By Jonathan Power
Did you know that Nigeria, the most populated country in black Africa, is now one of the top five fastest growing big economies in the world? (The others are China, India, Turkey and Argentina.)
The image of Nigeria is of poverty, crime, corruption, election fiddling and maladministration. Africa, I find from my family and friends, is still a continent where death stalks – war, starving children and impoverished refugees.
But the tale of progress is unsung. This wretchedness is the only news that penetrates. Only one western newspaper, the Financial Times, has a full time correspondent in Nigeria where one third of all the black people in the world live. The rest get their news from the fickle eye of television and the rest of the newspaper pack.
In the last six months the only news from Nigeria is the bombings of the extremist Islamic grouping, Boko Haram. It has caused a lot of mayhem yet its influence and damage is mainly confined to a handful of northern states. If you have watched the Academy Award winner, “The Iron Lady”, you will have seen that the Irish Republican Army was far more frightening. By a hair’s breadth it failed to blow up Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and murdered the Queen’s cousin. Nothing comparable to this has happened in Nigeria.
Before Boko Haram the media’s focus was on the insurgents of the delta area of the great Niger river. One of the world’s major oil producers, oil has polluted both the land and minds of local inhabitants. One result was young men picking up guns, blowing up oil wells, kidnapping oil workers and stealing vast amounts of oil. Great television. Exciting news reports.
Now that the late president, Uramu Yar’Adua and his successor, President Goodluck Jonathan, have ended most of the insurgency with careful negotiation that involved an amnesty and a hefty financial settlement that includes job training, the violence is dramatically down. This end of the story has been reported only a little.
In Abuja I interviewed the resident chief of the International Monetary Fund, Scott Rogers. He told me if you take out the oil sector and agriculture from the national income statistics Nigeria is growing at 12% a year which he calls “phenomenal”. Growth is happening in manufacturing, telecommunications (which grew at the astonishing rate of 35% and adds 2% to the annual growth rate of the whole economy), retail and wholesale trade, solid minerals and construction. Just in the last year the number of informal businesses has doubled.
Last year trade with the UK increased by 65%. If Nigeria can get a grip on its power shortage problem, says the brilliant, reforming finance minister, Ngozi Iweala, growth will hit double digits. Even the traditional poor relation, agriculture, is growing at 6% a year, a good step ahead of population growth. That is one of the top three in Africa.
In many parts of Nigeria the state of health clinics and schools remains appalling. Infant mortality in the north is one of the worst in the world. Although it has an extensive network of good tarmac highways too many roads have serious potholes.
Still the progress is very visible. One indicator of the “trickle down” of the wealth to the masses is the proliferation of motorbikes – with helmet clad riders. There are a number of cities which have become “modern”. Abuja is one – although its poorer workers are located in deprived satellite towns. Calabar is another – a city of a million where two successive governors have transformed it. There are tree-lined and pothole-free roads, flower beds common, parks, health clinics, clean water, inoculations, primary schools for everyone and a lack of slums. Along the river is built a beautiful esplanade.
I asked President Goodluck Jonathan why this couldn’t be emulated. “It is commitment”, he replied. “States are not short of money but it is how they use it. Corruption and the siphoning off of state funds is a serious problem.”
- “But look at Lagos”, he went on, “a city of 15 million with a bad reputation. You now see good, clean, roads with trees all along, interchanges with flowers and no litter and bus lanes. The traffic is moving and delays are less. Poverty is decreasing and crime is down. Investment from overseas is increasing at a fast rate and the economy is growing at well over 10% a year. There are more health clinics and elementary schools. Again, it is because of two good governors.” The airport has dramatically improved. However, the port is still a nest of inefficiency and corruption.
I remember Lagos before Olusegun Obasanjo was elected after the fall of the military dictatorship. One could even find the occasional dead body on the edge of the road waiting to be picked up.
I came away after a two week stay convinced I have seen the future and know it works.
Copyright: Jonathan Power