AFTER the announcement of Nigeria’s statistical triumph, I expected a chest-thumping, jubilant response in the country. Instead, news that Nigeria had become the biggest economy in Africa, with gross domestic product of an astonishing $510bn, was greeted with a sober, even dismissive, response by the media, professionals and ordinary people.
"It’s too soon to exhale," a banking professional last week. "We have too much to do. Our macroeconomic fundamentals are not in place. Things are just not where we need them to be. There is no reason for celebration."
Another said the statistics had, if anything, highlighted the lost opportunity. "Imagine how big we would be if our governments had invested oil profits in this economy since 1990," he said referring to the last time the economy was measured.
Having first visited Nigeria in the early 1990s and seen the differences in the country between then and now, I believe Nigeria does have a lot to celebrate, even if the road ahead is still a long and rocky one. In 1990, Nigeria was still dealing with the economic fallout of a series of military coups d’etat. Since its first post-independence election in 1964, Nigeria’s political condition has been more one of military than democratic rule, mostly by leaders with little interest in economic growth.
When the economy was last measured, Maj-Gen Ibrahim Babangida, who took power in 1985 from another coup leader, was in charge. He took over a state in crisis, a situation precipitated by distortions brought about by the country’s dependence on resources and worsened by the oil price crash of the 1980s.
He introduced a comprehensive economic "emergency" plan, setting in motion privatisation of state companies, financial sector reform, the revival of agriculture, and cut back imports. But he was also the architect, many Nigerians say, of patronage and corruption, despite being a proponent of fiscal prudence. Under his watch, foreign debt ballooned. And, by dragging out the promised return to democracy for eight years and annulling a presidential election held to facilitate this handover, he paved the way for another coup in 1993.
Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s last military ruler, presided over an economy hollowed out by grand corruption. He ran the oil business as his private fiefdom, dictating oil deals from his presidential villa. The central bank was in effect his piggy bank. State utilities in key areas such as telecoms and power were run into the ground through neglect and underinvestment.
Abacha died suddenly in late 1998, paving the way for the democratic era Nigeria has enjoyed since then.
There was talk of a rebasing exercise after the 1999 democratic elections but it is held that this was scuppered by the intention of the Obasanjo regime to secure debt relief from the multilateral lenders and the Paris Club, which would have not been possible if Nigeria had emerged, then, as a middle-income country. The decision paid off. And the economic trajectory, as is now common cause, has been strongly upward — even if the 7% growth rate now turns out to be lower as a result of the rebasing.
Nigeria has a long way to go. The gap between rich and poor is widening; it remains one of the poorest countries in the world and has a tiny tax base, despite a rapidly growing private sector. It is easy to look at the significant infrastructural development in cities such as Lagos and Abuja as being progress and forget the underdevelopment elsewhere in the country.
There are many reasons to criticise Nigeria’s progress and economic governance. But it is also easy to forget how far it has come since 1990.
The question now is whether the political leaders and technocrats use the country’s new status as the biggest economy in Africa as an excuse to continue to underperform or whether they will set it on a path towards its true potential, where Nigeria’s, rather than political interests, are primary.
• Games is CEO of consulting company Africa @ Work.