By Eric Teniola
I want to share the conclusion of a 317 page book titled, Making Africa Work. The book was authored by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and three others. These are: Mr. Dickie Davies, a retired Major General in the British Army; Mr. Greg Mills, who is an adviser to several African presidents; and Mr. Jeffrey Herbst, president and CEO of the Newseum Institute, Washington DC and also the president of Colgate University from 2010 to 2015.
In their conclusion, they wrote “Kashim Shettima is the governor of Borno State, the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency. Elected in 2011, he does not hide his obvious frustration or mince his words about the challenges faced by society there: Underneath Boko Haram is the cause—extreme poverty. All of this born out of economic deprivation.
“The poverty has been aggravated by Nigeria’s high rate of population growth. From an official population of 185 million today, by 2020, Shettima notes, “Nigeria will be at 206 million people; by 2030, 262 million; and, by 2050, 398, making it the third most populous country in the world.” By then, he says, “70 per cent of Nigerians will live in northern Nigeria”, with its “cocktail of desertification, youth unemployment and low input.” There is no part, he says, “of the north immune from this madness.”
“The road north to Jaji from the capital, Abuja, offers plenty of evidence of the scale of the challenge. Stores line the highway, selling bottles of palm oil, guinea-fowl eggs, corn, and soil-encrusted yams. In one of the so-called ‘tanker towns’, more than a hundred fuel tankers have pulled over for the drivers to take refreshments ‘of various sorts’, explains our guide. Small business operate ceaselessly in the heat and amid the dust, cooking and selling food, making furniture, changing and patching tyres, and repairing cars, trucks and motorbikes.
“The chaotic roadside scenes are a reminder of the strength of the human spirit, the seemingly irrepressible ingenuity of Nigerians and the costs of weak governance.
“An agricultural economist by training, Shettima rattles off statistics illustrating Nigeria’s plight: ‘While we import potatoes from South Africa, tomato paste from China and cabbages from the United States, which are repackaged in Dubai, 70 per cent of our farmers are in the drudgery of subsistence agriculture. Whereas our cows produce a litre of milk per day, Europe can do 40 times this amount. While entrepreneurial capitalism is embedded in the very psyche of Nigerians,’ he laments, ‘we lack the technical skills and organisation.’
“As a result, despite its rich soils and plentiful rainfall, Nigeria is a net food importer. Even though agriculture employs two-thirds of the labour force, the UN’s FAO calculates that over the past 20 years, value-added per capita in agriculture has risen by less than 1 per cent annually. The FAO estimates that Nigeria has forfeited $10 billion in annual export opportunities from groundnut and palm oil, cocoa and cotton alone. Nigeria consumes 5 million tonnes of rice a year, at least 3 million of which are imported. Though it is the largest producer of cassava in the world, the average yield is estimated at under 14 tonnes per hectare; the potential yield is up to 40 tonnes. Equally, productivity of other cereals remain low, at around 1.2 tonnes per hectare compared with, for example, South African farms, which average three times this yield.
“The reasons for the poor agricultural performance are high interest rates and the resultant lack of investment, the lack of large-scale commercial plantations, scant use of fertiliser, and an absence of extension services. Underlying this poor performances have been the dominance of crude oil as a source of national revenue and the lack of will to diversify as long as the price was high.
“Nigeria and the many challenges it is facing should serve as a warning to other African states and their leaders. Oil, a geological endowment that few countries can match, did not insulate Nigeria from the extraordinary challenges its government now faces. Indeed, oil may have made everything worse. Unless reform is undertaken now to produce sustainable economies that create jobs, Africa’s fast-growing population, desperate for employment, will soon overwhelm state institutions in many countries. In fact, Africa has seen a 2.5 times increase in the number of public protests since 2000. And, not surprisingly, the protestors’ top three demands are salary increase, better working conditions and calls for the dissolution of government and for the head of state to step down. Without progress, these sorts of protests are likely to increase in number, threatening the stability of the continent and the tenure of its government and leaders.
“Admittedly, Nigeria has many social fault lines and economic challenges, but other countries have faced similar conditions and difficulties, and done well. Indonesia, for one, shows how things might be different, despite the fact that country experienced a rapid post-independence increase in population, a reliance on natural resources (particularly oil) for export income, a challenging and discontiguous geography and topography, religious and ethnic schisms, and weak infrastructure. The difference between the two population giants of sub-Saharan Africa and South East Africa is, in blunt terms, leadership. Indonesia experienced much improved economic growth following Suharto’s forced takeover in the mid-1960s from the independence icon, Sukarno. Despite the misty-eyed retro mythology surrounding Sukarno, his rule was neither democratic, nor did it deliver development. Instead, as corruption and inefficiency throttled growth, he relied on a combination of personal charisma, anti-Western gesturing and grand scale architecture to get by. By the time he left government under house arrest, inflation was at 1000 per cent. For all his corruption, nepotism, and the repressive nature of his dictatorship, Suharto brought economic order and growth in three decades of his rule. Not for nothing is he known as Bapak Penbangunan (‘Father of Development’) to the serial polygamist Sukarno’s Bung (‘Buddy’).
“Suharto’s plan focused on improving agro-yields, and gradually liberalizing and internationalizing the economy to secure investment in export-oriented manufacturing industries. Indonesia produced its first rice surplus in 1983 as a result of improved yields and per capita output. By the late 1980s, Indonesia had become not only an agricultural exporter, but also an exporter of textiles, footwear, clothing and consumer goods. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Indonesia per capita income was less than Nigeria’s. By the mid-1980s, however, with Nigeria beset by political instability and mismanagement, Indonesia had started to surge ahead. While things have evened out since the oil price rise of the 2010s and as governance has improved in Nigeria, Indonesia are today still on average richer than Nigerians. However, inequality in Indonesia is much lower comparatively.”
Eric Teniola, a former director in the Presidency, Writes from Lagos.