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Time to end the “Nigeria is rich” myth

economy
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Nigeria has a smaller national budget than Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and South Africa. All these countries have fewer citizens, yet significantly more money to spend on them. While Nigeria’s 2019 budget amounts to $29 billion, South Africa, with a population almost 4 times smaller, will spend $130 billion. Egypt has a $90 billion budget with 100 million people. Elsewhere, countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam have larger budgets than Nigeria. No one considers these nations “rich”. Yet, among Nigerians, there persists a stubborn myth that Nigeria is a wealthy country. Who planted this idea and why does it survive?

It started with Nigeria’s 1950s pro-independence leaders who needed to mobilize popular opinion against colonialism to push the British out. So, they regularly emphasized Nigeria possessed abundant economic resources being carted away by the British. “Help us drive them out and we will use these vast resources to transform your lives”, was their essential message.

Many Nigerians believed these often exaggerated claims of abundant wealth awaiting distribution and duly mobilized for independence. By 1960, then Governor-General Nnamdi Azikiwe was constructing national pride on the idea that thanks to her resources and population size, Nigeria was already an “African power.” And this was before crude-oil exports really took off in the mid-1960s. By the 1970s, General Yakubu Gowon was telling Nigerians their country’s problem was not money, but “how to spend it”.

Whatever Gowon’s intentions, his words were interpreted by many Nigerians to mean theirs was a rich country, period. Over 20 years later, during my secondary school days, we would often recall Gowon’s famous statement. Anytime someone brought it up, we would all laugh with some delight. It made us feel like part of an exclusive members-only club; the club of rich nations. Sorry, no poor countries allowed.

It also gave us a sense of hope and relief because it meant that all the problems we observed around us – no water, no light, new slums everyday – these were all easily solvable. Nigeria had the money to make all these disappear fast. The minute an honest government took over, it would be farewell problems, hello prosperity. There is great comfort in believing solutions to your problems are within arm’s reach. That all it takes is for X to happen. That’s why demagogues and charlatans will always have followers.

The first time someone challenged my belief I was from a rich country I became agitated. It was a girlfriend of mine who wasn’t Nigerian, one of those annoying types who know things they have no business knowing. I mentioned Nigeria was rich. “No, it isn’t. I checked. It has a smaller economy than some countries with just 5-10 million people like Sweden or Norway and a lower GDP per capita than the likes of Albania, Guatemala or Mongolia which are all considered poor countries,” she retorted. I struggled to contain my anger. What kind of rubbish was this girl telling me? That my entire national self-concept was wrong? Impossible!

I think many Nigerians are still psychologically reluctant to accept Nigeria’s true position in the global pecking order today. Our sense of national self is largely built around the notion that we are a country very rich in natural and human resources, just one good government away from greatness. Some optic illusions further render this belief hard to shake.

In every state, there are a few dozen people (usually involved in politics) who possess such visibly stupendous wealth, we can be forgiven for assuming there is a lot more where that came from. Thing is, there isn’t. If you shared Nigeria’s 8.83 trillion naira national budget equally among Nigerians, each citizen would receive a paltry 45,000 naira or so; hardly enough to keep you in Panadol for the year.

Of course, states have budgets too, but even Lagos, by far Nigeria’s richest city, has a modest 852 billion naira ($2.4 billion) to spend on 15 to 20 million residents this year. For comparison, Johannesburg has double that budget for fewer than 5 million people. And it still struggles to provide basic social services. What we have in Nigeria is a few hundred people looting and squandering such a disproportionate amount of Nigeria’s modest resources that an illusion of plenty is sustained among the populace.

Another factor fuelling this “there is money in Nigeria” belief is that many people pretend to have more of it than they actually do. My friend who runs a crèche in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Lagos says she has lost count of the number of parents who drive the most expensive Range Rovers yet struggle to pay their children’s nursery fees on time. Of course, aspirational Nigerians don’t live above their means just because, they do so in response to societal pressure for them to prove they are “somebodies”; worth talking business to, hanging out with and treating respectfully. Raise your hand if you have ever pretended to have more money than you really do so as to be treated respectfully somewhere in Nigeria (my hand is raised high).

But the end result is that when you combine the authentic and visible wealth of a few hundred Nigerians living off the state with the lifestyles of all those trying hard to appear rich, the rest of society can be forgiven for believing there must be a lot of money in Nigeria.

This is bad because it encourages many intelligent people to focus not on thinking of how to create wealth, but on how to corner their own “share” of this fabulous national cake. Either by getting into government or by winning a government contract and then behaving as though the pockets of the state are bottomless.

Another consequence of this illusion is that it diminishes the sense of urgency required to tackle the existential threats Nigeria faces, ranging from mass poverty and unemployment to uncontrolled population growth and growing insecurity. At the back of many minds seems to be the implicit assumption one needn’t worry too much. Things will sort themselves out. There is money in Nigeria.

But Nigeria is not rich. And with its rapidly-expanding population leading to ever scarcer resources, only a furious national focus on wealth-creation can save the country. The Nigerian state, currently viewed by many as a fat cash-cow, is actually a very skinny cow in desperate need of some serious grass in order to stay alive. Else, one day, it will simply stop breathing.

 

Remi Adekoya

 

18 Comments
  1. Adebayo says

    Amazing thought by Dr. as usual. Thanks for this insight

  2. Busola says

    Thank you. This is an eye opener.

  3. Charles says

    Thank you doctor. Our yansh don open.

  4. Bolanle says

    Lol this article is an almost word-for-word reproduction of David Hundeyin’s piece some weeks back: https://businessday.ng/opinion/article/corruption-is-a-meaningless-word/

    Even used his per-capita breakdown of Nigeria’s budget and the Yakubu Gowon quote. No wonder he was crying on twitter. Dr, I hope you know this is plagiarism?

  5. Abby Michael says

    Insightful! What are the solutions? How do we attend to this? And Bolanle, I will have a read of that too. Needless to say, we need to get the information out there.

  6. Muyiwa Adesanya says

    You are wrong sir..both articles brilliantly writing have different focus, every one knows the famous Gowon quote,you can’t equate this as plagiarism.Please!!!!
    Great the article again and let the messages sink deep

  7. Stanley says

    Beautiful piece. We are not rich materially and with our worsening educational system we are getting poorer mentally. How do you convince these young people Nigeria is poor when they don’t even read.

  8. Naomi says

    It’s different topics, concepts and style of writing, there was no word for word copying anywhere, it sounds similar but it’s not plagiarism.

  9. Oyeols says

    Interesting article, but I had come to the same conclusion many years ago. Nigeria is actually a rather poor country. What is worse is that we are committing the biggest crime by squandering the little we have on fuel subsidies. In my mind the ONLY thing we should be subsidizing -even though we might struggle to afford it is education.

    It worries me that Nigeria’s population which is currently estimated to be circa 200m will hit 300m in like 30-40 years. yet Nigeria has been producing the same 2mln barrels of oil since the 70’s! Where will the money to pay for petrol subsidies for another potential 30mln cars in 20 years come from? It means even more will go to subsidies and less to development.

    And if we are unable to effectively educate these new Nigerians over the next 20 or so years, what will become of them? An army of kidnappers, ritualists, fraudsters, jihadists, boko haramers waiting to happen! If we are not careful Nigeria will become like Somalia in the next 30 years.

    Heaven help us if the oil runs out before then!!

    Nigeria can be remedied, but only with a well articulated vision, careful planning and policy and brutally effective implementation. This will be painful in the short term, but beneficial in the long term. It is for this short term pain that successive governments, rather than make the difficult decisions continue to play to the gallery and kick the bucket down the road.

    Unfortunately I don’t see how this remedy will happen with the present crop of politicians that we have. That is why so many well educated people who are able to reason logically and seeing the handwriting on the wall are heading to Canada in droves.

    At this rate, I should be considering joining them!

  10. davidthegear says

    In my opinion, I see no plagiarism in this article relative to David’s article weeks back. Dr. Remi’s angle stabilizes on the reasoning that Nigeria is not a rich country and she should henceforth not deceive herself.
    Gowon’s statement about Nigeria’s wealth and how to manage it is already a famous quote. So Dr. Remi’s reference to that quote cannot be said to be plagiarism.
    Furthermore, David’s article does not do justice to the per-capita breakdown of Nigeria’s budget as Dr. Remi’s article has done. The latter has provided us with reference to other so called ”not rich” countries and he has done this well citing numbers. These numbers bring to light the difference between Nigeria’s per-capita breakdown and the other countries referenced.

  11. Wilfred Okwudili Eze says

    Good analysis Doc, I love your differential thought-process on this with evidence that challenged public opinion. Your analysis is right in many ways.

    However Nigeria was actually rich from onset, but failed to invest her riches in basic infrastructure that were meant to drive a production-driven economy. As at 1960 we had a more vibrant economy – exports, agriculture, oil and solid minerals. Back then we had barely 45m population.

    Leadership killed Nigeria. I can agree with you that Nigeria of today is broke. A truly skinny cow that may die anytime soon!

  12. Kayode Peters says

    Excellent and insightful article. I’m happy more people are beginning to see clearly what our problem is. A problem rightly diagnosed is a problem half solved. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to spread this message. Our news media should also help with this. Our problem is that we are simply not making enough money as a country. Period! Our focus should be how to increase our productivity NOT how to manage, share or judiciously utilize what is not enough. This is achievable first by decentralization of government. We all saw this happen in Telecommunications (Government used to have a budget for NITEL today the same sector pays billion in taxes to government and has created employment for thousands). There is too much power at the centre. States should be allowed to control their mineral resources, generate and distribute their power etc. and in two years we will see how foreign investments will start pouring in. A man with two wives and twelve children earning thirty thousand Naira monthly’s problem is not mismanagement of his salary or that his wife or children steal from the meager salary. He needs to earn more money. We have been chasing shadows for decades.

  13. nio adams says

    when did they start using the budget of a country as metrics to determine how rich or poor country is especially when written by someone who is idealistic in nature rather than using govt data to determine facts

    so this poorly written article without facts and data was published by a business paper…

  14. Dr Mahmud says

    Aptly captured.

  15. Tayo says

    The myth that is required to be ended in Nigeria is the “lack of fund” myth that leaders both at state & federal levels are quick to use an excuse for their failure in governance.

    If truly there is lack of fund where are our leaders getting the fund they are stealing from?

    And, a big-budget figure does not signify a rich country, please. Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and South Africa having a bigger budget does signify they are richer than Nigeria. It only signifies how bold, aggressive and risk-averse they are about their economic development.

    Iceland budget is $9 billion. Qatar budget is $54 billion. Kuwait budget is $61 billion. Singapore, rated among the best performing economies in the world has a budget of $56 billion. Ireland budget is $87 billion. As you can see these countries budgets are less than South Africa’s. Is South Africa richer than these countries?

    Look at this also. India’s budget is $725 billion. Would one say it is richer than Russia whose budget is $287 billion or Sweden or Belgium whose budgets are $269 billion and $260 billion respectively?

    Nigeria’s budget could be as big as these countries’ or even bigger if you have sound selfless managers in the pilot’s seat of the country.

    Nigeria’s money that has been stolen is close to $1 trillion. If such humongous amount is still available for Nigeria’s use, and with good mangers, at the helms of affairs our annual budgets should be hovering around $300 billion.

    Everyone knows, even a primary school pupil knows Nigeria is a poor third world country. But the country is rich enough not to be in this parlous state, please.

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  17. Chinedu Ifechelobi says

    Honestly I strongly agree with all the people who have posited strong facts as to how the size of the budget does not translate automatically to the size of the “pockets” of a nation. Nigeria is rich in natural and human resources and the reason the people are poor and GDP per capita is low is the failure of leadership; the failure to invest these resources when we should, the failure to mine the unmined resources and them through the right the right channels so the impact can be felt by citizens. While the good Doc recommends wealth creation by the country, the buck still stops at the table of leadership and that’s not to say Nigerians aren’t doing a lot in that aspect, yet the efforts must be organized and government backed. Has anyone thought about leakages in govt not captured by the books? Corruption in NNPC? have you read that book by Ngozi Okonjo Iwealla?

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