Business

As Nigeria gets richer, more Nigerians live in poverty

Daniel Magnowski

Nigeria could soon outrank South Africa as Africa's biggest economy, but about 61% of Nigerians still live on less than $1 per day.

Lagos city, the capital of Nigeria. (Reuters)

As Nigeria gets richer, more Nigerians live in poverty. That's the paradox of growth in Africa's biggest oil producer, its most populous nation and which, as of March 31, may be its top-ranked economy.

The National Bureau of Statistics is recalculating the value of gross domestic product based on production patterns in 2010, the first time it's overhauled the data in two decades. That may boost the size of the economy by as much as 60% to between $384-billion and $424-billion, according to London- based Renaissance Capital, putting Nigeria ahead of South Africa and close to Austria and Thailand in the World Bank's global league table.

Yet the most recent poverty survey by the Nigerian statistics agency, published in 2012, shows that 61% of Nigerians were living on less than a dollar a day in 2010, up from 52% in 2004. In the desert north, where Amnesty International estimates more than 600 people have been killed this year as the government struggles to quell a violent Islamist insurgency, poverty is even more stark.

"Reducing poverty and inequality requires not just economic growth but also job creation and investment in improving the productive capacity of the economy and its people," Giulia Pellegrini, sub-Saharan Africa economist at JPMorgan Chase & in London, said in an email.

Oil dependency
These tensions underscore the shortcomings of the region's economic powerhouse, whose growth potential has spurred investment from Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble to MTN Group, Africa's biggest mobile-phone operator. While Nigeria's economy has expanded 6% a year since 2006, according to the World Bank, the nation's power supply is less than a 10th of South Africa's.

Nigeria's benchmark stock index has dropped 11% since the beginning of the year, after surging 47% in 2013. The currency strengthened 0.2% to 164.36 per dollar as of 8.07am in Lagos, the commercial capital, paring losses this year to 2.5%.

Oil production is concentrated in the south, with revenue accounting for about 80% of government funds and more than 95% of foreign income, according to the Finance Ministry. The government anticipates oil and gas income of 7.16-trillion naira ($43-billion) in 2014.

Joblessness among young Nigerians may undermine economic progress in a nation where 23.9% of the working population is unemployed, according to data from the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook. It estimates that 62% of the nation's 177-million people are below the age of 25.

Jobseekers stampede
"The large number of underemployed youth is a serious threat to the economic and political stability of the country. The median age in Nigeria is 14, and the population continues to grow at a rate close to 3%" a year, John Litwack, the World Bank's lead economist for Nigeria, said by email.

On March 15, seven young jobseekers were killed in a stampede at an immigration service recruitment day in Abuja. Another eight people died in crowds at recruitment drives in three other cities.

The north is particularly vulnerable with poverty rates estimated at about 80%, according to Oyin Anubi, sub- Saharan Africa economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London.

The government says its Federal Initiative for the North East will revive schools, health services and farming, in a region where poverty and lack of opportunity have bred a sense of alienation. Islamist militant group Boko Haram has sought to exploit that sentiment in order to destabilize the government, conducting a deadly campaign of bomb and gun attacks since 2009.

'Persistent inequality'
"Unequal distribution of this oil wealth has contributed to a persistent inequality problem," Anubi said in an emailed response to questions. Poverty poses "a risk to the stability of that region."

One reason why tens of millions of Nigerians still live in poverty is that growth has been concentrated on sectors that are less labor-intensive, such as oil, telecommunications, and banking. Development of agriculture, the biggest employer in the economy, has been largely ignored by the government until recently, said Funmi Akinluyi, investment director at Silk Invest, a frontier markets specialist based in London.

"Growth in Nigeria has not been inclusive in decades," she said in an email. "Once agriculture gets the traction it needs we will have a stronger and a more diverse economy."

Business ranking
Paul Nwabuikwu, spokesperson for Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said in a February 26 statement that there have been "visible achievements in roads, rail, power privatisation, agriculture and job creation programmes."

While the boost to GDP may improve the investment outlook for Nigeria, social progress is slow. Nigeria is, along with Afghanistan and Pakistan, one of only three countries in the world where polio is still endemic, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The US and UK, fearful of terrorism and kidnapping, warn their citizens to stay away from huge swathes of the country, while the World Bank's most recent Ease of Doing Business survey in June ranked Nigeria at 147, only marginally better than Iraq and Sudan. By contrast, South Africa was at 41 and Ghana 67.

Corruption index
Nigeria was listed at 144th out of 177 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index last year.

Nigeria's leap up the wealth league table may intensify scrutiny of President Goodluck Jonathan's administration.

"The greater economic visibility should place more pressure on the Federal Government to undertake economic reforms, infrastructure, job creation, necessary to sustain the current trajectory of GDP growth," Adewale Okunrinboye, an analyst at Lagos-based ARM Asset Management, which manages the equivalent of about $2.7-billion in assets, said in an emailed response to questions. – Bloomberg

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