Africa Must Pen Its Own Story

Forbes Africa
Published 8 years ago

Just how well Africa is rejuvenating its geopolitical space, including its trade and scientific ties with its sovereign states and the rest of the world, will be the crux of discussions at this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa, in Abuja, Nigeria’s administrative and diplomatic capital, in May.

For Africa’s most populous nation, the benefits of hosting the prestigious event will go beyond the superficial. For starters, Nigeria is a land of speeches, conferences and seminars. If grandiose eloquence from politicians, community, business and religious leaders was all it took to transform a nation, then the country would be the most developed nation south of the Sahara. The presence of the world’s most influential people in Abuja will be an unprecedented opportunity for Nigeria to showcase its vast economic opportunities and deepen the dialogue on economic reform between the international and Nigerian private sectors.

Nigeria’s reputation is constantly in flux. Its quest for global leadership and respect is reflected in its diplomatic forays around the world, its contributions to global culture and the arts, its youthful and entrepreneurial populace, its consumer base and its emerging status as a leading South-South economy. Its recently concluded the sale of several state-owned assets in its power sector, and government should earn well over $10 billion when this phase of its privatization program ends in 2016.

In November, Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan appointed his top economic adviser, Nwanze Okidegbe and finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as co-chairs of the 2014 WEF in Africa steering committee to prepare the country for the meeting of heads of government and chief executive officers of global firms.

The steering committee is supported by the Nigerian Economic Summit Group and led by Frank Nweke, a former minister of information. The group also includes Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man and president of Dangote Industries; Tony Elumelu, the chairman of Heirs Holdings; Bisi Onasanya, the group managing director of First Bank of Nigeria, the country’s oldest and largest bank by assets; Nduka Obaigbena, the publisher of ThisDay newspaper and Wale Tinubu, the group managing director of Oando, Nigeria’s leading home-grown energy company.

Nigeria is arguably one of the fastest growing economies on the African continent, posting an average 7% GDP growth each year for the past decade, and poised to achieve increased revenues from the non-oil sectors in 2014, according to the IMF. West Africa’s leading economy is also plagued by industrial spats and strikes in its hospitals and schools, widespread graft and internal terrorism, mostly from the militant Boko Haram group.

The Nigerian government grabbed the opportunity to host the 2014 edition of the WEF on Africa summit with relish, eager to showcase its hospitality and status as a developing nation, while further cementing Abuja’s reputation as West Africa’s conference capital.

More than 800 delegates from around 70 countries are expected to review the progress the continent has made since the previous meetings and to do justice to the theme for this year’s event: ‘Forging Inclusive Growth, Creating Jobs’.

The WEF Africa team in Geneva are clearly seeking to advance the debates and consensus for action reached during previous meetings which focused on the need for sustained economic growth, improvements in governance, improving agricultural output, accelerating investments, competitiveness and collaboration with other reemerging economies, and scaling innovation.

“The theme aligns perfectly with the medium- and long-term aspirations and commitment of the Federal Government of Nigeria,” says Okonjo-Iweala.

“With the whole economic and political world focused on Nigeria during the meeting, it places enormous responsibilities on the country.”

Focusing on issues particular to the region—whether in the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, or Latin America—the regional WEFs are different from the annual retreat in Davos, Switzerland which has a much wider scope of examining global political, economic and social issues.

“Africa’s remarkable growth trajectory is projected to remain above 5 percent in 2014 with West Africa the fastest growing sub-region, representing the continent’s largest business opportunity. Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest economy and most populous nation—with over 160 million inhabitants—already plays a crucial role in advancing the continent’s growth; yet it is also emblematic of the challenges of converting natural wealth into solutions that address persistent social challenges, says the WEF.

“Nigeria currently receives a very significant share of Africa’s foreign direct investments (FDI), and I reckon that discussions at the 2014 WEF on Africa summit would reveal the need for even more FDI for important economies like Nigeria, and attract broad-based investments that will lead to the creation of millions of new jobs,” Ogho Okiti, the special adviser to President Jonathan’s chief economic adviser, tells FORBES AFRICA.

Unlike debates and resolutions at the United Nations (UN) which are usually confrontational and perceived as quixotic by critics of the global body, the WEF has maintained a collegial culture over the decades. Three days of thematic talk comprising of workshops, interactive sessions, working breakfasts and lunches, and cultural events in Abuja are expected to facilitate pragmatic responses to insightful queries such as why nations continue to experience jobless growth and, in Africa’s case, growth bereft of sustainable development; why African nations trade more with the rest of the world than they do with themselves; and which regional blocs score top marks for infrastructure improvements, economic integration and HIV/AIDS reduction in its communities.

The WEF’s rich database and extensive use of research methodologies helps it produce reports such as the ‘Global Risks Report’, the ‘Global Gender Gap Report’ and the ‘Global Competitiveness Report’—there is also an ‘African Competitiveness Report’.

Dangote has described the WEF’s non reflection of Nigeria’s involvement and impact in Africa’s development over the years as unfortunate. On a broader scope, Africa’s numerous challenges, such as poor governance; diseases; widespread access to affordable shelter, education and clean water; poverty and poor electricity supply have been at the core of many of the forum’s initiatives. WEF gatherings encourage partnerships and the commitment of its corporate members towards solving some of these problems. Perhaps this event in Abuja might offer a solution to the Boko Haram scourge.

One candid moment that has etched the WEF permanently in the annals of Africa’s global experience was the 1992 Davos meeting where former South African president FW de Klerk shared a podium with the late Nelson Mandela. This was where Mandela reportedly made his very first speech on South Africa’s economic future under the ANC government. That speech laid the foundation for social harmony and global support for South Africa.

Founded by a University of Geneva professor of business policy, Klaus Schwab in 1971, the WEF is positive evidence that discerning conversation will never go out of fashion.

Two remarks made during the 2013 WEF in Davos illustrate why the meetings will continue to inspire the world’s business and political elite to create positive change. The first is an excerpt from United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s speech.

“As a boy, I studied in the dirt. There was no classroom. Education made me what I am; it made my dream come true… I shared my message with refugee children: Don’t lose hope, study hard. I did it, you can do it too,” he says.

The second is an observation by Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame.

“Africa’s story has been written by others; we need to own our problems and solutions and write our story.”