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Africa’s new apartheid

Whenever I travel outside the continent, one of my favourite pastimes is meeting other Africans and striking up conversations with them. Ghanaians, Zimbabweans, Kenyans, Malawians, South Africans, Nigerians – if you speak English and you come from Africa, I end up talking to you like we are old friends. Lately however, the experience has started changing. The assumed camaraderie of being together in a foreign land no longer cancels out the difference in perceived home country status between both parties.

I found this out in Dubai a couple of weeks ago when I realised that practically all the conversations I had with other Africans I met consisted of me talking “at” them, and getting a quiet nod or pursed lips back. The Ugandan fellow selling SIM cards at the airport wouldn’t catch my eye. The Zimbabwean-sounding wait staff at the hotel’s restaurant wouldn’t respond to me except to say “Yes sir.” “We also have the vegan option, sir.” “What would you like sir?”

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I was tempted to ask “What’s with the “sir?” I’m being friendly here.”

I couldn’t help noticing that all the Africans I came across seemed to be doing hospitality, retail and operations jobs, despite being obviously well-spoken, possibly university-educated people. The only exception to this was an old high school friend working at GE whom I spent a delightful evening swapping war stories with. 

It was Lauren, a 70 year-old lady from Sussex – of all people – who finally dropped the penny on my head during a random conversation over breakfast one day, after she saw me yet again fail to engage the wait staff in conversation. She looked me dead in the eye with a faint smile and casually said, “You know, they might get fired for talking to you. Their visas depend on their jobs here. You’re here on holiday. They’re here to work. They’d probably prefer if you left them alone.” 

An Introduction to African Inequality

Earlier this week, I posted a thread on Twitter where I recounted my surreal experience of employing a PA who then became her family’s breadwinner in every sense of the word. Whether as a result of being an eternal optimist or simply being too shielded, it never occured to me that her experience would be anything other than an outlier. To my shock and mounting dismay, hundreds of responses made it clear that I was simply out of touch. Her story apparently was nothing more than that of a typical young Nigerian.

As I read through the responses and private messages pleading for jobs and financial help in any amount that I could render, I thought about my high school friend back in Dubai, living in a high rise residential complex, working at a multinational, living a generally fantastic life and looking utterly unflustered while doing so. Both my friend and my former PA are Nigerian women. Both of them are university graduates who work hard and have never had anything handed to them in their adult life. Neither of their stories is more valid than the other.

Yet for one of them, N85,000 was a life-changing sum, while the other wouldn’t even let me pay my own bill at the bar – “This is my contribution to journalism in Nigeria,” she joked. Clearly one of them is seeing proportionate reward for her hard work, while the other just cannot seem to win despite working just as hard, and possibly even harder. Why is that?

It was a particularly poignant thought because while on paper, Africa continues to average between 4 and 6 percent annual economic growth, the unwelcome reality is that the vast majority of the continent’s population does not in fact seem to feel the impact of these figures. 

According to the World Bank, Ghana for example is projected to expand about 6 percent this year, which in theory is fantastic economic performance. Does that figure mean anything to the Ghanaian university graduate who is just happy to have a job as a janitor at the Dubai Mall? Does it mean anything to his cousin back home who graduated three years ago and could not find a job, and is now trying to get a visa to join him in the UAE? Why is it “Africa Rising” for some, and “Africa Nosediving” for others?

Do the numbers even mean anything anymore?

Inclusive Economic Growth is Now Africa’s Civilisational Issue

The 2017 UNDP report titled ‘Income Inequality Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa’ makes the point that economic growth figures in themselves do not necessarily tell a complete story about the state of a country’s economy in this part of the world. According to the report, growth that is driven by narrow, non-labour intensive industries like petroleum extraction, is unlikely to ever impact those who need it the most. Such people, who often work in the semi-formal and informal sector are thus excluded in any meaningful way from Africa’s projected 4.1 percent growth in 2020.

Explaining this point further the report says,

“When growth occurs in sectors characterised by high asset concentration, high capital absorption and skilled-labour intensity, such as mining, finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) and the public sector, overall inequality rises. By contrast, inequality falls or remains stable if growth takes place in labour-intensive manufacturing, construction and agriculture.”

What this means is that in Nigeria and across Africa in 2020, governments that are serious about heading off a new demographic crisis must understand that growth driven primarily by fossil resource extraction, financial industry abracadabra and the everlasting real estate ponzi scheme is not useful to the vast majority of their population. The vast majority of Africa’s population is young, poor, underskilled and underemployed. What they need is growth in industries that put them to work as they are and give them an income immediately. 

To this end, ill-conceived arbitrary actions such as closure of the busy borders between Rwanda and Uganda, Nigeria and Benin and Nigeria and Cameroon, will only hurt trade and industry, thus keeping more young people out of work and worsening the already critical inequality. 

Refusing to ease the infrastructural and regulatory burdens that currently plague agriculture, manufacturing and construction, while running an ivory tower government obsessed with resource extraction rents and borrowing is the surefire way to ensure that Sub-Saharan Africa’s highly unequal economies continue falling apart while posting strong annual GDP growth figures.

To spark the growth that Africa’s young, teeming and increasingly restive youth needs, African governments must as a matter of emergency invest in transport and power infrastructure. This raises productivity and reduces the cost of living for these people by permitting them to live outside of the major urban centres and commute reliably to work. 

African governments must also immediately do away with all laws and regulations that serve no purpose other than reducing economic productivity through multiple taxation, bureaucracy and state capture. At the top of this list is Nigeria’s Land Use Act – an economic albatross that holds Nigeria’s construction industry hostage by making foreign investment risky and making the construction process itself a nightmare of red tape and corruption.

According to PwC, Nigeria has anything from $300bn to $900bn worth of real estate lying dormant as dead capital, due almost entirely to this obnoxious law. A Nigerian government that is serious about reducing inequality must immediately organise a repeal for the Land Use Act as well as the NRC Act and any other regulation that vests total control over a critical economic asset in the hands of an inefficient African state.

Of course, some will point out that people like Nonso Obikili, Ugo Obi-Chukwu and Cheta Nwanze have been writing columns and articles saying all this in slightly different words for years, and the Nigerian government seems to do the exact opposite of whatever is recommended. Why will this time be any different? Why bother? Why am I back in 2020 after a short break, once again exhorting African governments to do what they seem pathologically incapable of doing?

My answer to that is the same as it has always been – hope. Hope is all we have.

And it’s not yet illegal to hope.

 

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