As Nigeria celebrates its 61st anniversary of independence, its citizens are caught in a general anomie of despair. This is due to the general insecurity in the country, rising unemployment and high cost of living.
It is also an age of fear as many metrics of Nigeria’s socio-economic progress paint a picture of a nation in great need. Nigeria’s economy stagnated and grew at less than 1% cumulative over the past six years, well below the 2.6% population growth. It also has about 40% of the population of about 200 million people living below the poverty line.
The country is plagued by both security and political challenges. Boko Haram insurgents still operate in the northeast. In the northwest, bandits overwhelm the security forces. Deadly clashes between farmers and shepherds continue in north-central Nigeria. And separatist and irredentist agitations are reverberating in the south-east and south-west of the country.
Despite these problems, Nigeria has made significant socio-economic strides, at least since 1999, when it returned to democracy after decades of military rule. It is also a country with huge resources that do not yet need to be fully exploited. The greatest of them are the educated citizens of Nigeria. The country had an educated population of less than 5% when it gained independence. Today more than 60% of the population read and write. Enrollment in tertiary education is also increasing steadily.
The last 60 years
Looking back over the past six decades shows that the Fourth Republic, established in 1999, was Nigeria’s golden era in terms of economic and social indicators. However, it is difficult to imagine this reality to the millions of unemployed who are out of work and grappling with inflationary pressures on food and other basic livelihoods.
Nigeria’s economy has grown more than sevenfold since 1999. Much of this can be explained by the rebasing of the economy in 2014. The economy was found to be 60% larger than previous estimates.
Prior to 2014, Nigeria had used 1990 prices and the composition of the economy to determine its size. But a lot had changed since then. For example, telecommunications grew rapidly with the introduction of mobile communications. Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, has also expanded and become a more professionally organized and run sector.
During the Fourth Republic, Nigeria switched from a lower income to a lower middle income status based on the national income per capita. That comes from the ranking of the World Bank. Other countries in this category are Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Tunisia, India, Iran and Ukraine.
Nigeria’s economic troubles began in the mid-2010s. Nigeria’s economic development is closely linked to oil prices, which fell sharply between 2014 and 2016.
The World Bank has described the 70% decline over that period as one of the three largest declines since World War II and the longest since the 1986 supply collapse.
In response, the Nigerian economy, which had an average growth rate of 6.68% between 1999 and 2015, has fallen in and out of negative numbers since 2016. During this period it fell into recession twice. The cumulative growth since 2016 has averaged less than 1%.
Nigeria has taken steps to reduce its dependence on oil. These measures include revitalizing the agricultural sector and reducing the government’s reliance on oil revenues through tax revenues from other sources. These still have to pay off. And the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the economic downturn, plunging more into unemployment and poverty.
Nigeria’s government has invested in agriculture and formulated economic programs for other sectors, progress being hampered by inflationary pressures, low oil prices and a weak currency. The government’s inability to halt security crises in several states has also impacted agricultural productivity. Other factors include the government’s inability to formulate a clear economic agenda for the country. In addition, monetary and fiscal policies, which favor two exchange rates, and restrictions on foreign trade from border closings have limited recovery and growth.
A national call to action
Nigeria requires national leadership with the understanding and ability to set the tone and direction for national growth and development. This must involve all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or geopolitical affiliation, in a grand vision of collective dynamic growth.
A lack of such political leadership denies the country the possibility of meaningful growth and critical citizenship.
Nigeria remains a country with great potential. Your source of opportunity lies in the growing population of educated citizens. The educated population is at this moment in the country’s history on the threshold or at the point of national acceleration. One example is the country’s burgeoning technology ecosystem, which is mostly driven by young people. It is at a point consistent with that of the Asian Tigers prior to their rapid transformation into a developed world and high income status.
All the basics point to a country taking a big leap forward, and the role of an educated and well-educated population is critical to this process.
Despite restrictions in the education sector, Nigeria has more than 190 universities, the largest university and higher education sector in Africa. The country produces millions of graduates annually, creating the best educated workforce on the continent.
This growth is both a challenge and an opportunity. It will be a challenge and a tremendous economic burden if productive opportunities for their engagement are not found. These educated millions who are in employment can be used to drive Nigeria’s economic growth and thus promote social stability.
Nigeria’s challenge is not that its political leadership was corrupt, but that it had limited opportunities to govern the country effectively. Nigeria needs a modern political administration in which the state is not concerned with maintaining the status quo and the mere assignment of existing economic values for project and self-glorification.
The state should be realigned and consciously geared towards a more expansive interpretation, with a focus on rapid economic growth and the provision of public goods that enable citizens to become meaningful actors in the overall positive transformation of their society.
Such purposeful action by the national leadership, which must clearly be reformist, is required to change the course of weak economic growth. It is also necessary to encourage sustainable productivity gains in the country’s economy in order to achieve growth averaging 6-10% annually. Such growth will allow Nigeria to triple and possibly quadruple its economy within the next 10-15 years, in a repetition of the first 20 years of the Fourth Republic.
A growing economy is inevitably the best way to meet many of the social and economic challenges Nigeria now faces in its seventh decade of independence.
Terhemba Wuam, Professor of Economic History, Kaduna State University