Inside Africa: Can Nigeria eventually make it?

THERE are 101 small — and not so small — things that are starting to go right in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. But the big thing is not happening — persuading the electorate that after twenty years of gross mismanagement followed by the austere belt tightening and pruning of the democratic rule of President Olusegun Obasanjo, that their lives can be better.

By Jonathan Power

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Published: Mon 7 Nov 2005, 9:34 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:51 PM

Obasanjo is not popular. Only if Obasanjo can turn this negative psychological state around in the coming eighteen months of his final term will Nigeria’s forward momentum into the future be secured. Otherwise his successor will be pressured to raid the piggy bank —where Nigeria’s bountiful oil earnings are stored for a rainy day —and buy his/her way into cheap popularity by offering to cut petrol prices, subsidise food, boost civil service employment and all the other wasteful expenditures that Obasanjo has done away with. The Obasanjo administration is approaching the cusp of success. But on either side is the precipitous path to ruin, one that Obasanjo personally will never take but that a successor might well.

Only last month the IMF reported on Nigeria’s macro economic reforms in glowing terms. Its report card told of an economy now enjoying a sustained upswing with growth at 5 to 6 per cent a year. The non-oil economy, both manufacturing and agriculture, after years of decline, is now growing at a satisfactory rate. Privatisation is accelerating and with the sale over the next year of ports, airports, and Nigeria’s telecommunications and power companies the process will take another big step forward. Inflation is coming down to appropriate levels and now with the recently negotiated debt-buy back and relief scheme sizeable funds are available both for important infrastructural and social expenditures. The most serious problem is the political one of resisting Congress’ attempt to legislate too fast the spending of money.

Corruption remains the biggest single drain on the economy. But vigorous prosecution of some important figures including the head of the country’s police force shows that the tide is gradually being turned. The arrest a month ago in London on charges of money laundering of the governor of one of the important oil producing states, has been a shot across the bows of Nigeria’s 35 state governors who, with few exceptions, are also thought to be corrupt.

Investors are beginning to take Nigeria seriously. Indian and Chinese companies are looking at its defunct railroads and giant steel mill and considering taking them over. And in the last couple of years a range of companies from Microsoft to South African cell phone operators to Chinese motorbike firms have set up manufacturing plants in the country. Indeed one sign that the economic reforms are beginning to show results at the personal level is the sharp increase in motorbike ownership.

Whilst all this is applauded by observers the critics are asking why was it that the government really didn’t get the most important reforms moving until Obasanjo won his second term of office in 2003?

I put this question to Obasanjo. He replied, "In my first term I had to learn the ropes and the intrigues of party politics. I inherited a situation where the military had ruled for 15 years so I had to bring in people from many parts to give them a sense of participation. When I won re-election I knew the party sufficiently to handle it."

His most important second term appointment was a vice-president of the World Bank, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as finance minister. She together with her able deputy, also a woman, Nenadi Usman, have driven through a series of reforms that have totally revamped Nigeria’s old way of doing things. Apart from the rigorous macro economic reforms, they have introduced transparency in the oil accounts and in revenue allocations. Two years ago Ms Usman told me that she saw the oil industry as an albatross around Nigeria’s neck but now she speaks of it becoming a positive force in Nigeria’s development.

For all the success of his second term the clock is now ticking for Obasanjo. Only if the pay off from the macro reforms becomes much more apparent in every day living conditions might it be possible to so lock in the reforms that it will be difficult for a successor to undo them.

Jonathan Power is a prominent foreign affairs commentator. He can be reached at

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