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Sam Nda-Isaiah: Is Nigeria a poor country of rich men or a rich country of poor men?

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Sam Nda-Isaiah: Is Nigeria a poor country of rich men or a rich country of poor men?

By Sam Nda-Isaiah

About six years ago, a senior political staff of the British High Commission in Nigeria shared a joke he had had with some of his colleagues in London with me. He was in the company of his colleagues from other parts of the world in the UK and they were joking among themselves. One of them boasted that he was serving in the largest country on earth; another bragged that he was serving in the largest economy in Europe. My friend then proudly proclaimed to his friends that he was serving in Africa’s biggest economy, meaning Nigeria. When he told me this, I responded straightaway that he was mistaken, as South Africa was officially Africa’s biggest economy by real GDP. But my friend countered me immediately and said that he did not believe the official figures. According to him, the Lagos economy alone was bigger than that of Kenya, East Africa’s biggest economy, and that from what he had seen in Nigeria and South Africa, he did not believe that South Africa’s economy was bigger than Nigeria’s. I kept quiet. Even if he was wrong, I wanted to enjoy my own 15 minutes of fame.

So when news came that Nigeria would be rebasing its GDP in order to upgrade the country’s GDP figures, something it had not done in 24 years, I waited to see the new figures with keen interest. When the figures came out yesterday, putting our GDP at $509.9 billion as against South Africa’s $353 billion, I was not surprised. What only came out is that we had surpassed South Africa a long time ago and we did not even know it. That also shows the level of unseriousness of those who govern the nation. And, if as we now know, Lagos alone contributes a quarter to Nigeria’s GDP. The Lagos economy alone is larger than the economies of Kenya, Libya, Ghana and Tunisia.

It’s not difficult to appreciate why this should be so. In the 24 years since the last GDP value was estimated, there has been spectacular growth in a number of sectors including the telecoms sector. Twenty-four years ago, there were only about 300,000 phone lines owned solely by Nitel. Today, there are about 120 million phone lines owned by a slew of operators. The flour milling capacity alone ranks among the largest in the world and all the products are sold and consumed within Nigeria.

Twenty-four years ago, there was no Nollywood, Nigeria’s booming film industry considered to be the world’s third largest producer of films in the world after the United States’ Hollywood and India’s Bollywood. If we add the burgeoning Kannywood and others, then, the ratings may actually be different.

Twenty-four years ago, Aliko Dangote had not become a sovereign unto himself; today, he is about to displace Lafarge as the biggest cement producer in Africa – a market that currently enjoys a 20 per cent growth rate and will continue to grow at this rate for the next 20 years. And if Aliko Dangote carries out his threat of refining Nigeria’s crude and selling to Nigeria’s 174 million people-strong domestic market, then it will only be a matter of time for him to get to become the richest man in the world, considering our growth rate.

Twenty-four years ago, crude oil was selling less than $30 per barrel most of the time; today it sells for over $100 per barrel and it has been so for much of the past 14 years. Twenty-four years ago, we didn’t have the size of the banks we have today and the size of financial services on offer. So a lot has happened and our GDP should have been rebased in 2000 and another rebasing done in 2010 as it is customary to do every 10 years. In fact, many nations do it every three years. It should be made clear that this geometric growth happened long before Jonathan came to power.

With this rebasing, every other figure will also change, and that should not be good news for Jonathan. Our economic growth rate under Jonathan, which we were told was at about 7 per cent, will now be revised down and would probably be in the region of 3.5 per cent or less, and this will make more sense. And the nation’s gini coefficient which is a measure of income distribution within a country will also deteriorate; this should scientifically explain the World Bank’s report on the extensive poverty rate in Nigeria.

But all this does nothing to the 70 per cent of Nigerians who are desperately poor. Nigeria remains a country of paradoxes. It’s not just Africa’s largest oil producer which also imports refined oil products, it is also Africa’s largest economy with the highest incidence of poverty. Just as the country was busy trying to rebase its GDP, news came from the World Bank that Nigeria is one of the countries with the highest number of desperately poor people in the world. While Nigeria has the highest number of private jet owners on the African continent – at the last count they were more than 200 – the same Nigeria has the largest number of desperately poor people in Africa and one of the largest in the world. Of the 174 million people in Nigeria, 122 million people live in desperate poverty, using the acceptable extreme poverty line of $1.25 a day.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister, quickly responded to the World Bank’s report by saying that it was a matter of Nigeria’s population especially as China and India, the world’s most populated countries, were also on the World Bank’s list. Okonjo-Iweala obviously found sop in the fact that China and India were on the list. She was extremely happy about that. But, like almost everything about the Jonathan government, she was telling only half the truth.

Yes, large population must have contributed to Nigeria being included by the World Bank on that infamous list; what Okonjo-Iweala did not say is that while China has steadily lifted nearly 700 million people out of poverty in the last 20 years, Nigeria has added 105 million new desperately poor people during the corresponding period. And while India has lifted 138 million people out of poverty in the last seven years alone, Nigeria has added nearly 50 million people to the list of extremely poor people during the corresponding period, most of them coming with the Jonathan presidency.

And this should surprise no one: Poverty in a nation has a linear relationship with the rate of looting that leaders afflict on their countries. According to the official figures, there are more than 122 million desperately poor people in Nigeria at the moment. In 1981, the figure was 17.1 million poor people and, in 2004, it was 68.7 million. So is Nigeria a rich country of poor men or a poor country of rich men? We can argue this forever. But Nigeria will continue to defy logic until the right people take over the helm. And one thing is sure: if with all the looting we currently see, where $20 billion can just get missing without a trace, Nigeria is still standing and growing, then, with proper people in charge, Nigeria will start competing with the biggest and the best in the world.

And if Jonathan’s handlers intend to portray the new GDP figures as an achievement for their principal, they must be more illiterate than many of us had thought!

EARSHOT

Why I Am Doing This…

Last week, I stepped down (some people say I am “stepping aside”) as the chairman of LEADERSHIP Group. I did so because I had declared my intention to contest for the presidency of the country on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC). I did not need to resign and certainly no law required me to do so, as LEADERSHIP is a privately-owned company. But I decided to do so of my own volition because I thought that would be the proper thing to do.

I can also confidently step aside because I know there are competent hands to watch over the newspaper group and the business. I have no doubt that the company will continue to grow without me. I have nurtured it to that level.

While it is not yet time for campaign, and I am certainly not doing that at the moment, it will suffice to say that I am entering the race for the presidency because I believe that Nigeria needs a new direction. I completely believe that Nigeria cannot survive another term of Jonathan and all men of goodwill must join the fray one way or the other for the rescue mission that our nation direly needs. Nigeria currently needs a knowledge-based, brand new leadership that will not only pull the country back from the precipice but also unite the nation’s diverse and disparate groupings and interests. Our size, disparity and diversity should be a huge advantage and not a weakness or even a threat as the current leaders are trying to make it. Nigeria needs a leadership that knows that the first responsibility of the president is the security of the people and the first priority of a nation should be the education of its youths. Nigeria urgently needs a leader that will quickly engage the nearly 50 million unemployed people and tackle the current 80 per cent graduate unemployment by modifying our education system into one that produces graduates who would be employers of labour instead of seekers of good jobs. Most importantly, I am joining the race for the presidency because I believe, and I know, that only big ideas and big dreams change a nation. And here, I am talking of the kind of big ideas that have changed the course of history of some of the greatest nations of the world – whether it is  Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana land purchase, which accounts for as many as 15 states in today’s United Staes; J.F. Kennedy’s moon-landing programme; Deng Xiaoping’s China’s economic transformation programme; Lee Kuan Yew’s leap-frogging of Singapore from Third to First World; or Mandela’s lessons in tolerance and forgiveness. By the time we complete our tenure, Nigeria would not be the same again.

If I did not think this is possible, I would not be wasting my time, and leaving a job which I was enjoying thoroughly.

– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Sam Nda-Isaiah/Leadership. Follow this writer on Twitter: @sam4nigeria

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