Even if we may leverage new cutting-edge technologies to answer our local problems, we still would have to invest in infrastructure that supports the deployment of these technologies. And, then, proceed to structure domestic incentives in support of merit. We would, in other words, still require decent governments.


There is common agreement that sub-Saharan African economies are global laggards. Across major indices (of affluence and extreme want), countries on the continent steal the cake. Yet, it was not always like this. Until the mid-70s, you could find economies on the continent whose overall performances were ahead of most in Asia ― and as good as some in South America. China’s blistering economic acceleration since the early 1980s changed the complexion of this tale, dragging in its wake, through complex supply chain networks, just about every country in its region.

The debate will continue for a while yet, about specific policy planks that will have to be implemented if Africa’s different and diverse economies are to visibly dent the currently abysmal numbers on poverty. A strong consensus is, however, emerging around the broader outlines of possible reforms. Private sector-led. Slimmer governments, with increasingly efficient structures, and data-based social intervention programmes. Democracies that pride individual rights over that of the collective ― especially of government, as an expression of majoritarian impulses. All of these, and more, will be important.

Standing in the path of the implementation of this consensus, domestically, is a very Nigerian phenomenon: Whereas we are minded regularly to indicate global standards as desirable, our benchmarks are, without exception, local. Nearly always, an insistence on individual rights (to take one popular example) is deflected by a, “But we’re not in America!” response. Followed by an allocutus on why the West currently fails as a useful (moral) example: Too atomistic, it is not caring enough; and in pursuit of individual rights it ends up ignoring both the collective interests of our humanity, and (far more crucially) God’s will.

Until recently, the larger proportion of mankind earned its keep by the ability, according to Marxists, of alienating a part of its labour power. Unable anymore to do this, because robots and the internet of things now dominate the workplace, how would future workers share in society’s wealth?


You could read this anyway. Arguably the friendliest reading is of a collective concerned not to leave anyone behind. Were we there, conceptually (looking after weaker members of our society long before it was forced on the agenda elsewhere), long before the crisis of identity that has liberals across Europe and America wringing their hands? Except that the reality of our underdevelopment bears a different kind of witness. My favourite interpretation, therefore, is of the African as morally inferior to other races.

This may hurt. But not as much as the other implication of this “Africans-as-different-from-the-rest-of-the-world” worldview. Measures of success are local, and nearly always within shouting distance of an argument. Mediocre levels of performance are regularly excused once we can point to a similarly placed neighbour in a less advantaged position. Against developments elsewhere, this is problematic. Even as we grapple with rudimentary problems of development and growth, the West is agonising over the implications of its artificial intelligence and robotics revolution. Cleverer software and more automated factories invariably mean fewer humans will be employed ― remember this latter category also votes.

Until recently, the larger proportion of mankind earned its keep by the ability, according to Marxists, of alienating a part of its labour power. Unable anymore to do this, because robots and the internet of things now dominate the workplace, how would future workers share in society’s wealth? To leave increasingly large populations of societies behind, would force a change in the structure of global politics. Not necessarily in the fecundity with which the popular vote will support populist politicians. But in the need for the ruling elites to disenfranchise the masses further in future, in order to keep them in check, while strengthening the state’s monopoly over the means of violence.

Dystopian? Not necessarily. For the elite might simply also relocate, along with Elon Musk, to Mars.

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A poor policy environment ― a combination of inadequately conceived and implemented incentives ― and massive underinvest in infrastructure have left our agriculture continuing to inefficiently support large labour levels in the rural areas, while our industry is increasingly of the rust belt variety.


It does, then, matter that our domestic discourse around growth and development isn’t future-proof. Take the matter of urbanisation. Elsewhere, even in the example of China, urbanisation has been part of two closely-related processes. On one hand, the mechanisation of agriculture, which, while boosting rural productivity, invariably also releases surplus labour. On the other hand, industrialisation, which, while boosting productivity in the urban areas, sucks in the extra labour released from subsistence, rain-fed agricultural practices.

A poor policy environment ― a combination of inadequately conceived and implemented incentives ― and massive underinvest in infrastructure have left our agriculture continuing to inefficiently support large labour levels in the rural areas, while our industry is increasingly of the rust belt variety. Urban slums, crime, and diseases are the net consequence of our model.

Still, it is not all gloom and doom. A half-finished revolution in information and communications technology across the country has helped boost services as a share of domestic output. Leaving us with two paradoxes. Of literally transiting from an agriculture-led economy to a service-led one without having industrialised. And of making this transition, even as the number of indigent Nigerians has risen. Are we able, as these paradoxes increasingly demand, to redefine the challenge of development in a way that provides new responses to traditional problems?

Even if we may leverage new cutting-edge technologies to answer our local problems, we still would have to invest in infrastructure that supports the deployment of these technologies. And, then, proceed to structure domestic incentives in support of merit. We would, in other words, still require decent governments.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.