There is still no substitute for a strong national economy
What symbolises the Nigerian economy?
What sectors do its companies dominate?
For example, when we think of the Consumer Technology sector, we think of American titans like Apple or Microsoft. The symbols of mechanical engineering excellence are scattered across Western Europe, with Germany at its heart. The City of London is a metonym for Financial Services.
When it comes to Nigeria, I can think of nothing. We are an oil and gas-producing country. Yet, the totems of that industry are American, Dutch, Russian and Saudi Arabian. The symbol of the Nigerian economy, then, is nothing. It is like a solitary leaf, dancing in the wind, blown hither and thither by forces beyond its control.
An opposing narrative to this bleak opener rests on two props.
Some would say that Nigeria’s primary export is not mineral resources. It is the brains of its diaspora.
Others urge us to look past the carcass of old economy Nigeria with its burgeoning unemployment rate and skyrocketing inflation. Instead, look ahead to a silicon-tinged future where ‘creatives’ dominate.
That idealist view of Nigeria would seem to have received a boost with recent news. Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a member of the Nigerian diaspora, became the head of the WTO, a prominent global organisation. A clutch of Nigerian artistes won internationally recognised prizes, and preeminent members of the Nigerian tech scene were on the receiving end of multi-billion naira investments. Yet, in comparison to a 33 percent unemployment rate, the scales of the promised future and the dire present do not even out. Let us consider the counter-narratives in-depth.
In 2017, the Indian diaspora sent home $69 billion, the highest total in the world. In comparison, from a nominal GDP of $2.8 trillion, India exported $330 billion worth of goods. Our diaspora remittances ($17.5 billion in 2019) seems comparatively more important because our export earnings ($63.8 billion in 2019) although vast by African standards are highly cyclical. That grants their steady inflows outsized prominence. However, it is the national economy that is king. The diaspora should be accorded importance only to the extent that their skills serve its development. Nothing else they contribute can be even remotely commensurate.
In the established context of the national economy’s pre-eminence, the hype accorded to the country’s information-technology and entertainment industries has some merits. However, with the imagery of the fluttering leaf in mind, it is important to approach their contributions rationally.
The entertainment industry and the whole arena of cultural production is by necessity a handmaiden of wealth and prosperity. Wealth and prosperity are words associated, at best, with only a narrow sliver of Nigerian society. That factor immediately restricts the independence of the sector and its wider developmental potential. At present, the industry relies on tastemakers and consumers abroad for prestige. Equally important, especially for revenue, is the revolution in audio and visual streaming courtesy firms like Netflix and Spotify.
On a positive note, assuming that prominent stars do not emigrate, their export earnings will be one more source of economic diversification.
On the other hand, over time, unless the national economy generates a means of independent patronage for its stars and industry tastemakers, their independence and uniqueness may be lost. They will then be reduced to inferior appendages mined for the occasional standout rather than respected competition. It would be a replication of the current position of the local sports leagues compared to their European and American counterparts.
In a famed 2011 essay, Marc Andressen, a serial Silicon Valley investor, memorably proclaimed that software was eating the world. The ubiquity of smartphones, the increase in computing power shepherded along by Moore’s Law, and the concomitant reduction in costs brought about by this phenomena created the software-dominated world of today.
The waves of that revolution have touched Nigeria. We see it in the streams racked up by musicians and the breakout comedians on social media. Most of all, it is represented in the emerging information-technology cluster in Lagos state. Their success puts paid to the idea that Nigerians need to fear global competition. Rather, they are representative of a new breed of globally-facing, Nigerian-led companies that can be beneficial to the national economy.
However, their success highlights our present weaknesses and those of the sector too. They may be Nigerian-led, but they are rarely incorporated here. Their financing and legal expertise rely on experts and investment ecosystems abroad. And their current infrastructure, from training to execution, is reliant on foreign industries. As such, the risk is that it becomes literally the new oil. An enclosed, well-remunerated industry with scant effects on the wider national economy. Even worse, it may be like cement, a source of singular wealth to which the country contributes no new technological breakthroughs.
The state of affairs sketched above has been the historical norm for Nigeria ever since the integration of the region into the global economy. Whether as entrepots in the Trans-Saharan or Trans-Atlantic trades, its economy has been characterised by a self-contained class profiting from their global connections while divorced from the inchoate masses below. Independence was, in part, premised on an end to that state of events.
The promise heralded on October 1 1960, remains a ways off. Yet we are once more confronted by winds of change blowing from afar. We cannot react by pretending that change is not afoot.
We must realise that we have always been in an arms race for greater understanding. We should not be satisfied with exporting our brains. Their remittances are no substitution for their production. Neither can we, as in the now ending fossil fuel revolution, be content with being producers, not creators and sources of demand. The path forward calls for contributions from all of us.
The government must be willing to reform our education system to be better able to produce a workforce capable of coming to grips with the information revolution. Those who have benefitted from that revolution must be loud and unyielding in their demands for the creation of the ecosystems and structures that they find attractive abroad. Ecosystems, in time, capable of pushing that revolution forwards. The Fourth Estate should devote resources less to hagiography and more to helping the wider public understand the unfolding revolution. Who are the winners? Who are the losers? Most importantly, how can Nigeria win.
At present, nothing symbolises the Nigerian economy. The present, however, is but one path to the future.
Emmanuel-Francis Nwaolisa Ogomegbunam is a Nigerian by conviction.