Wednesday, January 8, 2014

MINT Nigeria, the problems of meme-economics

Meme economist Jim O'Neil 
Jim O’Neil struck a rather charming note in his BBC Radio 4 programme on Nigeria’s potential.

He lists them among his latest group of growing economic powerhouses; the MINTS.

He was like a kindly, ordinary, bloke wondering around Nigeria saying “wow”.

Of course, his programme was guilty of wearing the same path in the carpet that I’ve seen in so many other reports. I was almost ticking off the things that foreign journalists do on their week-long trips to Nigeria; visit entrepreneurs in Lagos, talk to Dangote, have a meeting interrupted by a power cut, chin-wag with Ngozi, be wowed by Sanusi, visit Makoko, helicopter ride over theDelta

But in other places the programme was very interesting.

Nigerian Dream

He rightly pointed to the mismatch in the west’s perception of the problems and the Nigerian view. Everyone outside says corruption is the biggest problem, everyone inside says it is electricity generation.

And he interviewed one of the new Nigerian national oil entrepreneurs buying up costly and troublesome onshore oil claims from the majors. It was a side I’ve not heard much from before, and wanted to hear more about.

He boldly flexed his Neo-liberal credentials in his appreciation of the way that even the poorest pay for their children’s education. He marvelled at how people are prepared to pay for even the worst kind of schooling because they “believe in the Nigerian Dream, that their children could become Dangote”. (I was interested in how un-problematic this seemed to him.)

"What's next?"

It was great to hear these issues presented for an audience not necessarily familiar with Nigeria already.

But for all the interesting things, there were lots of weaknesses.

These weaknesses are inherent in O’Neil’s approach; the investigation of social science by meme.

That’s what Jim O’Neil does. His reputation is based on identifying the BRIC nations over 10 years ago, and that was well received. It took on a life of its own and the meme dominated discourse for ages. As he says at the introduction to all his programmes this week, he’s constantly asked “what’s next?”

And this is the start of the problem. The MINTs are a group of nations who are only linked by their numbers and some basic geographical factors. The importance of this is that it’s a newly minted (ahem) way of classifying them, and this obsession with “newness” leaks into the analysis.


But really there’s nothing new about the problems Nigeria faces. They are deep-seated, and concern themselves with all sorts of factors apparently outside the scope of meme-economics.  

There was one shocking bit of panglossian analysis, when O’Neil described the solution to the power sector problem as “simple”. Anyone who has looked at it beyond the surface knows it’s a bewildering mishmash of competing and powerful interests, mixed with a potent, reeking, incompetence in government. That’s far from simple to solve.

(Although the current privatisation of the system might be a good start, it might be too soon to cheer. There hasn’t been any delivery yet. I wouldn’t hold my breath.)

Particularly glaring was O’Neil’s appreciation of Aliko Dangote.

At one point, chatting on Dangote’s new super yacht, they discuss how he -kind of- wants to become the richest man in the world. No time was put aside to look at how he has managed to get where he is, what political and economic games he has played to agglomerate so much power, and what effect those games have on the potential for more prosperity.

Ifs and Buts

Although Central bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi was right to point out that Dangote's recent investments in local production have improved local markets, but what about the years of rigging markets to favour his imports?

Sanusi is also correct to say there should be nuance in the discussion of corruption, but the particular type of corruption that is so damaging in Nigeria is the kind employed by a powerful elite who actually benefit from the deeply problematic situations that O’Neil sees as “simple”.

His analysis is beset by “ifs” and “buts”. “These countries can be huge if… but…”. And those caveats are pretty big. But the real ifs are not engaged with.

The elites that control political and economic power in Nigeria are promoted and held in place through a complex web of social ties, ethnic politics, relations with former military rulers, and money patronage. 

These ties are hidden to the casual observer, and the meme economist, and mean that the children of Makoko will never be Dangote.

You can listen to the programme here
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