1 May 2014

Nigeria's Economic Transition Reveals Deep Structural Distortions

analysis

According to recently reviewed GDP figures, Nigeria is now Africa's biggest economy. It was about time a more accurate measure of economic output, which captures Nigerians' entrepreneurial zeal, was adopted.

The headline-capturing highlights of the new series reveal the scale of the economy, and greater economic diversification with the rapid growth of non-oil sectors.

Significantly, the figures indicate how this growth accounts for the "jobless" economic expansion, the slow pace of industrial development and the regional dimensions of the economic boom.

According to the rebased figures, six sectors now account for 70% of nominal GDP rather than three in the old series. The service sector grew fastest, by 240%, and is progressively constituting a larger portion of the GDP.

Conversely, the share of the two hitherto giants - agriculture and oil has fallen to 21% and 14.4% respectively. Nigeria is transiting to a services-driven economy due to the rapid growth of information and communications technology (ICT), banking, trade and the informal economy.

Zenith Bank, UBA and Guaranty Trust Bank are Nigerian financial institutions with a huge presence across the continent. Mobile phone subscription has exploded from just 2.2 million lines in 2002 to over 169 million by 2013.

Call credit vendors, petty traders and other unofficial activities in the informal economy have also been included in the new series, as a component of the services sector.

On the surface, the emergence of the service sector as a major growth driver indicates a greater diversification of the country's production structure away from oil (a long sought after goal).

The share of the oil and gas sector has fallen from 32.4% of GDP in the old series to just 14.4% in the new series. On one hand this is good news, on the other hand, it reveals deeper structural distortions.

Nigeria appears to be leap-frogging from an extractive to a services-oriented economy without commensurate industrial development, and this comes with some baggage.

This slow pace of industrialisation accounts for the non-inclusive nature of growth and widening inequality in the country.

The necessity to experience industrialisation as a phase in the economic development process from a poor to a rich society is well documented.

The Economist and Foreign Policy magazines both recently hosted debates on the necessity of industrialisation for sub-Saharan African economies. Economist Ha-Joon Chang points out categorically that "... it is a fantasy to think that developing countries can skip industrialisation and build prosperity on the basis of service industries".

Multilateral organisations such as the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the African Union are advocating for inclusive and sustainable industrial development as the key to structural economic transformation of African economies.

This is hinged on the export-oriented-industrialisation (EOI) route taken by South Korea, Singapore and other East Asian Tigers to economic development and prosperity.

Industrialisation is regarded as the surest route to poverty reduction and economic transformation. With the labour intensive nature of manufacturing industry, the share of people engaged in subsistence agriculture falls as those engaged in agro-processing, light and heavy manufacturing and ancillary services rises.

Economists argue that industrial development creates employment along a value chain, raises incomes, and improves human development. As Dani Rodrik emphasises, the manufacturing sector is where the world's middle classes take shape and grow; without a vibrant manufacturing base, societies tend to be more unequal.

In Nigeria, as the new GDP series reveals, this industrialisation process is yet to take root. The manufacturing sector, which was 10% of GDP in 1980, constitutes only 6.9% in the revised figures.

By contrast, the over 200-fold growth in ICT, trade and financial services means that the service sector now constitutes 52.3% of economic output. Unlike the manufacturing sector, which employs low-skilled, low-wage labour, these services are highly capital and technology intensive.

Entry-level staff in banks in the country require a minimum of a tertiary qualification. While the mobile tech start-up revolution sweeping across the commercial capital Lagos, is dominated by tech-savvy entrepreneurs with a highly specialised skill set.

Therefore, the mobile revolution hasn't led to an explosion of job opportunities, as youth unemployment persists at 54%. A stark reminder of the unemployment situation is the recent recruitment exercise of the immigration service, in which 6.5 million Nigerians applied for 4,000 jobs and where 19 people were crushed to death at stampedes at the recruitment centres.

At the other end of the scale, the telecoms sector is creating a booming informal economy of call credit vendors, informal call centres and other microenterprises with limited scope for upward mobility.

Though the GDP series involve macro-level aggregate data, some inferences about regional distribution of economic activity can be made.

While agricultural output has increased, it has grown much more slowly than the capital, technology and skills intensive services sector. Agriculture's decline as a share of GDP has more implications in the northern states, where it dominates.

Critically, the diminishing share of agriculture as a percentage of GDP, which should indicate economic development in an industrialising economy, is not the case here. Hundreds of textile, food and beverage and other light manufacturing industries lie moribund in industrial hubs in Kaduna and Kano states.

Electricity shortages, infrastructural decay and influx of cheap Chinese imports and smuggled consumer goods are some of the factors attributed to the acceleration of de-industrialisation in the North.

Tellingly, farmers are not leaving their farmlands in villages to become factory workers in modern industries, but are urbanising in the fringes and becoming an underclass in the vast unofficial activities in the informal sector.

Although some states like Kano have a vibrant trade-based economy (and the 'Kannywood' local entertainment sector is booming), economic output in the northern states is mostly agrarian.

On the other hand, the services sector - banks, telecoms, hospitality, trade - are mostly concentrated in the South. Of the 21 commercial banks in the country, only one is owned by and headquartered in the North.

Even in the South, Lagos and to a lesser extent, the four major oil-producing states, account for the bulk of economic output. Lagos, where most banks, financial institutions, telecoms firms, oil companies and other private sector organisations are headquartered could be Africa's fifth largest economy, if it were a separate country.

As an outlier, it is the only self-sufficient state out of 35 others, able to generate over 50% of its revenues from internal sources more than its monthly allocations from the centre.

Conclusions about the regional dimension of economic growth can only be made with certainty when the state-level GDP figures are released by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Yet we can deduce from the new series as to why Nigeria's economic boom is not only non-inclusive, but geographically concentrated, in which many northern states lag behind.

As expected, these figures are being politicised by both the government - which has adopted a triumphalist attitude and implicitly claims credit - and sceptical Nigerians, who are worried about the 'jobless growth' and poor human development situation. Both sides miss the point about the purpose of the rebasing exercise, which is mainly to provide a more accurate picture of the economy.

Thankfully, the NBS has dispassionately emphasised that "the rebasing exercise does not in itself reflect the effectiveness or otherwise of public policy".

The onus now lies on policy makers to address these structural economic problems head on, not merely to politicise them. The government has recently launched an industrial policy, an Agricultural Transformation Agenda, and has privatised the power sector. With Nigeria's staggering size, its booming population and its equally staggering problems, there is certainly scope for doing much more.

Zainab Usman is a DPhil Candidate at the University of Oxford.

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