Countries and governments that host World Economic Forum meetings have a habit of attracting the attention of the world’s media, but this will hardly need to be the case when leaders from politics, business and civil society meet in Abuja this week for our annual Africa meeting. For the host Nigeria has, in its centenary year, been in the news a lot already, often for the wrong reasons.
Nigeria is a country that not only embodies the hopes and challenges of a whole continent, but could actually determine them. Home to a quarter of sub-Saharan Africa’s population, it is now also its economic motor, growing much faster than the second largest economy, South Africa. A cultural behemoth, “Nollywood,” is now the country’s second largest employer behind agriculture. Nigeria has also become an increasingly active and energetic peacekeeper in the region.
It is also a country enduring growing pains illustrative of the vast social and economic problems still felt by ordinary Africans all across sub-Saharan Africa. Problems that, if left unchecked, threaten to derail the considerable progress of recent years and plunge the region back into instability.
On its road to becoming Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria has undoubtedly made mistakes. The fruits of economic growth have been distributed unevenly between north and south and rich and poor. Education could have been prioritized much sooner, corruption tackled before it diminished trust in leadership and damaged the fabric of the nation.
But arguably Nigeria’s biggest mistake has been its failure to communicate its successes. In the 1990s, its economy was shrinking and on the verge of collapse. Between 2003 and 2006, things were hardly better, with growth registering around 2.5% – not bad for an advanced economy in the West, but nowhere enough for a country in its stage of development.
Over the past decade, it has grown by an average of 7% per year. Nigeria has seen a turnaround of vast significance. It has enabled the creation of 1.6 million new jobs per year. There is still not enough to offer work to the 1.8 million young people that enter the labour market each year, but enough to bring the target within reach. New programmes focusing on bringing relief to small- and medium-sized enterprises, entrepreneurs and the unskilled should strengthen the economy considerably.
But growth is not an end in itself. Most importantly, Nigeria now has for the first time a platform on which to build institutions its people can be proud of. Plans for a social protection programme, an expansion of healthcare and a long-overdue overhaul of the education system can now be a realistic expectation. The conversation can at last look beyond growth to quality growth. This is exactly why now is the right time for the World Economic Forum to come to Nigeria.
Under the theme, Forging Inclusive Growth, Creating Jobs, leaders from politics, business and civil society will come together to debate ways to tackle Africa’s biggest challenge: how to create a continent of increased prosperity and strong communities; of strong governments delivering quality services and leaving no one behind. This will mean holding Nigeria to account where it needs to be held to account, but also praising it when its actions serve as a role model for other African countries.
We are not here to convey political endorsement or political point-scoring. We are here because Nigeria has a great role to play in building a better, more equitable Africa. It is an opportunity that must not be missed.
Published in collaboration with Business Insider.
Author: Philipp Rösler is a Managing Director and Member of the Managing Board of the World Economic Forum.
Image: Women work in Amingos fibre hair factory in Ikeja district in Lagos, December 1, 2011. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye