Forward Nigeria.

Author:Power, Jonathan

Nigeria contains one quarter of the black people of the world. So it is not surprising that a) Nigerians are Obama crazy, and b) they also think the world begins and ends with Nigeria.

The inward focus has much to commend it. In the eight years of the administration of Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria paid off the country's huge debt, stabilized the currency, cut inflation down to single digits, expanded foreign reserves tenfold (they are now the seventh largest in the world), cracked down on money laundering, consolidated the now highly profitable banking sector, won its first sovereign credit rating, and established macroeconomic and fiscal policies that are both effective and enshrined in law by the landmark Fiscal Responsibility Act. Economic growth is now a handsome 9 percent a year, and if the crippling power shortage starts to improve within a couple of years--which most expert observers believe it will, given the huge investments now underway in power stations, gas pipelines, and electrical transmission--then the growth rate will comfortably top 10 percent. If it weren't for the ongoing, seemingly unstoppable, campaign of sabotage in the oil-producing Niger Delta, which has cut Nigeria's oil output by 25 percent, the figure would go even higher.

In 1976, I worked on a disarmament commission with Obasanjo, chaired by the former prime minister of Sweden, Olaf Palme. I had come to rather dislike politicians. The only one I got on with, in a commission stuffed with ex-prime ministers and foreign ministers, was Obasanjo, a former military president, it is true, but also the man responsible for engineering Nigeria's transition to civilian rule in the late 1970s. He had then been jailed for opposing the officers who had reduced his democratizing efforts to dust.

Outsiders often chide Nigeria for being simply an oil economy, with all that that implies--inflationary spending, corruption, misallocation of resources. But it is not so simple. Following the Norwegian example, a high proportion of oil revenues have been set aside in a reserve account to be used for future generations or for emergency use should oil prices drop dramatically.

Agriculture has upped its share of national income in recent years from 35 percent to 45 percent. The sector is growing at a steady 7.5 percent a year, far ahead of any other African nation apart from Uganda. However, this is mainly peasant agriculture, which still employs two thirds of Nigeria's total labor force. (There is a growing input from commercial farms, however, including those belonging to Obasanjo and white, ex-Zimbabwean settlers.) Again, it is likely that the pace of agricultural growth will also rise sharply as the effect of higher world commodity prices filters down to the peasant level. In the last three months alone, the price of cassava (a popular, highly nutritious root crop) has increased by a quarter, spurring new planting. World Bank economists don't see any serious negatives for Nigeria amid the present rise of food prices. Indeed, they go out of their way to dissociate themselves from panicky pronouncements in the international arena. The most important impact on Nigeria from the rise of food prices and the rapid growth in agricultural production is that the people who benefit most are the poorest part of the population. Income distribution favouring the rural poor is steadily improving.

Manufacturing, in contrast, remains at a miserable 4 percent of gross national product (GNP). But it is waiting to explode, once the power crisis is alleviated. Foreign investors are already piling in, in particular from India, China, and South Korea.

Telecommunications have already posted extraordinary rapid growth rates. Nigeria and South Africa were the first African countries to be converted to the cell phone. Now some 80 percent of Nigeria is covered. In the towns, many in the working class have cell phones; in the villages it is catching on as well. E-mail is still lagging outside of the capital, Abuja, and the metropolis of Lagos, but with younger people is winning adherents.

Sadly for Nigeria, despite its successes, the country...

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