By Tunde Obadina
The familiar story of Nigeria is that of a nation that has made little or no economic progress since the British left the country in 1960. Africa’s most populous nation is seen as an incompetent giant, mired by corruption, ethnic strife and unrelenting poverty. The country is more often listed with ‘frontier’ economies than placed among emerging economies. This view of Nigeria as a big disappointment is, however, not supported by facts.
Between 1980 and 2013 Nigeria’s annual real GDP growth averaged 6.04%, according to the International Monetary Fund data. This was slower than the super-fast 9.86% clocked by China but only slightly slower than India’s 6.13% and faster than 5.21% attained by Indonesia – countries that Nigeria is often unfavourably compared with. The West African country’s per capita GDP, based on purchasing power parity, rose from US$889 in 1980 to US$5,720 in 2013, while over the same period India’s per capita income increased from US$571 to US$5,450, which suggests that Nigeria is now slightly richer than India.
Nigeria has not lagged behind in relation to other economies in the world. Its share of total global output doubled from 0.48% in 1980 to 0.95% in 2013. Though still much less than its 2.5% share of total world population, its growing contribution to world output is narrowing the wealth gap with developed economies. In 1980 the U.S. economy was 47 times larger than Nigeria’s while its GDP per capita 14 times bigger. In 2014 the corresponding differences was 16 and 9 times respectively.
There are some who acknowledge that substantial growth has occurred in Nigeria but diminish the achievement by arguing that virtually all the gains have gone to the rich, leaving the poor masses stuck in absolute poverty. This is another unwarranted claim. Notwithstanding that living conditions of tens of millions of Nigerians remain dreadfully low, there has nevertheless been clear evidence of improvements in the standard of living of increasing numbers of people since independence. The proportions of Nigerians suffering hunger and malnutrition have fallen over the decades; more people have access to modern healthcare, clothing and shelter than did in 1960 and 1980. Access to primary education is no longer limited to a minority of children and attendance of secondary schools and higher education institutions have risen substantially. Indeed, the phenomenal increase in populations of Nigeria, as with other African countries, over the past sixty years has in part been due to the improvements in social conditions.
Markets have evolved in Nigeria, as elsewhere in Africa. When the lifestyles of today’s generation of Africans are compared with those in the early 1960s, it is evident that a greater portion of people have many more choices now than they did at the end of colonial rule or at any other time in history. Many of the products and services we now regard as essentials today were either unavailable or affordable only to a tiny minority in the 1960s. For example, many of the pharmaceuticals purchased by ordinary folks today had not been developed in the mid-20th century. Few people wore manufactured shoes, used modern kitchen utensils, commuted in motorised transport systems, owned radios, drank treated water, etc.
Traditional rulers and political leaders who reigned six decades ago may have been socially and politically supreme, but their material standards of living were in many ways inferior to those of today’s middle-class and even segments of the poor.
A mistake made by those who contend that there has been little meaningful economic development in Nigeria is to base their assessment mainly on the performance of the state. They equate enduring official corruption and mismanagement as well as slow growth in government social spending with lack of progress. But economic growth and poverty reduction have not stemmed mainly from public sector programmes, but from the activities of private individuals and companies operating in evolving markets. The part played by governments has been to implement liberalisation reforms which have to some extent loosened the state’s crippling grip on the economy.
People have not been waiting helplessly for governments or charity organisations to rescue them from poverty as some international aid organisations would like us to believe. They have, to the best of their knowledge and abilities, engaged in production and trade. They have also benefited from the expansion of international markets, especially the rise of China as a global workhouse for the production of cheap manufactured goods.
Acknowledging progress in Nigeria and other African countries is not to deny that too many people in these places still live in poverty or to suggest that economic growth and poverty reduction could not have been faster. The point is that the notion that Africa is caught in a never-ending poverty and underdevelopment trap is absolute nonsense.