Only capitalism can save Nigeria

Deeply divided and full of potential, this country could be headed for a boom – or a coup

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

Abuja was eerily quiet when I arrived. The capital of Nigeria is normally bustling, but that morning the wide boulevards were empty. The red dust was undisturbed; the call to prayer echoed through the city like the sad lament of the lonely. There is an election approaching, and a lot of people take that as their cue to leave the country. You’ll find much of Nigeria’s ruling class in the Harrods food hall at this time.

Although Abuja is far wealthier and more stable than most of Nigeria, its problems are representative of a country on the brink of disaster. Construction of the capital began in the 1970s, its layout heavily influenced by Milton Keynes. Today it is a mix of grand designs and organisational failure: my tour of the Ministry of Power was complicated by a power cut. Everywhere there are soldiers; every wall is laced with barbed wire to keep criminals and Islamists at bay. The government calculates that if the fanatics who control north-eastern Nigeria head south, then at least the army should be sure of holding Abuja. For it is entirely possible that when next month’s elections are over and the votes have been forged, the country could fall apart. It is a nation divided against itself, barely held together by a political system that many Nigerians regard as a joke. But while things are bad, the country is experimenting with reforms that offer a model for the rest of Africa. Its redemption lies in capitalism.

Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa, thanks to oil; Lagos city, down south, is experiencing a golden age. Nigerians can get stuff done: Ebola isn’t a significant threat here because the country acted so efficiently. The people are friendly and natural entrepreneurs. The problem is that government competes with family and tribal loyalties that run deep. The Nigeria to which Britain gifted independence amounted to at least seven countries in one. In 1967, the southeastern part tried to secede — triggering the bloodthirsty Biafran war. If there have been no similar secessions until now, it is largely because that period of Nigerian history was so traumatic.

But the instability of the present is shown in the risk that a hitherto stable government might lose an election. President Goodluck Jonathan, a man with a passion for fedoras, and his running mate Namadi Sambo governed at a time when oil was above $110 a barrel — and achieved next to nothing. Now that oil is around $50 a barrel, patronage and ‘gifts’ are no longer enough to hold things together. Jonathan’s posters say that ‘Nigerians demand continuity’, which is as farfetched as saying that chickens demand to spend more time in the company of foxes. The president knows that, which is why he’s embraced economic modernisation. By contrast, you can tell supporters of the opposition because when they meet in the street they greet each other with a cry of ‘Change!’ Their candidate is the 72-year-old Muslim general Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator with a reputation for discipline.

Issue number one is security. The terrorist group Boko Haram now controls the northeast of the country and keeps the rest of Nigeria in terror. They used to target soldiers. Now they go for civilians. I saw a marketplace where a bomb went off a few months ago, killing dozens: the streets were littered, say the locals, with arms, legs and heads. It all happened next door to a mosque. Boko Haram is just as concerned with punishing Muslims for what it regards as theological deviation as it is with persecuting Christians. It recruits by kidnapping children and brainwashing them. The 200 Christian girls taken last year were most likely regarded as potential wives or even suicide bombers. Jonathan’s government promised to recapture the children but failed.

I’m told in whispers that rebels get their equipment from government soldiers selling it for food. Conspiracy theories abound that the administration benefits from the civil war continuing because it means that opposition voters in the northeast are disenfranchised. Certainly, it is odd that the army has been so much more active and successful at fighting terrorism in some places than others.

Issue number two is corruption. While the vast majority of the country is dirt poor and visibly malnourished, a few get rich out of exploiting contacts and demanding kickbacks. That’s apparent in the army. There the elite officers live like kings, sending their children to English public schools. A junior officer, meanwhile, makes around £350 a month, or less, to fight fanatics. Support is growing for Buhari and his promise to clean things up. Whoever loses, they’ll contest the result in courts and the streets. These are conditions that classically support a military coup.

In short, Nigeria has to be delivered from its own government. Happily, that’s starting to happen. One rare economic achievement has been the privatisation of the telecommunications industry — its success is obvious in the fact that everyone in Abuja has a mobile phone and millions are on Facebook. Now the government has sold off its power supply, and it’s done so with the help of the UK.

We usually think of international development as charity: Bono laying wells in the desert. But in Nigeria, the Department for International Development has been far more flexible and savvy. For example, it’s persuaded the northern city of Karno to reduce the number of local taxes from 200 to 17. The Nigeria Infrastructure Advisory Facility programme has also guided the largest privatisation in African history in the power sector. As the government moves from being a supplier of power to a regulator, so the investment switches from taxes that are misappropriated and misspent to private money that — by dint of being someone’s personal fortune — is far more likely to be well managed. There is little discipline in a Nigerian bureaucracy rife with corruption. But there is discipline in the marketplace, where competition leads to ruthless efficiency, and failure to bankruptcy.

The frustrating thing is that British business isn’t exploiting the opportunities it has opened up. Nigerians don’t understand why the UK government helps to liberate their economy, yet it’s the Americans and Chinese who offer the investment. Sometimes, perhaps, the Brits are a little too nice for their own good. We are encouraging the growth of solar energy in the north through programmes like Solar Nigeria — a brilliant idea because one thing they have no shortage of is sunshine. But as someone complained to me, the British tend to sell the idea as an environmental thing and most Nigerians couldn’t care less about rescuing the polar bear. They would jump at the project if they were convinced that it would make them money.

Britain has to get this right, if only for selfish reasons. Diplomatic sources estimates that some 2.5 million Nigerians would have a right of residence in the UK in the event of a coup or war. But also we owe it to those Nigerians who suffer under the present system. It is possible after only a few days in Abuja to get very angry indeed. Angry at the naked corruption of traffic police who take advantage of the lack of lighting to leap out of the dark and shake down a bribe. Angry at the disparity between enormous officials and skinny children picking through bins. Angry too with an upper class that seems to approach life with a deadening irony — as if the whole enterprise is some cosmic joke from which only they profit.

But one can’t let one’s fury boil because it’s already too darned hot and one has to have faith in the capacity of people to survive. On a Sunday morning, women in elegant dresses walk through the middle of the oncoming traffic towards church, oblivious to the danger around them. The average Nigerian’s sheer strength of will is -astonishing.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Tim Stanley was in Nigeria as a guest of Adam Smith International.

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Show comments
  • Mo

    The locals of region affected by Boko Haram are ardent supporters of the political opposition, Buhari!
    That’s probably why the army isn’t doing anything! The BBC and others report the Nigerian army were indeed informed about the Baga massacre beforehand, yet they did nothing!

    • 100%Black

      shaaraap.!!! u boko haram supporter

      • Mc

        Very intelligent observation – how did your brilliant deductive skills transport you to that conclusion?

        • Picquet

          I suspect a lack of that there book-learnin’.

  • 100%Black

    U western “parachute journalists” don’t know the 1st and last thing about Nigeria.
    U keep on looking at it with paternalistic, racist, bigoted, patronizing lens…
    Mind ur fukking business

    • Megusto

      Would love to hear more…I love NG been to PH and heading back. No doubt the potential is there in NG and this country could really fly

    • Temi

      I am sure that you can make your point without resulting to abusive language. What is your point really?

      • rtj1211

        His point is that you wouldn’t take too kindly to Vladimir Putin telling you how to live in england, so why should the Nigerians be any different??

        • Mc

          Bit of a difference I’d say. Nigeria is an unmitigated cluster cuss, while the UK isn’t. It is perfectly reasonable for a journalist to point out Nigeria’s faults. 100%Black simply comes across as a buffoon by engaging in fundamental logical fallacies.

        • Temi

          Writer was not telling anybody how to live in Nigeria or telling them anything for that matter. The article is a fair comment and far better than the usually biased and lopsided write-ups you find among most western writers about the country.


      we have a point though don’t we. What an utter s***t hole it is.

      • 100%Black

        suck on a kokk

        • BARROSO

          No thanks, we stay HIV free round here.

          • John

            Hasn’t prevented your mental retardation, though.

          • BARROSO

            Nigeria is a hell hole. Nothing retarded about stating that plain fact.

    • Patrick Roy

      The journalist is entitled to his point of view; what lens are you looking at Nigeria through, I wonder?

      • 100%Black

        With a non-racist lens…

        • Patrick Roy

          yeah right.

    • Arthur Ascii

      Why did you choose the username 100%Black? Do you define yourself by the colour of your skin?

      • 100%Black

        Actually, i define myself by my 100% Black Suede Shoes…

    • SeanieRyan

      What racism did he display?

      Nigeria is a desperately corrupt and very unequal society.

      • 100%Black

        So is ur country

  • Ed

    Ok I needs some clarification here, how is it possible that 2.5 million Nigerians have the potential right to reside in the UK?

    • rtj1211

      Because enough of them have gamed the social security system for enough years to have the ability to grease palms at appropriate heights when visas are being handed out??

    • post_x_it

      Presumably to do with rights of abode conferred on Commonwealth citizens born before 1983.

      • James Mayer

        Cancel them.

        • post_x_it

          I don’t know how to.

  • Damian Hurts

    We need to hear much more about opportunity outside of the EU.
    Quite frankly many of us are bored with flying to Porto for a weekend jolly on fortfied wine or to Denmark sampling nouvelle cuisine amongst well-behaved white folk. What’s the score in Nigeria, sell it to us Tim.

  • rtj1211

    It could of course go for something more traditionally African in nature – an inclusive form of innovative nation-tribe??

    It beggars belief that we westerners still think we can gallivant into Africa with our pat solutions instead of realising that they are just as innovative, just as brainy and usually rather more fertile than we are.

    Let them find their own course……..

  • Blindsideflanker

    Indeed, enterprise and capitalism is the solution to Africa’s problems. The responsibility for those problems should be placed at the door of the Left, who with their socialist economics and totalitarian politics managed to impoverish Africa post independence.

    Too often the political right allow the left to escape criticism for impoverishing Africa, don’t let them, the left should have their noses rubbed in their failure at every opportunity.

  • Joe

    Why not argue the case for Capitalism in Europe?
    How can The Spectator preach to African countries when it fails to condemn the Socialist society that Britain is?

    • John

      Socialist society.. that sells off the Royal Mail and continues to privatize the NHS, all against the express wishes of the majority. You are a fool.

  • Roy

    When handouts to people are given in the name of socialism, it isn’t surprising socialism is thought to be the answer. When public servants, public service employees of all descriptions receive over and above the norm in wages and salaries it immediately sends the wrong message. When the rewards of enterprising individuals, especially farmers in black African countries, are taxed beyond any fair judgment, is a big unfortunate mistake.

  • Rob

    Surely it is the greed of capitalism that has contibuted so much to putting Nigeria in to it’s present state. So much oil wealth for the few and so much sadness and poverty for the many. Make the big oil and other businesses pay their fair share instead of just banking billions that they make off the poverty of the people.

  • Frank

    TBH, Nigeria appears to need honest competent government, rather than any particular form of “-ism”. Mind you, the same is true for the entire continent (and Britain, whilst I am at it).

  • Nehemiah Sabinus Alozie

    You are writing nonsense. If you must write about a nation’s affair, ask to learn from those that come from there. It is now that I am in the UK that I realise that Nigeria’s and indeed Africa’s socio-political and economic problems are all a game of manipulations by western powers through media propaganda that exploits our ignorance. The western press are only interested to cast news about war, starvation, corruption and all God’s forsaken evil that can befall man from Africa. Go and read the book called ‘Things Fall Apart’ you can realise the evil that western colonisation did to Africa and that is the best way to explain the continued ‘Press Propaganda’ about Nigeria and indeed Africa. By the Grace of God, Nigeria’s peaceful election and survival of democracy will shame this current evil propaganda. We have established economic character, based on integrity, industry, brotherly love, care, freedom and liberty; prosperity based on production of tangible economic goods not the current twist of mind to see wealth as only when we produce oil to satisfy western lust for energy security. We do not need capitalism, socialism or welfarism. Leave us to our Africanism; it is an economic system based on the used of collective effort to exploit the resources of nature for the good of common man. It existed there before colonisation truncated it. The present challenges that our government is tackling is rooted on the perversion of natural order in peoples way to life which have made us to be copying nonsense ideology that we do not understand. God is with us, and according to Martin Luther “we shall overcome”. Stanley, for you to be prophesying doom about Nigeria, hear me and hear me well: I cancel it in Jesus Name! Amen. I know you will not like to hear ‘In Jesus Name’ but take it from me, Nigeria shall overcome this evil prophesy and proper in Jesus Name. Nigeria is one country in the world that will shape the future of human civilisation, the era of this stupid manipulation is over. When next you want to write about Nigeria, please have a rethink. We have come a long way as a nation, we can no longer be easily manipulated.

    • Hard

      Wow! This must be the biggest Nigerian retard on the internet. Get your head outta your ass and stop fooling yourselves with empty wishful thinking. Shame on you!

      • Nehemiah Sabinus Alozie

        If only you know the meaning of retard, you will use on yourself. You are not what replying! Nigeria is GREAT. Compare our diversity and history to any nation of your choice, you will know why I am proud and confident in Nigeria despite the apparent challenges.

    • S&A

      If in doubt, praise God and blame whitey.

    • S&A

      If in doubt, praise God and blame colonialism.

    • Rowland Nelken

      I am merely a nominal Christian. Jesus’ message was essentially divisive and apocalyptic- not very helpful. It is a fact, however, that Christianity arrived in Nigeria, not from an African source like Egypt or Ethiopia, but via European missionaries.

  • Cobbett

    ” Diplomatic sources estimates that some 2.5 million Nigerians would have a right of residence in the UK in the event of a coup or war”
    If true it’s insanity – no Nigerian(or anyone else that isn’t British) should have any such right.

    • SeanieRyan

      The logical fallout of empire.

      • Cobbett

        Sorry mate, that old one doesn’t wash – my Nan lived longer than Nigeria was ‘ruled’ by Britain – We Owe Them Nothing.

  • Bonkim

    Good Luck – Jonathan.

  • Patrick Roy

    Capitalism, a bit of socialism, but above all – GOOD GOVERNANCE is the only solution.

  • norm

    First thing they need to do is get rid of any religion they have there and start thinking for them selves, and not listening to people that think the world stopped some time in the past like 1500-2000 years ago

  • Temi

    I thought I could subscribe to this magazine but looking at the language being used here, I better stick to my subscription with The Times. This is no better than Yahoo news comments! Shame!

  • Arthur Ascii

    rebels get their equipment from government soldiers selling it for food
    Issue number two is corruption etc.

    Does this remind you of Iraq? Buy yourself an army job then spend your time clawing back your investment using kickbacks and corruption. Then, when you’re faced with a real threat (ISIS or Boko Haram) melt away and discard your uniform.

    How big is the Nigerian standing army – 66,000? Do they have the discipline, motivation, and logistical support to defend the remaining population against Boko Haram?

  • Dee

    Tim, it is not the northern city
    of “Karno” but rather “Kano”. This seems to me an
    egregious error in an article purporting to be serious analysis.

    And, you write: “The Nigeria to which Britain GIFTED
    independence amounted to at least seven countries in one” (emphasis
    obviously mine). No modern, sensible person talks about Africa in such colonial