7 May 2014

Nigeria: Hosting World Economic Forum in Midst of Turmoil

In the backdrop of national anguish and the related security challenges, Nigeria today hosts foreign dignitaries and delegates to the Africa section of the World Economic Forum (WEF). It is certainly an uncommon and a difficult mix.

With the WEF's Abuja theme, Forging Inclusive Growth, Creating Jobs, and the gathering global movement #BringBackOurGirls to draw attention to the abduction of over 270 female students of Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, by insurgents 23 days ago, it should not be difficult which of the competing messages would resonate among Nigerians at the moment. Yet it is vital that the importance of the three-day WEF meeting should not be lost.

The 25 WEF meeting brings together, according to government officials, 13 heads of state and over 1,000 other key actors in business, politics, development institutions and civil society organisations, to discuss integration and structural reforms to ensure that the continent's remarkable economic growth rates are delivering inclusive benefits to its toiling millions.

To be meaningful and sustainable, any economic activity must translate into job creation, reduction of poverty, and lowering of gross inequalities that fuel instability. Regional cooperation, reforming national and pan-African institutions, investment in infrastructure and human capacity building and ensuring adequate security would, together, ensure that Africa's vast natural resources are utilised to provide inclusive growth and share prosperity.

With its 38 years of promoting discussions on reforms, shaping economic and investments agenda and policies, the hope is that this global gathering would help reshape Nigeria's recently "rebased" economy and move it away from its narrow focus on the welfare of tiny elite, and give hope to those currently excluded, especially the youths.

Holding at a time of heightened security challenges, especially this moment of sustained outrage over of the school girls' abduction, the WEF should be a reminder of the dangers inherent in the current development model, with its growing poverty, poor and decaying infrastructure, and massive unemployment. Nigeria's policymakers should get beyond using the WEF as avenue to grandstand or make grandiose claims that ring hollow, but to honestly focus on identifying national shortcomings in order to get appropriate prescription for remedy. Corruption, policy inconsistencies and persistent poverty cannot be ignored if prospects for, and the creation of, a lasting new and better tomorrow, are to be addressed.

While trumpeting Nigeria's new status as the largest economy on the African continent, it would serve Nigeria officials well to remember that over two-thirds of the people still scratch a miserable existence on less than two dollars a day. The average (per capita) income, even after rebasing, is still about US$2,688 per citizen as against South Africa's US$8,342, even as Nigeria is home to more billionaires than any other African country. After China, Nigeria is the second fastest growing private jets market in the world, with the very rich spending over a trillion naira on about 138 private aircrafts over the last five years. This new prosperity must be shared for it to be sustainable.

In addition, this august gathering should come up with concrete solutions, especially regarding the pathetic infrastructural poverty beyond mere platitudes and catch-phrases. Nigeria's national electricity supply, for example, oscillates between 3,000mw and 4,000mw, despite the billions of dollars that has been spent in many power projects. Nigeria recently opted for outright privatisation under the government's spotty reform programme. Comparatively, Eskom, South Africa's government-owned utility company, supplies over 45,000mw to that country. This underlines the need to provide better explanations and solutions than mere privatization.

What cannot be overemphasized is the need to make all businesses, foreign and local, to pay fair taxes, and ensure they go the extra mile to check official corruption because many global companies encourage, offer and help launder or hide illegal payments and proceeds of crime. Nigerian officials must ensure that while they provide serious commitment to hold and sustain the interest of potential investors in the Nigeria, the parley itself should bring tangible benefits to the country.

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