- Building confidence -

Big challenges remain for President Obasanjo’s reforming administration, but investor belief in Africa’s most populous nation is growing

potent mixture of oil, democracy and reform has been transforming the fortunes of Africa’s most populous country. Once a military dictatorship regarded as a pariah state, Nigeria now boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the world and is on the way to becoming the powerhouse of the continent.

Growing international confidence in the West African country is reflected in recent assessments from international observers. Ratings by the global agencies Fitch and Standard & Poor’s have placed Nigeria in the same category as emerging economies such as Brazil, Venezuela, Turkey and the Philippines. Both agencies cite the commitment to reform of President Olusegun Obasanjo’s federal government, together with last year’s decision by the Paris Club of creditors to lift the country’s crippling burden of external debt, as key reasons for taking a positive view of the future. All eyes will be on Nigeria next year, hoping that the economic reform programme will be continued in the years following the 2007 elections.

The analysts forecast that economic prospects will improve even more when further progress is made in tackling the political and social challenges that the nation faces. Indeed, a Goldman Sachs report has suggested that if Nigeria sticks to its reform agenda, it will overtake South Africa and Egypt to become Africa’s strongest economy and by 2020 could become one of the 25 largest economies in the world.

The vital energy sector continues to develop rapidly, with the coming onstream of huge new deepwater oil and gas fields. Prospects look good for achieving the government’s objective of raising production from 2.6 million barrels per day to four million, and the high price of crude is keeping up oil revenues despite problems in the Niger Delta.

Obasanjo’s reform agenda has set Nigeria on course to become the strongest economy in Africa

One of the most important challenges the government needs to meet is to ensure that Nigeria’s oil wealth is shared fairly. This has been underlined by the recent outbreak of kidnapping and damage to oil facilities in the Delta. The swampy region in the southwest is the main source of Nigeria’s oil revenues and, at the same time, one of the most impoverished parts of the country.

As demonstrated by the subsequent production shutdowns, there is the potential here for disruption of the most vital sector of Nigeria’s economy, not to mention the global oil supply. Oil accounts for around a quarter of GDP, more than 90 per cent of the total foreign exchange and nearly 80 per cent of government revenues.

In this context, the work of the Niger Delta Development Commission, which recently launched a masterplan to accelerate development and combat poverty in the area, is of not only local, but national and even international importance.

Top: President Olusegun Obasanjo, currently in his second term of office. Below: Vice President Atiku Abubakar.

INTERVIEW

Another, and associated, issue is that of ‘local content’, in particular the extent of indigenous involvement in the oil and gas industry. Nigeria is reckoned to be losing a massive £4.6 billion annually through the awarding of lucrative oil service contracts to foreign firms.

The government is putting extra pressure on the multinational oil companies to utilise significant local content in terms of materials and services in the development and operation of their concessions. It is also bolstering indigenous participation in other key sectors of the economy.

An increasing number of Nigerian oil services firms are proving they have the ability to take on major contracts. At the same time steps are being taken to provide the training required for more Nigerians – especially the unemployed youth – to join the oil sector workforce.

On the political front, President Obasanjo, currently in his second term, has won praise for his economic, political and social reforms and anti-corruption campaign. Crucially his policies are encouraging foreign investment into the economy, and not just in the oil and gas sector; non-oil sectors are also expanding rapidly.

Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo Iweala says, “Our efforts have been rewarded by an inflow of foreign direct investment, estimated at $3 billion (£1.7 billion)a year in the non-oil sector.”

The non-oil GDP growth rate was 8 per cent last year, signalling that measures to diversify are working. Overall, the economy expanded 8.2 per cent in 2005, while growth of 10 per cent is targeted for 2006.

Government spending this year will be focused on human and physical infrastructure to develop power, roads, water supply, agriculture, education, health and security. Approximately £2.6 billion has been earmarked for the implementation of capital projects all over the country, including the building of new power plants.

Vice President Atiku Abubakar argues that Nigeria is now a stable country where risks for investors are now minimal. “In the past six years, we have pursued our economic reforms with vigour and tremendous success. Returns on investment here are the highest in Africa,” he says.

Interview FRANK NWEKE
Minister of Information and National Orientation

A new national image

With your appointment as Minister of Information, you bring to the position a wealth of experience from top federal and state government positions. As we understand, you have previously held the position as Federal Minister for Youth Development and Inter-Governmental Affairs, before which you held the position as the Minister for Special Duties and the one of Chief of Staff to Governor Nnamani of Enugu State.
How has this background prepared you for your role as Minister of Information and National Orientation?

Thank you very much. My attitude is that every new thing that comes your way is a new challenge for you. When I first came to Enugu state to work with Governor Chimaroke Nnamani, I was then appointed a consultant to the state government for economic affairs. The Economic Affairs unit was purely an in-house consultancy unit. Our job was to achieve good governance and facilitate economic development. Next, I moved on to become the Co-ordinator of the Community Development Co-ordinating Committee, the state poverty alleviation initiative for the rural communities. After 11 months, I was appointed Chief of Staff to the Governor. I had the responsibility of managing the government house and the governor's schedule. I remained in that position for two years before I was appointed by Mr. President as the Minister for Special Duties. Of course, they've all been huge assignments. Each appointment has come with its own challenges but you are right to say that I have picked up some experiences from the preceding assignments which have really helped me in tackling my present assignment more adequately.

However, with my private sector background, working for the government has been very challenging for me. You are used to an efficient system, more efficient than how most governments are ran around the world. Coming into the public sector in 1999 was very tough for me and I simply had to adjust to the Civil Servants and their way of doing things, namely the bureaucracy. One must be able to strike a balance and see if you can augment all the shortfalls in the system, while encouraging its positive aspects. So it has been very challenging.

As the official spokesperson for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the goals and objectives of the Ministry of Information are derived from policy directives and guidelines on management of public information as defined by the president. What are the specific functions of the Ministry? What are your objectives and priorities in this regard?

The Ministry of Information is the chief image-maker and chief spokesperson of the government; we have the responsibility to educate the Nigerian public, educate our stakeholders. We explain the government's position on certain issues and embark on enlightenment programmes, while also campaigning for government policies and programmes.

It is my intention in the course of the on-going programme to engage all stakeholders. And when I say stakeholders, here I am not only referring to the Nigerian people, but I also imply other interest groups -diplomatic missions and the international community at large- engage with them in a proactive manner. I believe that there are a whole lot of laudable government programmes which are misunderstood because of the government's inability to communicate its policies and strategies effectively. The key lies in proactive enlightenment. I believe the people of Nigeria have the right to be informed about what their government is doing and what their government is planning on doing.

In its important role as the voice of the nation, the Ministry presumably works very closely with the Nigerian media. Indeed, you have been quoted as saying, "the need to focus attention on the place of the media within the context of nation building as development cannot be overstressed."
What type of relationship does the Ministry share with the Nigerian media? How does the Ministry work with both international and domestic media to distribute national information?

Well, first of all, my approach is to see both the Nigerian and international media as partners in progress. I take a cue from Thomas Jefferson, the past American president, who, when asked if he were to choose between the press and the government what his choice would be, replied that he would choose the press. It is something I also subscribe to. In all of our history, the press has played a major role in Nigeria, and especially in the attainment of our independence in 1960.

During the military years they also played a major role; they demonstrated unprecedented courage by taking on the military junta. I believe they played a major role in dismantling the dictatorship in our country. And under democracy, they have continued to play a vital role. We must recognize that times have changed, hence we must also change our strategies in this regard.

I believe that in addition to the press' responsibility of informing the Nigerian public as well as the global community, they also have a social responsibility. This means they have to weigh the kind of messages they spread because the way events are reported has a great impact on the security of a nation. Nigeria -because of her heterogeneous, multi-ethnic nature- requires the press to be careful. They must exhibit utmost objectivity.

I see myself and the media as partners, and while I am the Minister of Information, I will be accessible, just as my aides, staff and key officials of this Ministry are accessible. I believe that this is the only way we can build a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. We must know that they are available to explain their position and when they don't do it that they are going to be available and more importantly that you can be sure you are going to get credible information from these people.

My credibility is very important to me. My background will not permit anything less. I want a situation where it is widely accepted that, if Frank said this, he meant it. I believe that in the coming weeks and months the relationship is going to develop better and there will be more trust.

One of the challenges of the Ministry at the moment is the handling in the re-engineering of the country's image internationally which has been in some part, a poor image. The "Heart of Africa" project was put together at the start of the year and has been carried on until your tenure. Can you tell us what the vision and the specific objectives of this project are?

The "Heart of Africa" project is a major effort by the government to reinvent our image and correct the very grave misrepresentation of our country and people by the Western media. We believe that in terms of reforms, there is a lot going on in Nigeria. We have a very rich culture, the warmest people on earth and we have a land that if we are to develop to our full potential, could become a major tourist destination in the world. Unfortunately, Nigeria has acquired criminal connotations over time, on account, perhaps, of the activities of an insignificant number of compatriots and we have a problem with that.

There is no country that does not have this group of people; they are in Italy, Britain etc. We believe that the activities of these insignificant few should not be allowed to stain the image of an otherwise vibrant country that holds so much promise. The vision behind the "Heart of Africa" project is to project Nigeria's rich culture. It is also significant that today, it is only in the Nigerian economy that you can invest and get a return of 35%. It is our intention to draw the world's attention to this fact.

What are the specific initiatives put in place to this date? What are your hopes and ideas in terms of specific initiatives put into international focus?

From a long term view, the government's desire is to embark on a massive re-orientation programme, that is why, if you look at the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) document, which is the frame work for the entire reform initiative of the government, you will find that one of the most important objectives of that strategy is value re-orientation.

In that respect, the government plans to re-introduce what we call "civic education" in all tiers of our educational system. The government is also strengthening the National Orientation Agency, which is a parastatal under the Federal Ministry of Information. It is in charge of initiating mentoring dialogues and creating mentoring clubs in our various schools, to educate the youth to avoid the dangers of embracing poor conduct, like getting into scams like "419", for which we have become so infamous. The government wants to ensure the support of all segments of the society: the civil population, the private sector and the government agencies. The government has enormous interest in strengthening the activities of agencies, like the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) etc. and we are going to be running a campaign on the dangers of embracing advance fee fraud. It's going to be a coordinated effort of all tiers of government.

You are aware that the Federal Government has established the EFCC Research and Training Centre, the first of its kind in the West African sub-region. The EFCC will be inviting Bank executives, Insurance executives etc. for training in the institution. The purpose is to improve their capacity to detect fraud as it happens. Today, the EFCC is linked with Interpol and Europol. This means that this organisation will have first-hand information on activities of international fraud cells in Nigeria. It also gives us access to the network of these international agencies where they can help us to coordinate our effort to arrest and sanction our compatriots who perpetrate this act.

We intend to launch the Heart of Africa project in major cities of the world. To start with, on September 10 we have launched it in London. When we attended the UN General Assembly on October 14 this year, we also have launched the project in New York. This is what we intend to do in other major cities of the world where we have a large population of Nigerians and we can gain access to the western media, so that they can see what the government is doing in this respect.

More importantly, the implementation of all of these projects is going to be a partnership between the government and the private sector. When you look at the western audience and international investors, some of the people that know this group the best, are private sector players in Nigeria and this is where our business support group will come in. We are also going to be enlisting the support of our compatriots that live in the capital cities of all these countries for a similar purpose.

Concerning the launch of the Heart of Africa project in London in September, could you tell the Nigerians in the diaspora that may be interested in attending the event, what the day will involve?

Thank you very much; we are going to be leveraging on efforts by the Nigerian High Commissioner in Great Britain, Dr Christopher Kolade. He has made a major effort to bring together all Nigerian Socio - Cultural organisations in the U.K. He has invited me to speak to these associations of about 500 Nigerians. We intend to use this meeting to launch the Heart of Africa project. It's a major initiative and the government is committing lots of resources to it.

You spoke about the business support group and the role the private organisation can play in helping to boost the positive image of Nigeria. More specifically, what does that business support group do, what is your idea and vision for that?

The business support group was put together first, to mobilise commitment among the private sector for the project and secondly to mobilise funding. The project is costing the government quite a lot and we realise that the government alone cannot do the job effectively, which is why we need their support.

What will happen ultimately is that parts of the campaign that we are going to launch in the media, such as bill boards, seminars, or business delegations will be sponsored by this business support group to take pressure off the government.

Looking at the Nigerian image from the investment point of view; for many years it's been seen as a risk market due to some issues, such as its history and other things you've talked about. In a more general sense, why do you think the international investors feel Nigeria is no more of a risk market than other countries like Thailand?

The reasons are not far fetched. You are dealing with the largest Black Nation in the world. On top of this, the Nigerian economy is the only economy in the world that supports a return on investment of as much as 35% and I stand to be challenged on that fact.

Also, we have a democratic government in place and we are irreversibly on the path of recovery; economically, politically and socially. Companies like V-mobile, MTN and others that have taken up the challenge are not regretting it. Even more recently Richard Branson has come in with a major stake in Nigeria's National Carrier, Virgin Nigeria. If things were not well, these investors would not be here. Nigeria is the best place for investors who are looking for where to put their money.

The president of Nigeria is at the same time Chairman of the African Union, Chairperson of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and the Chairman of the Group of 77. It is a remarkable achievement. No doubt we still have a long way to go but as I said, we are irreversibly on the path of recovery.

With the renewed focus on economic development, the commercial partnership between Nigeria and the UK continues to prosper. Currently the number of UK companies operating in various sectors of the Nigerian economy is continually growing.
How do you assess the role that UK investment is playing in Nigeria and what are your aspirations in this regard?

Perhaps due to the reason of our colonial history, Britain has been Nigeria's greatest partner. Prime Minister Tony Blair has shown great commitment to the cause of democratic government in Africa. He has proven his support for the government of Obasanjo. We are very familiar with the Blair Commission on Africa. Prime Minister Blair recently pledged that his presidency of the European Union will be devoted to mobilising massive support for Africa. On his own, he played a major role in the attainment of debt relief for Africa. For him to have mobilized the G-8 countries to support the various initiatives he introduced, both prior to the G-8 meeting and then subsequently, only shows that he is committed to his vision and I believe the government and the people of Nigeria cannot thank him enough for his consistent support for our country.

As you know, the focus of our report is on Nigeria at a time when the Development of Africa is taking centre stage both internationally through the Blair Commission for Africa and internationally through NEPAD. I would like to get your ideas as Minister of Information, on NEPAD, Pan-African intergration, and the role of non-african countries in the development of africa?

As a matter of fact at a recent governmental event that I attended NEPAD was a sore point for me because the professor who brought up this topic claimed that NEPAD is not a home-grown partnership because the neo-liberal policies which the partnership has enunciated are the same liberal policies which African governments rejected in the late 70s and early 80s. More importantly, I was told that by funding it through overseas development agencies, it would undermine its African vision. I disagreed vehemently because the programmes enunciated by NEPAD are the same as those upon which developed countries are founded. I believe Africa has come of age. If you go through that document you will see that it was so carefully thought through. It is a very pragmatic initiative. We believe that an integrated Africa will be a stronger negotiating power. The African Peer Review mechanism as a policy couldn't have come at a better time as a check on African governments, to ensure that we don't relapse to a path of dictatorship which characterised African governments for several decades. It is a very pragmatic initiative and I believe it is going to succeed in spite of the challenges.

When the time comes to step down as the Minister of Information and National Orientation what would you like your legacy to be?

One thing I understand very well is what appears to be the cynicism of the Nigerian public about government programmes and policies. Even though, in my opinion, this fact is not necessarily a peculiarity of Nigeria; governments are not trusted around the world. It is my hope that at the end of my tenure, I would have succeeded in reducing, if not eliminating the cynicism among Nigerians.

More importantly, I hope that in terms of orientation, one would have succeeded at least in reinvigorating the traditional African values; the value of honesty, hard work, industry and discipline.

I also hope that in the coming months, when I leave here, I would have succeeded in re-branding Nigeria to reverse the criminal profile that has been conferred on this country.

Any final message you would want to send to the 1.5 million readers of the Independent and the huge number of Nigerians living in Britain?

Absolutely, Britain was built by Britons, Italy was built by Italians, India was built by Indians, China was built by the Chinese and Japan is being built by the Japanese. I absolutely believe that Nigeria can only be built by Nigerians. I have strong faith that we will reinvent our country and that it will take the place it is destined to be.

Mr. Nweke, thank you for your time.

Thank you.


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