By Austin Okere
The recurrent mistake we keep making as a Nation is failing to anticipate and plan for our oil windfalls. There have been many boom opportunities since Nigeria joined the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1971; Oil prices increased by 400% in six short months after the Yom Kippur War following the Arab Oil Embargo. Crude prices doubled from $14 in 1978 to $35 per barrel in 1981 following the Iran/Iraq war.
The price of crude oil spiked in 1990 with the uncertainties associated the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the ensuring Gulf War – the so called ‘Gulf War windfall’ under then Head of State Ibrahim Babangida. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that the latest windfall happened between February 2011 and August 2014, under the Goodluck Jonathan presidency, when oil prices were much in excess of $100 per barrel. Another golden opportunity was squandered, characterised by organised kleptocracy of epic proportions as has now come to light.
During this same period Saudi Arabia has amassed a whopping $593b in foreign exchange reserves and has recently announced that it is creating a $2 trillion mega-sovereign wealth fund, funded by sales of current petroleum industry assets, to prepare itself for an age when oil no longer dominates the global economy. Coming closer home, Algeria, the second biggest African oil producer, with 1.9mbpd has accumulated foreign reserves of $156b and a sovereign wealth fund of $50b. Nigeria, by far the biggest producer in Africa with 2.5mbpd has only managed foreign reserves of $28b and a sovereign wealth fund of a paltry $2.9b – about 5% that of Algeria. The major difference being that while the Algerians saved for a rainy day during the boom years, Nigeria was busy squandering her wealth, with nothing to show by way of infrastructure or any solid investments.
Yet Nigeria was able to balance her budget, pay off her debts and save over $62b in foreign reserves during the Obasanjo presidency from 1999 to 2007, even though the price of crude was mostly under $40 per barrel, except for the two years between 2005 and 2007 when it hovered between $50 and $75 dollars per barrel. It is bothersome that with the same level of oil price, Nigeria today is struggling to balance her budget and has resorted to aggressive borrowing to finance the deficit, inadvertently driving us back to where we were before escaping from the huge burden of sovereign debt and the attendant debilitating impact of debt servicing.
I believe that Nigeria can save as much as $36.5b in the coming year if oil prices recover towards the end of 2016 and through 2017 to the projected $80 per barrel. This assumes we have all agreed that the current crises is much too painful and too precious to waste. It can actually be a blessing in disguise, affording us the much needed leverage to deliberately diversify our economy away from the over dependence on oil, and attempt to become self-sufficient in every low hanging opportunity such as feeding ourselves. There is a reason why the Chinese use the same word for challenge and opportunity; behind every challenge is an opportunity. We must seize this golden opportunity with both hands and make the structural changes that will lead us to true prosperity as a nation.
Almost every third Nigerian businessman you come across claims to be into Oil and Gas; usually, briefcase contractors who manage to have their ‘papers’ stamped, and proceed to collect money from the treasury of our commonwealth. Yet oil contributed only 6.4% to GDP growth in 2015.
An often overlooked area for rapid economic growth is telecoms, entertainment and media. At a recent event in Lagos, Dr. Doyin Salami, lecturer at Lagos Business School, remarked that ‘The telecommunication sector grew Nigeria’s GDP by 8.7% in 2015, generating spill overs, with uptakes in financial transactions technology and payment systems, e-commerce facilitation and proliferation of transport services, while making the offering of the burgeoning entertainment industry ubiquitous’. Quite simply, if each of the 34 million MSME’s in Nigeria could be supported with technology to improve their businesses through online presence and seamless bookkeeping to the point of employing one more staff, they would create an additional 34 million jobs, much more than the government can ever provide.
I totally agree with Dr. Salami that Nigeria’s economy has systematically and strategically diversified along the lines of technology and other services sector without Nigerians noticing. The services sector today contributes as much as 52% of Nigeria’s GDP.
Agriculture is also another sector that could do with special attention. If we strive to produce what we eat, we will not only be saving a whopping $6b from our import bill, but also provide the opportunity for inclusive growth, with the spill over effects down the value chain, from logistics and transportation to light manufacturing. But we need to make the right investments in infrastructure such as roads and rail transport linking farms with their food processors and markets.
The change that will make all this happen is not the ‘outsourced variety’ where we believe that we can carry on with business as usual, or sit back and fold our arms while only the President delivers the promised change. All hands must be on deck, and we each have to be the change we desire.
The elephant in the room question is; who says oil prices will reach $80 per barrel?
Austin Okere is the Founder CWG Plc and Entrepreneur in Residence, Columbia Business School, New York. He also serves on the World Economic Forum Business Council on Innovation and Intrapreneurship.
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