeria has potentials. Nobody should ever doubt that we can conquer the world if we put our acts together. We’ve heard all these stories that border on ‘potentials’ too many times in the past. If the contest for global greatness was centred on potentials alone, Nigeria will be leading in every sphere. We have never ran short of potentials.
Our History Is Replete With Many Failed Programmes And Policies
One of the most popular jingles on electronic media during my primary school days was “Join us, come with us, we are on our way…Education For All by the year 2000.”
This is 2014, and a nation that set out to ensure every of her citizen got education by – or before – year 2000 (fourteen years ago) has 10.5 million children out of school. 10.5 million is more than twice the population of Singapore. I’m sure when the plan was rolled out, there were ‘patriotic’ analysts who scribbled glowing lines about Nigeria’s match to greatness. This is particularly disturbing, because this country signed unto the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000. Recall that that year – 2000 – was our own deadline as a country to ensure everybody got education. It never happened. One of the MDGs was to promote universal basic education, and the deadline is next year, 2015. What’s our scorecard? 10.5m kids out of school!
Many Nigerians no longer remember that we used to have a government programme called Family Economic Advancement Programme (FEAP) under late General Sanni Abacha. Alongside another one called Vision 2010, we were told all efforts were place to usher Nigeria into economic prosperity by 2010. The FEAP document contained cure for Nigeria’s economic woes. For instance, it targeted to lift the society’s poorest above poverty into wealth and wealth creation through agriculture and small scale businesses. It planned to provide basic working capital requirement for farmers, provide facility for procurement of machinery and equipment, process agricultural products for massive exports, etc. But true to our nature, we never followed that programme through. The same issues FEAP aimed to tackle haven’t left the front burner of our economic public discourses today. Haven’t you been hearing about another vision, a brand new one, called Vision 20:2020, from the lips of our civilian rulers for a while now? We changed the goal post midway. We never achieved anything with FEAP, neither did we reach our 2010 economic goals.
If we’ve forgotten FEAP, we may not have forgotten Obasanjo’s NEEDS. It was described as ‘home-grown’ blue print for attaining Nigeria’s vision of becoming Africa’s largest economy and a major global economic player. If NEEDS succeeded, we will not be listening to people who regale us today with boring tales of ‘reform’ here, ‘reform’ there.
For a country whose GDP was $4.4 billion in December 1961, generated mainly from export of agricultural produces, one would have expected that the boom in oil production would have been sustained, along side more growth in agriculture, processing and manufacturing. It was basically a question of making the right investments in infrastructure, enacting the right policies and following them through. But that is not the case. By 1976, the contribution of agriculture to Nigeria’s GDP shrank from well over 65% to 30.9%. That trend is consistent with our legendary deterioration. Agriculture accounted for just about 26% of our GDP in 1980. Today, more than 90% of our exports come from oil. But in 1961, we supplied to the world 43 percent of shelled groundnut, 27 percent of palm oil and 19 percent of cocoa. While the market for these commodities themselves have grown tremendously in the last 50 years, Nigeria’s contribution to their availability in the world has shrunk to near zero. All we now know is oil, which employs just about 4% of our labour force. Yet we understand the possibilities of jobs creation inherent in the agriculture sector.
Here’s the chilling truth about the Nigeria that I’ve grown to know: Our leaders deliberately undermine our country. We blew the opportunity to grow when our contemporaries (Singapore, Malaysia, Botswana, etc) were growing. It’s in our essential nature to eat up our potentials, mess up our chances, and then turn around to rejoice at the slightest mention by foreigners of our ‘potentials’, as if potentials are just enough.
But as each of Nigeria’s well designed ‘road maps’ or ‘frameworks’ for a robust economic future fails, those under whose watch the failures happen have never gone broke or bankrupt as individuals. Instead, they grow richer, acquire more loyalty procured from deep pockets and become new members of the elite power custodians even outside of political offices. So we could see that the failure to realize our potentials over the years has been deliberate. I’ve since observed a running inverse relationship between failing to achieve economic growth for the generality of Nigerians and acquiring heavy personal wealth by those in political offices.
This brings me back to Jim O’Neil’s admonition to Nigeria’s leadership. Jim simply warned us: change your ways! Beyond being happy at the mere prediction of our potential to be great, Nigeria’s leadership must understand what it means to improve the way it does business. When Jim predicted our emergence, we rejoiced about it. Now he has added a word of caution: are we ready to act on it?
For instance, how do we empower our teeming millions – the major reason we got Jim’s attention – without electricity? How will a nation in perpetual darkness drive its economy? An industry like textile is labour intensive and employs so many people, but it will never thrive on generator and diesel. How do we invest in electricity if we can conveniently allow $20 billion to be stolen? How much more does a country which throws away $20b have left? How do we show the world we are serious if, two years after it was discovered that certain individuals defrauded Nigerians of several billions of petronaira through fuel subsidy, they are yet to be brought to book?
The popular argument is that the rating as an emerging economy positions us to play host to more foreign investors. Have we made efforts to improve doing business in Nigeria? In spite of all the jiggery-pokri of present day government, Nigeria’s EASE OF DOING business ranking says it all. Of 189 economies assessed, Nigeria is ranked 147 in 2014. That is a 9-point slump from 2013 when we ranked 138.
I’ve had to tell family members and friends that I don’t see many transparent foreign investors wanting to come to Nigeria in spite of our daily plea for foreign investors . We all recall how, frustrated by our entrenched culture of bribery and corruption, billionaire businessman Richard Branson ran out of Nigeria with his Virgin airline. You don’t want to hear what he said about our government officials. It’s disgusting.
And just to add: this isn’t about President Goodluck Jonathan, it is about the system he met, which, incidentally, he was installed to protect. He is not willing to upset the system, because he’ll be required to shed some weight off his personal inadequacies: condoning and protecting corruption, stomaching incompetence, rationalizing failure. Doing that means shunning multiple pecuniary gains he makes from the presidency. He doesn’t look ready.
Nigeria has the capacity to become an economic power house, I agree. But we don’t have the right leadership to explore those capabilities. And no amount of excitement or press releases can change that reality. Only a responsible leadership will. And what we presently have isn’t anywhere near that standard.
Chinedu Ekeke is on twitter as @Nedunaija
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