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Sunday, 10 October 2010 09:52

Golden jubilee is an occasion to reflect on past successes and future goals

In this interview, His Excellency Major General Timothy M. Shelpidi (Rtd), the Nigerian ambassador to Russia, talked about his country’s political, economic and social progress since independence, its robust relations with Moscow as well as its regional and international aspirations as one of the flag bearers of Africa’s dreams of elevating the continent from its current status to greater heights on the global arena.  

On October 1, Nigeria marked its Golden Anniversary of independence. Though this time span, in terms of historical perspectives, is relatively small, but it is all the same enough to assess the progress made since independence. Seen in this context, how, Your Excellency, would you briefly describe your country’s key achievements over this period?

 

Nigeria became independent on Oct. 1 1960. Since then, it has grown from three regions to 36 states and Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, which now serves as the nation’s new capital. One of the achievements is the institutionalization of the federal character principle in all public offices across the tiers of government, which among other things, has helped foster state cohesion and national integration. Others include unprecedented sustenance of democracy and good governance with perceivable marked growth in constitutionalism, rule of law, human rights, multiparty system, civil society and subordination of the military to the authority of civilian leadership. These positive developments have created favorable conditions for pursuing strategic goals in all facets of our society. I must note that huge progress has been made, though there are still lots of challenges facing our nation today. The most important thing is that our government is aware of these issues and doing everything possible to rectify them. Today, arrangements are in top gear by the Independent National Electoral Commission to conduct the next general elections in 2011. In addition to that, the current civilian administration remains fully committed to institutional economic reforms, eradication of poverty, provision of affordable education and housing and creation of a modern and technologically advanced society with unparalleled investment incentives to attract foreign investors to participate in the development of our country.

 

In the modern world, countries are, amongst others, characterized by their economic strengths which make them more resistant to local and global cyclic economic cataclysms. In this context, how would you characterize Nigeria’s economy today? 

 

Nigeria has experienced a period of sustainable economic expansion over the past decade, a fact collaborated by IMF data, which put the country’s real average GDP growth at robust 8.8% from 2000 to 2008, compared to 1.5% between 1991-99. Also, there have been marked improvements in fiscal management that have served to maintain macroeconomic stability. Even more remarkable has been the rapid growth in the non-oil sector, which has averaged 9% since 2003. Indeed, thanks to the government’s prudent fiscal and monetary policies, the current global crisis has had relatively less dramatic negative impacts on the country, compared with its African neighbors and most other OPEC nations. Besides, Nigeria’s financial market has attracted much interest from strategic international investors, as portfolio investments have surged since 2005, largely as a result of the consolidation of the banking sector, the remarkable growth of the local stock exchange market and restoration of relative microeconomic stability. Also, a debt buy-cancellation deal with the Paris Club in 2005-2006 reduced the country’s external debt from $36bln to $3.7bln, thus transforming the country from one of Africa’s most indebted countries to one of its few creditor nations. 

 

“One of our key achievements is the institutionalization of the federal character principle in all public offices, which among other things, has helped foster state cohesion and national integration.”

This has helped close the credibility gap, and consequently, increased the flow of foreign investments into Nigeria, a fact noted by UNCTAD in its 2008 report that confirmed significant increase in foreign direct investments in the country. These factors have significantly boosted international investors’ confidence in Nigeria’s economy. These positive developments have not gone unnoticed, evident in Merrill Lynch, the U.S.-based global financial management and investment bank, naming the country’s economy in its 2008 report “the least vulnerable” in the world. 

 

Superlative epithets, such as the ‘Giant of Africa’, etc., are often used to describe Nigeria, terms that reflect its real or expected pan-continental leadership role in Africa and beyond. How justified, Your Excellency, is the use of such superlative adjectives in describing today’s Nigeria

 

Nigeria is often, and in my opinion, rightly referred to as the ‘Giant of Africa’ for its rich human and natural resources, which are key ingredients for economic prosperity and development. These descriptions are an acknowledgement of its position as the most populous African country that can and does have the required resources to lead the continent out of its current economic state. This is evident in our commendable track record of fully meeting all our international obligations, participation in UN-brokered peace-keeping missions, provision of support for African Unity and exemplary role in the fight for full decolonization of the rest of Africa, notably, the liquidation of the Apartheid System in South Africa, etc. Besides, today’s Nigeria is fully cognizant of the enormity of the challenges to economic prosperity and political stability both at home and on the entire continent. To meet these goals, our government has intensified many policy measures to address its structural imperfections and perennial systemic failures.  This keener awareness ostensibly explains the rationale behind the adoption of various aggressive economic transformation blueprints, such as the Anti-Corruption Initiatives, Millennium Development Goals, New Economic Empowerment and Development Strategies, Nigeria Vision-2020, etc. And finally, I need to stress here that our country has taken bold steps to comprehensively restructure its public sector, a policy that has enabled the government to be more efficient and service-oriented. We are very much aware of people’s expectations from Nigeria to continue, or even boost, its current leadership role on the continent, and most of our domestic and foreign policies are geared, strategically speaking, toward meeting such expectations. 

 

Nigeria’s economy is lopsidedly dependent on the energy sector, a reality seen as one of its key strategic weaknesses. How can you briefly highlight the role of oil in the economy and the measures being implemented to address oil-related problems in the country?

 

Our country has large deposits of oil that is managed by the government-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. (NNPC), which operates in cooperation with international oil companies such as Shell, Chevron, Elf, Agip, Mobil, Total etc. We have recognized the fact that this oil windfall has made the country a lopsided mono-product economy as it generates over 90% of the government’s foreign exchange earnings, 20% of its GDP and about 65% of its annual budgetary earnings. However, all these positive developments have come at a huge price – significant declines and/or lack of development in other economic sectors, social tension in the Niger Delta region, etc. The good news, however, is that our government has taken strategic policy measures to address these issues. These measures, which include the Presidential Amnesty for the Niger Delta militants, the intensified implementation of the re-integration capacity/skill acquisition and other empowerment plans for the ex-militants and the establishment of a special Niger Delta Ministry, etc., have produced a wholesome positive effect on oil operations in this restive region.  However, I must note here that our country’s economic potential goes far beyond oil and gas, as it is also equally richly endowed in nearly all known mineral resources, such as uranium, gold, tin, columbite, coal, bauxite, zinc, limestone, etc.  Indeed, the government, in recognition of the existence of its vast reserve of non-oil minerals, has established relevant agencies/departments, tasked with mining, processing and commercialization of these resources. 

 

As a continuation of the previous question, one of the most evident manifestations of the oil-triggered ‘Dutch disease syndrome’ in Nigeria’s economy is a marked decline in agricultural development. What is being done by the government to address this issue? 

 

Though oil is our major foreign exchange earner, our country is also equally endowed with huge agricultural potential as over 70% of its land area is cultivatable. The rural population’s main occupation is agriculture, providing employment to about 70% of citizens and generating a significant part of the country’s GDP via the production of such crops as groundnuts, cotton, palm oil, cocoa, cassava, rubber, maize, grains, etc.  The country also has vast animal resources such as cattle, goats and sheep as well as poultry farming. In order to boost agricultural production and promote growth expansion in the industry, several River Basin Development Authorities and fertilizer production factories have been established across the country.  In addition, government is urging individuals and groups to engage in agriculture, while on its part, it is actively putting in place business-friendly policies and programs in the industry.

 

One of the first foreign countries that Nigeria established diplomatic relations with as an independent nation was the Soviet Union, a cordial relationship that was later inherited by today’s Russia. Now, how would you, looking back over these 50 years, assess these bilateral relations?

 

Nigeria and the former Soviet Union, and now its successor, the Russian Federation, have had a long period of mutually beneficial multifaceted bilateral relations since our independence. Indeed, Nigeria’s formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union began on Nov. 25, 1960, less than a month after securing its independence. Notably, the Soviet Union was Nigeria’s key ally during the civil war of 1966-70, when its ‘presumed traditional Western friends’ abandoned it at the time of its greatest need.  Since then, both countries have maintained contacts on domestic and international issues of mutual interest. Recently, bilateral relations between our countries have received a new surge, with exchanges of visits at highest levels. Former Nigerian President Obasanjo visited Russia in 2001, while Russian President Medvedev was on a historical visit to Nigeria in June 2009. Today, Abuja and Moscow have signed several agreements in key areas aimed at further boosting bilateral cooperation. Notable among them are the Intergovernmental Commission on Cooperation, the Memorandum of Understanding on joint venture operations between NNPC and Gazprom and the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission and the Russian State Atomic Energy Commission (for more, see our economic review on Nigeria) 

 

In conclusion, how would you characterize the Golden Jubilee Anniversary commemoration and, going forward, what impact will it, in your opinion, have on the nation and its citizens?

 

From the philosophical and psychological stand points, the Golden Jubilee Anniversary celebration has availed us the opportunity for a sober reflection of our journey so far toward nationhood, economic prosperity and commitment to our future nation-building goals. In this context, our catalog of achievements since independence represents real giant strides that need commemoration. On the other hand, this occasion has also enabled the government to identify the country’s shortcomings and the urgent need to remedy them. Therefore, this period of celebration has provided us with a unique opportunity to deeply reflect on our past and make resolutions to continue our striving toward a bigger national economic success, improved state-individual relations, sustainable democracy, a more just and tolerant society. I’m confident that Nigeria shall continue to make more giant strides in its nation-building efforts that will make it a country to be reckoned with it on issues of regional and global importance, thus making its citizens and international partners to be proud of it both at home and abroad.

 

 
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