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Nigeria’s “Projects”: Spending billions to become poorer

I have been working on a book since August 2020. While I have not been the most conscientious writer and a little over half of its 35,000 words still lie inside my head unwritten, this book is one that I believe will upturn decades of Nigeria’s economic orthodoxy. Under the working title “Project White Elephant,” this book seeks to not only prove that Nigeria wastes a lot of money on white elephant projects, but also that Nigeria wastes MOST of its development money on these inflated flights of fancy.

Inspired by a Twitter thread I once wrote on the subject, this book will delve into the entire process behind the decision to award contracts for these “projects” and how this process itself ensures that whatever comes out of it cannot be fit for purpose. When asked why so many of Nigeria’s famously grandiose projects fail to achieve completion, or achieve completion and then fail anyway, the answer most Nigerians would give is the obvious one – corruption. I believe that it is something even more banal and pernicious than corruption – institutionalised ignorance.

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Tinapa

Why is there a tourism resort in Cross River State?

At the dawn of the democratic era in 1999, Cross River State needed a governor. Having suffered the complete destruction of any semblance of democratic structures under Abacha’s jackboot in the 1990s like so many other states, the state had little in the way of a resident political or economic elite to turn to. Into this void came Donald Duke – by all accounts, a competent administrator with a successful career behind him. Raised in the leafy heights of Ikoyi in Lagos, Duke was about as familiar with the on-ground realities of Cross River as I was.

Nevertheless, he became governor and found himself controlling large amounts of FAAC allocations and other funds from the federal sugar daddy in Abuja. Apart from whatever bribery and corruption may or may not have existed, Duke by all accounts genuinely wanted to make an economic impact on the state and leave a legacy. It was a perfect storm of circumstances – a flood of goodwill from a repression-weary population, significant funds with which to kickstart development, and essentially a political blank slate to do it with. So what would Duke do?

More than $500 million and 14 years later, the legacy in question is visible to all – the colourful ruins of an abandoned $450 million tourist resort in Tinapa

In my book, I explain how Duke’s eventual policy direction would become emblematic of the systemic failure of post-1999 Nigeria. Instead of listening to the boring consultants who recommended investing in agricultural supply chain enhancements like grain silos, or adopting World Bank and IMF recommendations to focus on developing transport and trade infrastructure like roads and electricity IPPs, Duke chose a “bold” option. Cross River State was naturally beautiful, you see. It had lovely green rolling hills, gorgeous women, obsessively clean, friendly people, and great weather. The son of Ikoyi observed these factors, and in true paternalistic Lagos style, decided that the state’s future lay in one thing – tourism.

More than $500 million and 14 years later, the legacy in question is visible to all – the colourful ruins of an abandoned $450 million tourist resort in Tinapa and continued jibber-jabber about the alleged “untapped tourism potential” of Cross River State. This entire narrative about Cross River and its neighbour next door being “tourism hotspots” is in fact, the brainchild of politicians looking for an easy come-up instead of putting in the hard, unglamorous work of building durable roads and municipal water and sewage systems and focusing on economic comparative advantage. It was a victory of politics and PR over data and evidence.

Why did Tinapa fail?

To the uninitiated, Tinapa failed because it suffered from “corruption.” In my book, I argue that Tinapa failed in fact, because of something altogether more fundamental and completely overlooked in Nigerian political discourse – it was dead before it began. It should never have been constructed to begin with. The process that births a white elephant does not begin with the awarding of a contract, but with the ideation that leads to a wrong headed idea.

Tinapa for example, was the result of Donald Duke’s hifalutin Ikoyi sensibilities. He wanted to do something glamorous and memorable, and he thought of his ancestral state as “special” in a manner not dissimilar to how African diasporans think and speak about the continent in rose tints. Tinapa was a non-starter – it made no economic sense because it solved no economic problem. Local Nigerian tourists were never going to be able to afford to visit in numbers, and Cross River State’s transport infrastructure would not support such visits anyway. Foreign tourists do not visit Nigeria as a whole in any significant numbers. So why build it?

Why build the world’s largest steel mill in a forest in Kogi State against consultant recommendations? Why build an artificial island off the coast of Lagos allegedly to service a high-end real estate market that clearly has no space for it? Why build Africa’s largest oil refinery using expensive private sector loans at a time when the world is weaning itself off oil and this refinery will almost certainly never break even?

The answers to these questions are all the same.

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