Once again, the unpleasant economic news was received in Nigeria. Last time 133 million Nigerians were living in multidimensional poverty, recent news is that Nigeria will require a mind-boggling 300 years to close the gap and have the necessary infrastructure to function as a modern economy. This is coming from the World Bank Country Economist seconded to Nigeria, but to the discerning mind, it is no less obvious. This spate of bad economic news has not always been this way.
Nigeria used to be part of emerging and rising Africa, the new economic frontier. It became the largest economy in Africa and was set to be one of the world’s 20 largest economies by 2020. Nigerians were the happiest people in the world for a few years, but I doubt we’ll remain the happiest people since our youth can’t wait to get out of the country.
In terms of infrastructure acquisition, we surprised the world with the revolution in delivering new communication technology to the country. Nigeria successfully adopted wireless communication in GSM and surpassed fiber optic technology. Recently, we have achieved successes in rail infrastructure with the commissioning of the standard gauge railway between Abuja and Kaduna, and then between Lagos and Ibadan. Then the World Bank dampened the euphoria.
Some have received the World Bank’s position negatively, feeling that 300 years is an exaggeration. A friend wrote: “The thesis of the World Bank is selfish and paternalistic… in the service of the interests of the United States.” Others say the World Bank’s goal with the statement is to drive a wedge between Nigeria and infrastructure provider China; thus creating the opportunity for the United States to pull back.
Wasn’t the World Bank stating the obvious? Do we need outside organizations to point these things out? Where are our economic planners and managers? A simple calculation on the back of the envelope will reveal the truth of what the World Bank stated. The 320 km Lagos-Ibadan double track standard gauge rail was laid over five years, averaging 60 km per year. The national rail trunk network from Lagos to Kano, Lagos to Calabar and Calabar to Maiduguri is a total of approximately 9000 kilometers of expected standard gauge. At an average of 60 km per year, the trunk network will take 150 years to complete, with connections to other towns and cities another 100 years. Meanwhile, work has effectively stopped as Chinese lending has been suspended.
For the past 20 years, we have been stuck at delivering 5,000 megawatts of power to Nigerians, averaging 250 megawatts per year. Conservatively, Nigerians need 60,000 megawatts, making it the largest economy in Africa. At current rates, that makes it take 240 years to deliver power for current national needs, very close to World Bank estimates.
Delivering paved roads to our doorsteps, I mean paved roads that will not be cosmetic but solid as in other climates, is practically an impossible task as most Nigerians get by with dreadful roads after the main arteries towards the cities. Having high-speed trains or driving electric vehicles when they come of age in the next 20 years is not conceivable at the rate we are going. The World Bank presentation was never an exaggeration, it was done in good faith because we are celebrating some belated infrastructure built by this administration. After these small steps, a calm will settle in as it did in the past.
The Chinese have done well to stop lending to finance these projects. These paltry loans, when compared to realistic financial figures in the trillions of dollars, weigh heavily on government finances and revenues. Some things don’t add up and a serious rethink is needed. Not all expectations have been met, but public debt and extreme poverty are increasing.
Once again, we must relearn from history, that is, the history of countries that have closed development gaps like Nigeria is experiencing. When the United States became independent from England, the English did everything possible to ensure that the new country continued to be a source of raw materials, especially cotton for the textile factories of England. They forbade sharing cotton milling technology with the US and checked luggage to make sure the drawings were not exported. One gentleman, Samuel Slater, defied the system by having the design stored in his head and sailed to the US to download it and reproduce the first industrial loom in the US. This was in 1789; 100 years later, the American economy became bigger than the British economy.
Japan was lagging behind the West and made a rethink since the 1850s under the Meiji dynasty. In a span of 50 years, Japan was able to take on the West, aircraft carrier for aircraft carrier in World War II. You are not dependent on others to do this for you. There is the Chinese lesson in HSR. The Chinese, although latecomers to HSR, laid 40,000 km of HSR track in 15 years, 10 times the length laid by the first developers, France and Japan. I don’t think Nigerians can’t replicate such feats if we put our hearts into it.
All of our political parties write extensively about infrastructure projects in their manifestos. As well as documents such as the National Medium-Term Development Plan. Yet none seem to have identified our infrastructure procurement failures as the World Bank has. None have addressed closing the infrastructure gap within a generation or two, without placing the nation in perpetual debt.
We need to identify what is being done wrong and fix it, after all, we have had engineering schools churning out engineers for decades, but foreign engineers and companies dominate our construction space on mega projects. We never developed capacity in railway construction, neither in these faculties nor in polytechnics. This is confirmed by the fact that a University of Transportation is part of the package given by the Chinese who lay our railways.
Our task is done for us. Nigerians have to acquire the skills to build quality infrastructure, build fast and build ourselves. They did not rebuild a main road, Lagos Ibadan, for almost a decade. Elsewhere I have written that “we have to nairanise Y indigenize our infrastructure acquisition.” This means that we have to remove hard currencies from our infrastructure acquisition as much as possible. For indigenizing Y nairanizing acquisition of infrastructure, we can build roads, lay railways for our delight as the Chinese do.
We have to stop being mere consumers of infrastructure; we have to be infrastructure providers like the Chinese, participating in the entire value chain of the infrastructure ecosystem. How do we do this? Taking advantage of and having in the country all the construction materials used in the infrastructure; from cement to iron rods, from steel to aggregates, bitumen, etc. So many bridges and flyovers have been built in the country that it is a pity that we still need foreigners for their construction.
The World Bank puts a $3 trillion price tag on Nigeria’s infrastructure deficiencies. This presents us with opportunities to eradicate poverty from the land as armies of Nigerian construction workers flock to various project sites once this dollar tag is nairanized. CBN can print the naira to cover the cost of each project. This is how China does it; this is what President Joe Biden will do to revamp his aging infrastructure, why not Nigeria?
The $3 trillion price tag is not just for the Nigerian government, it is for Nigerians, both individuals and the organized private sector, who must identify business opportunities and shoulder the primary burden of providing infrastructure cost-effectively. There are more additional benefits for the country as we become the preferred infrastructure provider for Africa and the world at large in partnership with others. This is what is seen as operating across the entire infrastructure value chain, from being a consuming nation to becoming a provider. Nigeria has been operating at the consumer end of the infrastructure value chain in the belief that it will ultimately deliver economic growth and development, but it has not. What it has delivered are huge loans owed to foreigners and minimal transformative growth and development.
Jaiyesimi writes via [email protected]