By Joel Popoola
Other country’s plans for post COVID-19 recovery involve less reliance on oil: Nigeria must fix the roof while the sun is shining if it wants to survive the next storm.
Around the world, national governments are turning their attentions to post COVID-19 economic recovery – and this could mean more bad news for Nigeria.
Across the globe, governments are developing “clean growth” strategies to recover, rebuilt and re-energise their economies after the disruption of the global pandemic.
And a lot of the time, “clean growth” means “not oil”.
It’s not like bad economic news is something in short supply in Nigeria right now.
The International Monetary Fund predicts that our economy will shrink by 3.4% this year. Our own National Bureau of Statistics is even gloomier; projecting that economic growth could fall by between 4.4% and 8.9%.
With the United Kingdom this week announcing that its economy shrunk by more than 20% in April alone even these depressing estimates could prove wildly optimistic.
The newly-published Nigeria Economic Sustainability Plan 2020, a roadmap to post-COVID-19 recovery produced by a presidential committee led by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, recognises the coronavirus crisis has already “depressed the demand for crude oil and precipitated an unprecedented oil price crash”.
The report continues: “Nigeria’s dependence on oil for revenue and foreign exchange makes it particularly vulnerable in this situation.”
There is every chance that pent up economic demand will see oil revenues strongly rebound in the second half of 2020 and throughout 2021.
But Nigeria must not allow herself to be “particularly vulnerable” ever again. But within the next few years that vulnerability may even increase.
If other countries intend to become less reliant on imported oil, Nigerian cannot remain reliant on exporting oil.
We must use this period of respite to prepare for the next storm. We need to fix the roof while the sun is shining.
So, what is to be done?
Not all the economic news this week has been bad. Reuters has reported that Orange, France’s biggest telecoms firm, is planning on expanding into Nigeria “within months”.
The expansion could bring with it much needed inward investment in our national telecommunications infrastructure.
The Economic Sustainability Plan acknowledges that “increasing non-oil revenues” must be a national priority and recognises that the digital economy presents a wonderful opportunity to do that.
The plan also includes specific economic interventions designed to create one million jobs in IT outsourcing, such as:
“Training in key digital skills in partnership with private sector providers…allowing young Nigerians “to take advantage of existing initiatives in the digital economy, including in education, entertainment, e-commerce, financial services and software development.
“The expansion of broadband connectivity to business services parks and locations.”
These plans are to be welcomed. But they do not go far enough.
If we are to survive the next storm, we need to embed digital literacy in every aspect of our lives.
We need universal broadband in all businesses and all homes.
We need to encourage businesses of all kinds to adopt new practices to improve efficiency and productivity.
We need a digital literate workforce – and digitally comfortable citizens.
We need government to take the lead and take a “digital by default” approach to providing public services – something we have already seen in palliative payments made during the coronavirus crisis.
We need digital democracy.
Almost 150 million Nigerians will own a smartphone by 2025. Half of young Nigerians already do. More Nigerians own a smartphone than vote.
As head of the Digital Democracy campaign, I set up the Rate Your Leader mobile app to help politicians take the lead in embedding digital technology throughout Nigerian life.
The free app also allows votes to identify and contact their elected representatives at the touch of a button, direct from their phones or tablets.
Rate Your Leader helps politicians engage directly with people who elected them, helping them understand what matters most to the people who elect them and build relationships of trust with the electorate. It can also be used to encourage them to take advantage of the opportunities within the digital economy.
The government’s plans for the extension of broadband and training for young Nigerians in digital skills are to be applauded.
But these plans are on page 47 of the Economic Sustainability plan.
Its Executive Summary appears to prioritise a national move to “produce what we eat and eat what we produce… focusing on agriculture, increasing the acreage under cultivation and engaging thousands of young people in farming and agro-allied jobs.”
No one should underestimate the importance of food security in countries like ours. But Nigeria’s future cannot be as a peasant nation.
We must seize the moment to make ourselves Africa’s first truly digital democracy.
Joel Popoola is a Nigerian technology entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and creator of the free Rate Your Leader app. You can reach Joel on email@example.com