That Nigeria has passed South Africa as Africa’s largest economy—when calculated by Gross Domestic Product—is almost old news. The coverage of that feat afforded Nigeria’s image a rare shining moment in the foreign media. As Uri Friedman wrote in The Atlantic, “Something strange happened in Nigeria on Sunday: The economy nearly doubled, racking up hundreds of billions of dollars, ballooning to the size of the Polish and Belgian economies, and breezing by the South African economy to become Africa’s largest. As days go, it was a good one.”
But many Nigerian pundits were far from impressed. Some were skeptical about the whole “re-basing” rhetoric. Some went as far as suggesting that Abuja fudged and rigged its way to first place. Others sought to restore perspective to the triumph by drawing attention to Nigeria’s perennial and persistent woes—among them a dismal infrastructure, scant electric power supply, run-away rates of unemployment, and miserable wages for the lowest brackets of workers.
In a piece provocatively titled “Okonjonomics Or When a Finance Minister Turns Money-Doubler,” Ogaga Ifowodo, a poet, professor, lawyer and political activist, cut to the heart of the matter. He wrote: “So if Nigerians went to bed in the night of Saturday, 5 April 2014, with N42.4 trillion naira in their collective pocket, and woke up the next day to their statistician-general’s revelation that they had grown richer by N37.8 trillion while they slept, wouldn’t they be fools to believe it if they remain as hungry and angry, homeless and jobless, as they were when they closed their eyes the night before? Mind you, statistician rhymes well with magician! The real reason for this money-doubling miracle, we are told, is to position Nigeria as an investors’ paradise. If so, another miracle is urgently needed: the overnight transformation of Nigeria’s stone-age infrastructure. And don’t forget about the ravening monster called corruption while you are at it!”
It seems to me that both the international media’s excitement and the Nigerian punditry’s negativity often obscured some significant lessons to be grasped from the report of Nigeria’s outstripping South Africa by one measure of economic performance.
It’s instructive that the dramatic growth in Nigeria’s movie industry and the telecommunications sector was key in boosting the country’s GDP. What does this tell us?
The great global spread of Nigeria’s movie industry, better known as Nollywood, testifies to the can-do spirit, enterprise and ingenuity of a people. Most of the first Nollywood producers and directors learned on the job, getting a handle on the mechanics of movie making as they filmed. Now, as in the first days, the “home videos” are usually low-budget affairs, often shot in a matter of days. And they mostly employ unfledged actors who hone their acting skills as they go from one production to another.
Yet, these dilettantes and amateurs have seized the imagination of millions of fans around the world. Notwithstanding the technical lapses of many of these movies, they have inspired a stupendous domestic and foreign following. In my travels to different countries, I find that Nollywood movies often come up in discussions. Many Nigerian movie stars are household names in such places as Kenya and Jamaica.
The homegrown movie sector embodies something of the genius of Nigerian entrepreneurship. Together with Nigerian musicians and writers, home-video makers have made their country a major producer and exporter of cultural capital. Nollywood has emerged as a leader in Africa. The commercial success of its example has inspired the emergence of smaller models of movie markets in many parts of the continent.
I believe that Nigeria teems with talent in a variety of areas, women and men capable of replicating—if not surpassing—Nollywood’s strides. I’d bet that, given the right conditions, these skilled Nigerians would launch mini-revolutions in any number of fields.
In the space of a decade and a half, there’s been an explosion in mobile telephone use in Nigeria. With 120 million mobile phone subscribers, Nigeria has become a major global player in telephony. The current picture contrasts sharply with the days when NITEL held a monopoly, and Nigerians had to offer bribes or queue up for years to acquire a landline. In those old days, dialing phone numbers within and without Nigeria was a galling adventure.
Mobile telephones have meant greater connectivity, but they are far from problem-free. Owing to weak government oversight, mobile telephone carriers get away with imposing relatively high tariff charges on hapless Nigerian customers. And, with frequent network disruptions, mobile phone users complain frequently of sloppy service.
Yet, the amazing reach of the movie sector and high penetration of cell phone use tell two stories of success. The first narrative highlights tremendous productivity; the other points to the remarkable size of the Nigerian market. The former suggests the presence of a rich reservoir of creative people in Nigeria, women and men who have what it takes to recognize and seize opportunities. The latter underscores the availability of a huge pool of consumers able to sustain several industries.
It’s an altogether heartening portrait. It demonstrates, above all, that it’s everyday Nigerians, not the unimaginative public officials who are on the lookout for the next heist, who hold the key to the country’s economic survival. It is high time the real producers of Nigeria’s “re-based” GDP awoke to the real potential they possess to reshape the economy and—in the process—their lives and environment.
It’s easier said than done, for there are two essential tactical steps. One, those who constitute the productive segment of Nigeria—the real producers of the country’s wealth—ought to figure out a formula to maneuver the indolent, parasitic politicians to some marginal space. Quite simply, the negative aspects of political power ought to be muted. This will entail convincing or compelling Nigeria’s rulers to abandon the habit of putting impediments in the way of enterprise. Two, Nigeria’s leading productive class should realize that they are much better off when the political environment is healthy. It behooves them, then, to champion salutary political reforms. The reforms should seek institution of a culture of credible elections; the attainment of an independent judiciary; the adoption of measures to curb corruption, and a commitment to invest massively and efficiently in infrastructure.
Imagine the kind of quantum leap to be witnessed in Nigeria’s productivity if government functionaries decently addressed certain basic challenges: electric power, roads, security, water, the rehabilitation of schools, and provision of healthcare. Nigerians will take it from there and transform their lives.
That Nigeria has survived so far—survived, despite its tattered state—owes to the sheer resilience of its people. Daily, Nigerians labor, grave odds notwithstanding, to produce the goods and services that and to reproduce themselves. Nigerians have demystified their government, only many of us don’t know it.
Uri Friedman of The Atlantic drew the correct conclusion. “The good news is that the Nigerian government now has a better system for measuring its economy. The bad news? Knowing Nigeria has a $510-billion economy doesn’t reveal a whole lot about the welfare of its citizens.”
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