Skip links

Akinwumi Adesina’s disappointing lecture

In one breath last week, the African Development Bank President, Akinwumi Adesina, demonstrated why Africa should not be poor but is likely to remain so.

Speaking in Lagos on the theme, ‘For the World to Respect Africa, at the 40th anniversary of The Guardian newspaper, Dr. Adesina said that the continent has no excuse to be poor given that it has $6.2tn worth of natural resources, 65 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, and a vibrant youth population.

He urged citizens to hold governments accountable for poverty, noting, “If we manage our natural resources well, Africa has no reason to be poor…We have $6.2tn in natural resources.”

Calling for Africa to become a continent that grows inclusive and well-distributed wealth, he said, “We simply need to pull up our socks, stamp out corruption, and manage our resources in the interest of our countries and our people.”

He turned to Nigeria.  “Saudi Arabia has oil, as does Nigeria. Kuwait has oil, as does Nigeria. Qatar has abundant gas, as does Nigeria and other countries. Yet, Nigeria is the country with the largest share of its population living below the extreme poverty line in 2023 in Africa. Clearly, there is something fundamentally wrong in our management, or rather mismanagement, of our natural resources.”

He offered the example of South Korea, which raised its GDP per capita from $350 in the 1960s to approximately $33,000 by 2023, calling for that kind of quantum leap from the bottom end of the development ladder to the rich, industrialised nation of today.

Still, he expressed optimism, adding, “Africa needs the right policies, investments, infrastructure, logistics, and financing…We must make sure that this is driven by a highly skilled, dynamic, and youthful workforce.”

Dr. Adesina was careful on what lane he drove, given that although he was an African serving the continent, he was also a Nigerian speaking in Nigeria on a subject on which Nigeria is the world’s worst: we are the poverty capital of the world.

Pulling up our socks, stamping out corruption, and managing our resources in the interest of our countries and our people? The right policies, investments, infrastructure, logistics, and financing? A highly skilled, dynamic, and youthful workforce?

It was a remarkable homily, but hardly new. For the past 63 years, but particularly since the Fourth Republic began in 1999, Nigerians –with or without a voice or a platform – have consistently made the same case.

And yet Nigeria is worse today than it has ever been, with deeper poverty and inequality than at any point in our history.

Need an example?  When The Guardian took off in February 1983, we wanted to be one of the top-five newspapers in the English-speaking world, and that is why it unapologetically described itself as the “flagship of the Nigerian press.”

The newspaper recruited the best, and paid the most competitive salaries. Members of our staff simply did not want to go to work, they could not wait to go to work. Within weeks, that is, even before the newspaper became a daily in July 1983, there were no doors that did not open to our reporters.

They all also knew what it meant to be armed with the authority to speak in the name of The Guardian that if accepted any “transport fare,” they would lose his job.

It was extremely hard work, but everyone was committed. Members of the Editorial Board took turns returning to the office late at night to superintend production, which helped establish the high quality of the product. We also had a high-level quality control officer, known as the ombudsman, who studied all three editions of the newspaper daily and published a weekly in-house critique.

In other words, the success of The Guardian was attributable to a plan that sounds like Adesina’s prescription: a highly-skilled, dynamic workforce deploying the right policies, investments, infrastructure, logistics, and financing. This means that The Guardian invested in the very best people, not relatives or friends, and not prospectors or charlatans or quacks.

Why is Nigeria floundering? Why have we become the poster-boy for poverty and a nation where nothing works?  First – and sadly – we are a self-centred people who generally want to be not just the leading light, but the only light for miles and miles.

This is why our political elite greedily loots and savages the public interest. It is why, once in power and position, we want it all for ourselves and are uninterested in what Adesina calls “good governance, transparency, accountability, and sound management policies.”

We would rather own 10 mansions in which nobody lives than one or two. We would rather have 20 cars, three each for every member of our immediate family with several left rotting in the back of each mansion, than one 20-seater bus which serves the neighborhood, or leave the funds left in the public till to serve such a public purpose.

Am I wrong? Think about the mansions that dot our towns and villages in which nobody lives or which the owner uses only once in five years. Think about the large, often uncompleted estates in our towns and cities.

It is not a complicated calculation or a strange story. Think about our infrastructure, including the Murtala Muhammad Airport by which Adesina must have journeyed into Lagos. As experienced an African traveller as he is, I am sure it is the worst international airport he has seen in Africa.

Think about our roads, from any state in Nigeria, into Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory in which a train service launched in 2018 collapsed in 2020 in the hands of a man who wanted to be known as Africa’s anti-corruption champion. Little wonder his government became Nigeria’s most avaricious since 1960.

“Good governance, transparency, accountability, and sound management policies?” In Nigeria, this is an alien concept, so the question is not what is required but how to achieve it. Lifting Africans out of poverty must begin with changing the mindset of a greedy, and hypocritical political elite.

In Adesina’s lecture, I had hoped that he would address this problem on his home turf, Nigeria. That he would say something about how the hypocrisy of one Muhammadu Buhari and his enablers brought Nigeria to its knees as he borrowed and burrowed Nigeria deeply into poverty.

I hoped that the AfDB chief would spare a moment to caution the Bola Tinubu administration, which is exhibiting all the signs of bad governance. Even as he spoke, the government was asking the National Assembly to approve a new loan request of $8.7bn and €100m, continuing the habit of Nigerian leaders burying the nation in debt and squandering the funds. Previously, in July, Tinubu received swift approval of another request to borrow $800m from the World Bank only to proceed on reckless spending.

Adesina did not.  But “I am optimistic about Nigeria. I am optimistic about Africa,” he said. “I believe in Africa.”

Yes, there is something fundamentally wrong, but Adesina hesitated to identify it. Perhaps because it was Adesina, the politician, not the technocrat, who came to town.

“For the World to Respect Africa,” The (original) Guardian would have invited the latter.

Leave a comment

This website uses cookies to improve your web experience.