Move The Graph

Gidimeister wrote a great article about the economics of the choice between remaining in Nigeria or leaving for greener pastures. He used this graph to explain why it makes sense for those earning an average income to leave Nigeria for a country like the US that has a generally better distribution, and thus a better average income:

He ended the article with the simple observation that we cannot all emigrate. The true solution is to shift Nigeria’s graph to the right, making it more like the countries for which we are leaving.

In this article, I suggest this type of economic transformation will require a hijack of politics by the Middle Class of professionals and businesspeople. Furthermore, the current mass exodus of people in these groups to other countries makes them more — not less — capable of that political revolution.

Why is our graph to the left of America’s? Why is our own Middle (the bulk of our population) destined to make less money than their counterparts in the abroad?

The obvious answer is that Nigeria is not set up to grow its economy in a manner that benefits all, or even most citizens. One of the major problems is our infrastructure (road, rail, electricity etc.) and systems (credit, markets, regulatory environment) are not robust enough to encourage industry and agriculture. Without these mass employers, the service sector cannot grow much larger. All this translates to underemployment, and low wages for even those who have jobs.

This is a major reason why the Middle is leaving. A businesswoman or architect cannot do much to improve infrastructure and business environment. She relies on Government for that. Why then isn’t Government fixing these basic things so we can push our economy to the Right?

The American Government wants to push the national Graph rightwards because it needs tax money. Let’s look at it another way:

Imagine every Naira note in that graph is a person. Imagine the value of the note is the person’s income. The more to the right you go, the higher the Naira note. Tax in America is a percentage of income, so it’s in the Government’s interest to push every segment to the right,and turn those Alvan Ikokwus and Obafemi Awolowos into Nnamdi Azikiwes and Clement Isongs..

For decades, the Nigerian Government has not needed taxes because it has run chiefly on revenues from oil sales¹, and duties from imports. Neither your position on the graph, nor the position of the graph itself, affect the number of Barrels Per Day NNPC and its Joint Venture Partners can pump. Government has therefore not had an incentive to invest in growing infrastructure or improving the business environment.

As long as oil revenues can keep Government running, there is little chance its attitude towards development will change. The Nigerian economy therefore will not improve, except by happy accident. We are left with the stark choice of leaving home for a chance at a decent life, or staying and watching the income distribution curve become a tidal wave that erodes our buying power from Awolowo level to Ikokwu, Balewa, and finally Herbert Macauley. The wisest option, at an individual level, is to leave while we can still afford Economy Class tickets for our families.

Of course, this brings us back to where @Gidimeister left off: Most Nigerians won’t be able to leave². What do we do about those we are forced to leave behind? How do we save them from the fate we are privileged to escape?

In the 21st Century, leaving doesn’t mean leaving, not like when fleeing the Irish Potato Famine to America meant “The Old Country” could never hear from you again. Nigerians abroad and at home are building a global community that collaborates on culture, business and charity.

We are prospering in the Diaspora. See what happens when people from our Middle go to more prosperous countries.

That patch in green are regular Naija people like you and I who went abroad and flourished. They are at income levels that put them on par with the high earners at home, including the political class. The Nigerian Diaspora has become an economic force. Remittances from it go a long way to improving the lives of those who are yet to check out of the country. Medical professionals come home frequently to participate in free outreach programs. In many ways, Diaspora money and expertise is at work in Nigeria.

Unfortunately, these types of intervention have a limit. Poor infrastructure will hamper service delivery, no matter where the service comes from. Also, many individuals and groups in the Diaspora trying to do more impactful work at home complain about non-cooperation from Government, or even outright sabotage. The political class that runs Government, due to the oil revenues on which it lives and by which it secures power, sees little need for a better way to do things. Possibly, it even fears an improved economy, as more wealth, more widely distributed, would threaten its stranglehold on elections.

This means, if the Diaspora wants to see significant change to Nigeria’s economy, it has to put its resources into politics, the way it has done with business, philanthropy and culture. In fact, this seems to be a frequent progression for diasporas as they get larger and richer. Erdogan, Turkey’s President, is under pressure from political foes inspired by a Fetullah Gulen, a cleric in Pennsylvania. The Gulen Movement spans many countries and has given birth to many organizations. India’s ruling party, the BJP, attributes its return to power to increased political involvement from the diaspora in the UK and US. Prime Minister Modi continues to hold rally-like audiences in stadiums whenever he is in the West, such is the importance of keeping the diaspora happy ahead of the 2019 elections.

If the country’s affairs were controlled by parties that owed their power to the Middle, we would see more Middle-friendly policies. If elected officials relied on professionals, businesspeople and students for their victories, they would work to make those people happier. This is not the case today. The political class bankrolls itself. However, the more I look at the Naira notes in that graph, the more I believe we can beat them at their own game. The bulk of the value in Nigeria is in those large stacks of N100 and N200 notes. Added up, they dwarf the N500s and N1000s.

Imagine the Diaspora and the Nigerian Middle putting their money together to challenge the political class. We can take our country³. The problem isn’t that they have more money than us, but that they are more cohesive. It is easier to unite a cabal than a crowd. We are yet to form sufficient numbers of large, interlinked political organizations to unite us in purpose, pool our resources, and coordinate our actions in the political sphere.

Emigration is not abandonment. It just means the new task is to build political organizations that cross our borders, and can enable us to defeat the political class. This is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one. It will prove to be the defining challenge of our generation, and our success or failure will determine whether or not the best life our children can hope for at our age will be a life in another country as it is for us today.

1 Politicians receive oil revenues in various ways: oil blocs; embezzled FAAC allocation; inflated contracts; hefty salaries and allowances for elected and appointed officials and their aides. There is a whole ecosystem sustained by oil revenues, legally and illegally.

2 Western nations are looking mainly for highly skilled professionals like nurses, doctors, and engineers.

3 I didn’t say “take our country BACK.” We never had it.