What will Nigeria look like in 2058?
Imagine a country about to enter into another period of high oil prices after only recently just enjoying one and becoming an oil producing country. The country is regaining some optimism almost a decade after the end of its civil war. The return of democratic government is just by the way. And then some guy who styles himself as a prophet stands up to address the nation with some doom and gloom prophecies that no one asked of him.
The prophet says that 40 years from now, that country will still not have stable electricity, the vast majority of its people will not enjoy anything close to pipe borne water, the country will have a shortage of houses of around 20 million and it will also become the poverty capital of the world. The prophet goes on to say that in 40 years’ time, the country’s politicians will have graduated from stealing mere millions to banditry in the billions. The country’s biggest city will be an unlivable mess without an efficient mass transit system. By the time the prophet says that countries like Thailand which Nigeria was almost twice as rich as on a per capita basis will have overtaken Nigeria and be thrice richer in 40 years’ time, Nigerians pick up stones and chase him out of the country declaring that such a future is not the country’s portion.
Having been born somewhere in Lagos in November 1978, I am turning 40 this week. Nigeria has not had constant electricity in my lifetime and the vast majority of its citizens do not have pipe-borne water. It is not an exaggeration to say that perhaps a billion dollars has gone missing in NNPC every year of my 40 years on earth. Lagos is a complete nightmare of a city where 3 governors have been building a simple light rail system for 12 years and counting with no end in sight. The country has been fighting a low level war in its north east for more than a decade and counting. Nigeria is to be found at the bottom of so many world lists from human capital to inequality.
The reason why the prophet was chased out of town was because the idea that things will be this way today would have sounded outrageous 40 years ago. We humans tend to take progress for granted and Nigerians are incredibly optimistic people. Yet, here we are and the prophet’s words have been fulfilled in a way that might surprise even him. If the country squandered a golden opportunity to prepare its future at a time when it had more money and better prospects, it is frightening to think of what it will do now that it is effectively bankrupt and all its oil revenues could not even pay salaries alone in 2017.
This then is the great danger to Nigeria today – there is a clear and present risk that in 2058, the country will look just like it does today or worse. The big risk is that we are marching into the future, 200 million people strong, completely unprepared, with another unpleasant surprise waiting to be unveiled. It is not impossible that in 2058, newspapers will be reporting that another $40bn has gone missing in NNPC (the bigger tragedy being that NNPC might still be alive 40 years from now). It is possible that the Land Use Act will be celebrating 80 years of never being amended. Maybe some new technology will have been invented that makes it easy to deliver electricity to people quickly and affordably, in the way that GSM made it possible for well over 100 million Nigerians to have a phone after NITEL only managed a peak of 500,000 lines in its miserable life. Otherwise what is to say there will be constant electricity in the future?
The only way to avoid such a future is to do things today that guarantee the future will be different. Education is one of the most obvious ones. Countries like Japan pretty much educated themselves into a first world country. Do you see any signs of Nigeria is doing any such thing? The biggest issues about education right now are school feeding, ASUU asking for more money as usual and JAMB now remitting more money to government. The current education minister is so shockingly bad and anonymous. The other thing is infrastructure. Is there anything being built today that will be enough to match the energy of a country with a fast growing population like Nigeria is today? Maybe the trains being built will do it. Maybe successive governments will remain wedded to the idea that train travel must be cheap and subsidised and over time they will fall into disrepair (again).
The lesson of the last 40 years is that progress is deliberate not automatic. If you plan to be alive in 2058, now is the time to fight for your country to be different. Tomorrow will be too late.
Today is the day.