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Hope from the Megacity
So why is it possible to be optimistic about Nigeria? Because although the presidential candidates seem unlikely to spearhead change, the country may be changing without them. Partly because a new election commissioner, Attahiru Jega, has installed a supposedly tamperproof biometric voting system, partly out of the sense that Nigeria is a nation being remade, the election result for the first time in memory is not a foregone conclusion. Initial results from the April 9 parliamentary elections confirm that while the PDP remains Nigeria's biggest party, its domination is gone. That reflects a crucial difference between Nigeria and the nations of North Africa. However imperfect, Nigeria is a democracy.
Even more significant despite last-minute problems with Jega's organization that forced a week's delay in the poll it is becoming a better-functioning one. A new oil-industry transparency law is due to take effect in May. Since June 2009, central-bank governor Lamido Sanusi has sacked the heads of eight banks in his reform of an industry that was a source of scams and money laundering. A new generation of entrepreneurs like Ekundayo is driving economic growth: the World Bank says GDP rose 7.8% in 2010 and 8.5% outside oil and gas. The nonoil economy creates more jobs and lessens the government's dependence on oil revenues, and the leaders of these new businesses are intolerant of the old ways and have the resources to fight them.
Onno Ruhl, the World Bank's country director for Nigeria, says that combined with the surge in numbers of young Nigerians, these elements add up to a "fantastic cocktail for change." The improvements encouraged investment bank Goldman Sachs to include Nigeria in its list of the "next 11" emerging markets in 2007. Ruhl says whoever wins the election will have to govern very differently: "With all this, they can't afford to continue as before."
One Nigerian politician is charting a new direction. Before Babatunde Fashola became its governor in 2007, Lagos Nigeria's business capital and Africa's premier megacity was known as the world's first failed city-state. The place had seen almost no new infrastructure for four decades, despite its population soaring from 5 million in 1976 to 18 million. Traffic was gridlocked day and night. Slums expanded, on stilts, into the lagoons that gave the city its name. Crime was rife, pollution choking, brownouts constant. It was, says Fashola, a city of "very evident despair."
Fashola, 47, was perhaps the only person in Lagos who saw that as an opportunity. "You are going to need more water, more roads, more jetties, schools, hospitals, space for housing," he says. "That all means jobs." Fashola set about rehabilitating and expanding a maze of overpasses, part of a new transport network that will connect cars and buses with trains, trams, airports and water taxis. He unveiled plans for a new 17,000-hectare industrial zone and a gleaming new 900-hectare city center on land reclaimed from the sea that will be home to 250,000 residents and contain offices for another 150,000 commuters. All that building has indeed created hundreds of thousands of jobs. Efforts to clean the streets had the multiple effect of tidying, employing and cutting crime.
To Fashola, the new Lagos is a "statement ... that things could be changed no matter how bad they were." It's also an example of how a new Nigeria might emerge from the old. The development of Lagos' nonoil economy means 70% of the city's revenue is now raised locally. Citizens not only are willing to pay tax: more to the point, by doing so they and their government reconnect, reversing decades when state and citizens lived in separate worlds.
There are lessons for the whole country here. No Nigerian politician has missed that Fashola is the country's most admired leader. Though internal ACN rivalries block any presidential bid (and Fashola in any case insists he prefers state politics to national) the governor is proving that results are possible within Nigerian politics. But while change is inevitable, it is unlikely to come fast or smoothly, because the bad old generation of Nigerian leaders will not go quietly. A Western diplomat describes Nigeria as having it "all to lose, rather than poised for victory." In Lagos, Ekundayo laments the slow pace of change. "It's like watching a child grow: you only notice if you've been away for a while."
But Ekundayo stays, he says, because he has no doubt that tomorrow will be brighter. "The sad thing about Nigeria is the enormous unrealized potential," he says. "Of course, that's also the wonderful thing."