Understanding the Paradoxical Nigeria

A growing Nigeria is set to become the powerhouse of sub-Saharan Africa, and the United States should strengthen both public and private sector ties accordingly.

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In this Aug. 15, 2012 photo, a long line of people wait to board a bus in Lagos, Nigeria. In Lagos, which is predicted to overtake Cairo as Africa's most populous city in 2015, the traffic jams that Nigerians call "go-slows" can strike at any moment. Here, drivers are hostage to a road network that hasn't been upgraded since the 1970s.

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

Nigeria is perhaps the most misunderstood country in Africa, and it is not an easy country to understand. I am not sure I know anyone who really does understand it. On the surface, it is Africa's most populous country. The Nigerian government says that there are 160 million citizens living in the country, but no one really knows how many are there.

It is a deeply divided country, not just between a primarily Islamic north and a Christian south, although that really is too simple a description. There are many millions of non-Muslims in the north and many Muslims in the south, and many in the country are neither. There are hundreds of different tribal ethnicities, with issues for each that make governance more than challenging. The borders of Nigeria, like everywhere else in Africa, were artificially drawn by Europeans, with absolutely no regard to tribal locations and groupings. It is what it is, as they say, more than 125 years since those cruel divisions. One cannot roll back the tides of time.

In all, Nigeria represents about a fifth to a quarter of the population of sub-Saharan Africa. It is the giant of West Africa, and its shadow covers the rest of Africa as well. Nigeria essentially determines the future of West Africa, not without the resentment of its smaller neighbors, and not without equally deep suspicions of its rivals, especially the South Africans and the Angolans.

Nigeria is also a country of economic extremes, with a marked small class of the very rich and powerful against the extreme poverty of parts of Lagos and other places that are nearly unmatched anywhere in the world. It is a country of vast mineral wealth, especially in oil and gas, with all the problems that accompany many of the countries whose economies depend so heavily on energy resources. Remarkably, Nigeria was also a net food exporter 50 years ago, but has become heavily dependent upon food imports to sustain itself and its population now. Nigeria is a paradox of being one of the wealthiest nations in Africa while at the same time being one of the poorest.

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In fact, Nigeria is layer upon layers of paradoxes. Its elite are among the best educated in the world, many carrying degrees from the world's finest universities, and the college system within the nation is good by African standards and matches many other countries in the world. At the same time, its educated have  moved to Europe and America, and it is difficult not to meet someone of the Nigerian Diaspora in any number of U.S. cities. They are often highly educated and can be your children's professors, doctors, nurses, and financial advisers. We often speak of the Hispanic and Asian immigrations, but we seem oblivious to the Nigerian (and African) immigration that is making our own nation richer in many ways.

Here, too, there is a paradox. Many of the Nigerian diaspora now are returning to Nigeria as they see their own nation becoming a nation of great opportunity. A country that seems ungovernable is becoming governable and in so doing it is becoming a country of great opportunity for a new class of entrepreneurs and investors.

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If the influx of the returning diaspora continues, and the middle class begins to grow, Nigeria will become the powerhouse of Africa, and it could be the next entrant into the global middle class of nations as well. There remain many problems in Nigeria, as there are in every nation of the world in these times, but it is a nation that should not be overlooked or stereotyped. It is far too complex for any stereotype and far too big too be overlooked.

It is a nation with which the United States should strengthen its relationships in both the public and private sector.

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