To transform Africa’s economies, African companies matter too

I recently wrote this piece for The Conversation.

A consistent feature of global analyses of Africa’s economic prospects is their fickleness. In the years since the global financial crisis in 2008, forecasts about Africa have swerved from deep pessimism to heady optimism, and back to a bearish outlook of slow growth and fragility.

The vacillation in perceptions of African economies closely mirrors both the boom and bust cycle of global commodity prices, and the sentiments of Western and Chinese investors. But as global attention shifts yet again to the urgency of diversifying Africa’s economies from unprocessed commodities, the role of the domestic African private sector remains poorly understood by outsiders, especially academics.

The media has fared slightly better in spotlighting the exploits of tycoons such as Sudanese telecoms giant Mo Ibrahim, Nigerian cement magnate Aliko Dangote, Zimbabwean telecoms entrepreneur Strive Masiyiwa and others. But although African business owners have been powerful forces in African economies since the colonial period, they are often ignored in research and analysis….Read More »

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Academic Paper: The Successes and Failures of Economic Reform in Nigeria’s Post-Military Political Settlement

Photo credit: personal collection

There are two stark images of Africa today. One of an ‘Africa rising’, surfing the wave of a digital revolution to drive a middle class consumption of innovative mobile technology and digital financial services. The other, of a more familiar Africa, whose oil and mineral resource economies remain highly vulnerable to the volatile swings of global commodity prices. The two Africas may seem like worlds apart but they are actually two sides of an ongoing economic transition on the continent, and are outcomes of the same political processes, as I argue in a new paper from my doctoral research.Read More »

New Industrial Policy in Africa: Overcoming the Extractives Trap

Moderating the event’s first panel. Photo credit: FES Madagascar

Happy New Year!

On 3-4 November 2015, I was at a conference organised by the Friederich Ebert Stiftung (FES) foundation on ‘New Industrial Policy in Africa: Overcoming the Extractives Trap’ in Atananarivo, Madagascar .

The conference was organised to discuss attempts by African countries, especially resource producers and exporters to cope with the ongoing collapse in global commodity prices. This is within the global context of a renewed interest in industrialisation with the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (see my post on it here), the role of governments in enabling private sector activity and in directing public investments towards stimulating industry. The conference was a contribution to ongoing debates on what effective industrial policies could look like, whether African countries should focus on their comparative or competitive advantage, how to learn from previous failures on the mis-allocation of resources, country experiences of Rwanda, Ethiopia, South Africa, Namibia and Nigeria etc.

Read More »

Nigeria’s Newly Appointed Officials Signal Shift in Economic Policy

Credit: Olisa TV

This is a piece I recently wrote for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog on how Nigeria’s new government maybe shifting towards the mineral sector, and how this could address regional disparities in growth.

Although he was elected in March of this year, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari did not name his Cabinet ministers until 5 p.m. on Sept. 30 — the day of his self-imposed deadline. The most striking thing about Buhari’s Cabinet appointments is that they demonstrate a shift toward economic diversification away from oil. This has major implications for how neglected sectors like mining may be given a boost, but also how Africa’s largest economy will be run over the next few years.Read More »

The Under-Belly of Africa’s Booming Business Environment

Africa’s mobile phone revolution is one of the main drivers of the bullish ‘Africa Rising’ narrative. Underpinning this optimism in Nigeria, is the liberalisation of the country’s telecommunications sector, regarded as one of the success stories of economic reform. With over 148 million connected mobile lines, and 92 million internet subscribers, it is not hard to see why.

Amidst the praises for this emergent sector, precious little is known about the actual (and messy) back story behind the telecoms liberalisation in the early 2000s.

For that reason, British-Zimbabwean telecoms tycoon, Strive Masiyiwa’s recent account of his experience during these early days of reform provides a rare glimpse into the challenges and opportunities of operating in a place like Nigeria. The narrative posted on his blog and Facebook page, went viral several weeks ago.Read More »

Buhari should Phase-Out, Not Remove Petroleum Subsidy

Democratic governments are likely to face two interrelated problems in implementing difficult economic reforms. First, is the unpopularity of these measures among citizens who are likely to shoulder the most burden. Second, is the difficulty in employing a practical approach to implementation. Reforming Nigeria’s money-guzzling fuel subsidy regime, now an urgent matter in the context of dwindling government revenues since 2014, is both unpopular and the practicalities of its reformation are yet to be fleshed out.

Fuel subsidies are considered inefficient in standard economistic thinking, as a…Read More »

Understanding Nigeria’s Historic Elections and Why They’re So Contentious

Photo credit: Washington Post

It is common to hear policy makers, development experts and pundits talk about the need to “build strong institutions” in Africa as the solution to governance challenges without quite understanding what processes building or modifying these “institutions” entail. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their 2012 tour de force, Why Nations Fail, provide a compelling explanation of how extractive or inclusive institutions emerge and determine societies’ political stability and economic prosperity. Their retrospective analysis shows how we are often unaware of this institutional change as it occurs. In Nigeria, the cloud of uncertainty around its forthcoming elections on 28 March is indicative of a process whose outcome will fundamentally alter its political system with implications for the rest of the African continent.Read More »

Africa’s Oil Shock

This is an opinion piece I recently wrote for Aljazeera English, analysing how African countries are responding to falling global crude oil prices. I reproduce it below:

The plummeting of global crude prices is generating ripple effects worldwide. While oil exporters are reeling from plunging revenues, oil importers are bracing for cheaper oil, and the potential economic stimulus. Global economic relations may also witness profound shifts as the United States overtakes Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer.Read More »

Thugs Disrupt Peaceful #BringBackOurGirls Protest

It has been over a month since the abduction of over 200 school girls from a secondary school in Chibok Borno state in Northern Nigeria. Since that time, protests have erupted in several cities across Nigeria, and around the world under the banner of #BringBackOurGirls. Influential politicians, global figures and celebrities have lent their support The protests started from Abuja, and have been ongoing.

I have attended several of the sit-outs in Abuja. Yet, today, things took a completely different turn. Scores of women wearing red t-shirts emblazoned with #ReleaseOurGirls and thugs disrupted the usually peaceful sit-out in Abuja. Several local Nigerian media had previously reported that the #ReleaseOurGirls protesters were meant to counter the narrative of #BringBackOurGirls which had put the government under national and international scrutiny.

From around 5pm, things started happened at a dizzying pace. All I could remember was that several angry young men, some of them in red t-shirts began yelling and hurling insults. Suddenly, they were confiscating cameras and mobile phones, pushing and shoving people, grabbing and breaking plastic chairs all at once. It was frightening.

Surprisingly, the over 50 policemen who were there to contain any disturbance stood by idly and did nothing as the hired goons went on a rampage. We were all told to huddle close together, not cave in, and then we broke into solidarity songs until the thugs left us alone. Eventually some of the police men reluctantly took away away one or two of the thugs.

Everything happened really fast, and I barely managed to capture this short video of the disruption:

Some photos I took as well:

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So, who ‘sponsored’ these guys?

Maybe the answer lies in this picture of the vehicles and equipment used by the #ReleaseOurGirls hirelings:

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Reflections on the ‘Historic’ and Disturbing Letter by Obasanjo

President Goodluck Jonathan and former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Photo credit: naija247news.com

Last night, I was distracted from concluding my tribute to Mandela which I started writing a few days ago. This distraction was the lengthy 18-page open letter (PDF) written by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to President Goodluck Jonathan. I took my time to read the letter described as ‘historic’ by Premium Times (which broke the story) in detail. For obvious reasons, this document and its contents have gone viral within the Nigerian online and mainstream media, public discourse and even the international media.

What frightens me deeply about the contents is not the allegations made, but that General Obasanjo (the President’s mentor) made these grave accusations. Disturbingly, the allegations only confirm many rumours that have been going round (most of which I hitherto refused to believe in) such as:

  1. Clannishness and ethnic factionalism in government on the part of the President in favoring his Ijaw kinsmen principally, and his region to the exclusion of other Nigerians;
  2. Deliberate polarisation of Nigerians across a North-South and Muslim-Christian divide to such a level not seen since the Civil War, to further narrow political ambitions;
  3. The President’s tacit support to some of his aggressive kinsmen and known militants who threaten others for disagreeing with him;
  4. Brazen corruption and impunity in government on a scale unrivaled in Nigeria’s post-independence history (the $50 billion unremitted by the NNPC surpasses the $12bn windfall earnings which disappeared under General Babangida. This is just one of numerous cases) — crude oil theft and systematic plunder of the nation’s wealth by powerful people;
  5. Indirect fueling of the Boko Haram insurgency by refusing to take concrete and feasible steps to address it;
  6. Extreme intolerance by the government for any form of dissent by opposition politicians or civil society;
  7. The existence of a clandestine “killer squad of snipers” and a political watch list containing over 1,000 names;

…and many other such allegations.

Where are we heading to in this country!?

Just on Monday this week, we found out about the Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi’s letter alleging that $50 billion (N8 trillion) went missing under NNPC’s watch between 2012 and 2013. Then on Tuesday, the Speaker of the House of Representatives accused the President of encouraging grand corruption. Then on Wednesday, this scathing letter from Obasanjo was published.

All this is barely two months after the corruption scandal involving the President’s close ally, the Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah. Nothing yet has been done about this.

This systematic plunder of our country’s resources and values is perpetuated against the backdrop of monumental crude oil theft in the Niger-Delta and other numerous scandals.

Is this a country we can thump our chests about? What example are we setting for the rest of Africa? Is this the leadership that will create a strong and united country? What future (or lack of) are we building for our offspring?

President Goodluck Jonathan and former President Olusegun Obasanjo at a campaign rally. Photo credit: Y!Naija

True, General Obasanjo is not at all blameless in all this and he is one person whose intentions are always, always, ALWAYS suspect. We vividly recall how his ambition to elongate his tenure beyond the constitutionally mandated two-terms threatened to plunge the country into chaos between 2005 and 2007. Perhaps, as the late Whitney Houston once sung, Jonathan “learnt from the best”.

Yet, given Obasanjo’s close relationship (as a mentor) with President Jonathan, it would be extremely naive and foolish to dismiss these allegations in their entirety.

Say what you want about Obasanjo, but at the very least, his administration established a relatively effective EFCC to fight corruption, established an effective NAFDAC, reformed the Federal Inland Revenue Service, the Customs service and many other institutions. Where are all these institutions today? Where is the EFCC today? How many parallel, overlapping, redundant and toothless committees have been set up to do the work that the EFCC has been obstructed from doing?

I ask this question, where are we heading to?

To the Nigerians reading this, put aside your ethnic, religious and regional allegiances briefly and please ask yourself sincerely: ‘Is this the Nigeria I want, is this a country I am proud of’?

The late Madiba, Nelson Mandela expressed his anger at the behaviour of Nigerian leaders. This is a prime epitome of the leadership Mandela was referring to.

One interesting thing to note is that this is a toned down version of the letter. The original version, according to Thisday newspaper was so harsh that former Head of State General Ibrahim Babangida advised Obasanjo to revise it.

Nigeria Marks 53 Years of Independence

Photo credit: someone creative somewhere…

Today, Nigeria celebrates 53 years of independence from Britain. The jury is out on whether “celebrate” is the appropriate term to use in this context. I am reluctant to tread the well-worn pessimistic path of reflecting on how much the country’s potential is continuously squandered.

Yet celebrations are the last thing in mind given the needless loss of lives of Nigerians in their prime. Just last weekend, over 50 students were murdered in Yobe, in the North-East. The week before, a massacre by the Boko Haram insurgents in Benisheikh, Borno claimed over 140 lives. The South-East is fast becoming a den of kidnappers. Trigger-happy policemen and soldiers routinely engage in extrajudicial murder of innocent civilians. An incident of the Kenyan-Westgate-attack proportion occurs monthly in the “giant of Africa”.

Its not all grim and gory news though. As an epitome of the enclave nature of modernisation in the country, the tallest hotel in West Africa was recently unveiled in Lagos. Nigerian banks are spreading their shiny, glass and steel tentacles across Sub-Saharan Africa. The two local movie industries, Nollywood and Kannywood are immensely popular all over Africa and beyond. Nigerian shoppers and their petro-dollars, -pounds and -dirhams rival their Chinese, Russian and Indian counterparts in New York, London and Dubai. Nigerian weddings are delightfully flamboyant and colourful events — where flat-screen TVs, microwave ovens, refrigerators and smartphones are routinely given out as wedding favours to guests. Aliko Dangote, the richest black man is Nigerian. The country has Nobel Laureates, celebrated academics, influential policy makers and so on.

Nigerians are fiercely unabashed about how they worship God or as Elnathan John would say, the “Nigerian god”. There’s a church/or mosque in every street corner. Conversations are frequently interspersed with “iA (inshaa Allah)” or “IJN (In Jesus’ Name). Don’t ask what the causal effect of this excessive display of religiosity on economic development or social values is.

Making sense of these contradictions can be quite a task.

This is Nigeria at 53: a boisterous, bumbling, bundle of complexity. Dynamic. Moving. Where… backward, forward, somewhere, nowhere, everywhere… limbo?

Happy Independence Day!