Nigeria: Africa’s best hopes and worst fears


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

Africa is at a crossroads. By 2050, one in four Africans will be a Nigerian. Our continental population will stand at two billion. The majority will be young, aged 18 – 30. What we do today to prepare a future for this ‘youth bulge’ will determine the success or failure of Africa. Is it not time for us to start listening very carefully to their hopes, aspirations and dreams?

As I listen to a group of young bloggers in Abuja, I am reminded of my own political journey. It is not thinking you know all the answers. It is asking the right questions. “Our problem is not leadership,” says Bibi, a young and dynamic publisher. “It’s followership; we vote for leaders even when we know they are corrupt. We think in terms of tribe, religion, culture, language. We let ourselves be divided and our votes bought off when elections happen.”

Abuja is a new city, with none of the chaos of city planning in Lagos. Its wide, tree-lined roads, manicured gardens and sparkling new buildings exude a confidence of power. It invokes the image of an ancient court of political power with a curious mix of influence peddlers, corporate power brokers, merchants, intellectuals, foreign emissaries and the hustling class.

“We need your generation to listen. The political system places roadblocks at every step of the way. We are the future. We have skills to offer. We are frustrated. Many of the brightest intellectuals leave Nigeria to work elsewhere because our prospects are so limited because of nepotism and cronyism. We have to liberate ourselves from mediocrity,” says an oil and gas policy expert. The statistics show that the vast majority of professionals do intend to leave Nigeria for opportunities elsewhere.

They say: The system is broken. We struggle to find leaders today who capture our imagination; who inspire us with a breadth of vision of a world free from poverty, inequality and social marginalisation. We wait patiently for a messiah, constantly disappointed when politicians in them fail to meet our expectations.

I assure them that this is a global phenomenon. South Africa is no different.

We travel to Lagos State, which is the engine of the economy. The security is tight here. Kidnapping has become a thriving business in Nigeria. Bombs may explode across the country, but an attack in Lagos would be debilitating. The sprawling city of over 20 million is bursting at its seams. Land is constantly being reclaimed from the Atlantic sea; slums encroach into the water, perched precariously on stilts. It will be a human catastrophe when our climate crisis causes sea level to rise. Still, construction is booming. The infrastructure from roads, to storm water and sanitation systems lags behind. Stable and reliable electricity is probably the greatest impediment to more rapid growth.

A senior state official comments: “We Nigerians are caught between a rock and a hard place. The economic opportunity is bursting, but access is controlled by gatekeepers. The curse of our oil bonanza has created a web of intrigue, corruption and patronage that strangles the potential to diversify our economy and build agriculture and manufacturing. We need to open up the system or it will implode.”

The Nigerians I encounter are enterprising. The land is rich and abundant. Water is plentiful. Nigeria has the potential to be the agricultural powerhouse of the continent. Ms. Uwa Osunbor, a smallholder farmer from Edo State, tells me her story. “I worked in the US. When I came back I invested my savings in buying a farm of 14 hectares. For 10 years I have tried to raise a loan from a bank. I have not succeeded. They are more interested in portfolio farmers who are able to write documents, cross the t’s and dot the i’s, than in us the women who are the real farmers.”

Far away from the ivory towers of policy discussions, these are the challenges facing stallholder farmers across Africa. As I listen to them there is a constant refrain. “Give us land we can own as women. We need seed, water, irrigation, power. Give us access to the technology and training so we can process our crops, add to its value and package it for the marketplace. We will produce all the food that Africa needs and feed the world,” says a combatant Alhaja Aminat, president of the Epe Women Farmers’ Co-operative, which represents over a thousand farmers.

Regional integration is critical in handling the impending climate crisis. “The rains are heavier and late. The weather patterns are extreme and erratic. In the north, farmers don’t have the time to dry their cereals and vegetables before they rot. The bad roads are impassable. They cannot get food to the market. Their money is less and we cannot buy the food we need for our families or even send them to schools,” says Ndidi Nwuneli, a dynamic woman entrepreneur who works with smallholding farmers and founded the Africa Leadership Institute in Lagos.

She adds, “Women are the primary producers of 80% of the food in Africa. But as their crops move across the value chain there are fewer and fewer women. It is dominated by middlemen who control the value chain to the market.”

Nigeria is so rich but the poverty is debilitating. The National Bureau of Statistics in 2010 said that about 60% of Nigerians earn less than $1 a day. Stunting afflicts 40% of children under five; in the North, it rises to over 50%. In the absence of social protection welfare net, the majority of Nigerians struggle to survive. Inflation bites deeply into the social fabric. Education standards have declined dramatically. Most of the middle class send their children to schools out of Nigeria.

What is the future of this youth generation? Will their marginalisation push them into the toxic embrace of extremism? Will their genuine anger find an outlet through narrow sectarianism, factionalism, ethnicity and religious fundamentalism?

Nigeria holds the key to many of the moral and political dilemmas facing Africa.

There is a rising demand for a new dawn. A future not based on a pure mineral extraction model controlled by a powerful cartel of businessmen and their foreign collaborators.

Will the elites in Nigeria listen to the desperate pleas for moral leadership? Will they build a grand coalition against corruption, to free the country from the shackles of the ‘Godfather Big Man Syndrome’? People across the class spectrum are extremely skeptical. Many believe they have to succeed in spite of their government. But there are state officials and ministers who soldier on to drive health and education reform – and institute the infrastructure necessary for Nigeria to achieve its potential. Their political journey may help Nigeria become a true country of hope. DM