Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari’s recent admission that the country had "suddenly become poor", is a startlingly frank comment on its economic slide.

The West African nation is under severe pressure. The oil price drop has caused government revenue to tank — 70% of state income is from crude oil sales.

The drop has also resulted in the devaluation of the naira, which was recently allowed to float freely following decades of being pegged to the US dollar.

Nigeria’s banking sector is under the whip as well. Nonperforming loans (particularly in the oil sector) are expected to jump to 12.5% of total loans this year.

Since the president made that comment at a meeting with the UN Fund for Population Activities, citizens have debated the question: is Nigeria really poor? Or is Buhari’s comment an example of presidential hyperbole?

The reality comes down to definitions. Nigeria ranks low in human development, which is illustrated by its 152nd position out of 188 countries measured in the UNHuman Development Index for 2016. It measures life expectancy, mean years of schooling and gross national income per capita.

But when one looks at GDP, the numbers tell a different story. The size of Nigeria’s economy was ranked 23rd out of 195 countries measured by the World Bank in 2015, with nominal GDP of US$481bn. This places it in the group of countries that generate a high value of goods and services, together with the likes of Switzerland and Sweden, and even above Norway, which ranks first in human development.

It suggests that even though the country’s economy is sizeable, most Nigerian citizens experience a low quality of life.

Nigeria’s GDP per apita, which is a better reflection of the state of its economy and the welfare of its citizens, was $3,000 in 2013 — less than half of SA’s.

But though the "poor nation" rhetoric has raised debate in the country, citizens have been more preoccupied by Buhari’s efforts to improve Nigeria’s economic fortunes, particularly since oil prices are forecast to remain low for a while.

Economic diversification is the buzzword that summarises the government’s response.

Since Buhari was sworn in in May 2015, his officials have emphasised and re-emphasised that they inherited an economy on the brink of collapse. The only way out, they say, is to diversify.

The government has since embarked on a drive to restructure the economy by reforming key sectors, particularly agriculture, which contributed 20% to GDP in 2015, second only to oil. In July, Nigeria’s agricultural ministry launched the "green alternative", which aims to navigate the country towards industrialisation in agriculture.

Other sectors highlighted for transformation are solid minerals, where a similar roadmap was launched; manufacturing, which has been given priority status in the allocation of foreign exchange; and the infrastructure sector (power, works and housing), which received the highest budgetary allocation.

Despite this seemingly commendable move, critics observe that this will not be the first time Nigeria has sought to diversify. Political analyst and former media adviser to the immediate past president, Reuben Abati, notes that various previous governments have talked up the issue of diversifying Nigeria’s economy.

"The government must make up its mind. [Diversification] is not the responsibility of one government or administration; it is a process that should move Nigeria from a democracy [that observes] electoral commission ritualsto a development state," says Abati.

The task before the current administration is to lay a foundation for subsequent administrations to build on. This has been one of the biggest failures of previous regimes.

But with more than a year of Buhari’s four-year term behind him, the early signs are not encouraging. The government’s rollout of new policies has been painfully slow and implementation of key projects is only just commencing.

Meanwhile, data released by the bureau of statistics confirms that Nigeria’s economy has entered a recession, following two successive quarters of negative growth. At 17%, inflation is at a record high, stoking fears that the crisis may endure. If the government does not get its act together — and soon — the president’s assertion may well prove to be true.

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