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Nigeria's Economy Leads Other African Nations


The World Economic Forum on Africa begins today. The meeting of global business leaders is in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria - the same country where hundreds of girls were recently kidnapped from a school. That news underlines the trouble in a country that nevertheless rates itself as the largest economy in Africa now.

Matthew Bishop is an editor of the Economist. He's in Abuja, attending the forum. Welcome to the program, Sir.

MATTHEW BISHOP: Great to be with you.

INSKEEP: So who's meeting exactly in Abuja and what are you all talking about?

BISHOP: Well, the World Economic Forum is having one its those regional meetings and that means that there's people from all around the world are coming to Africa and coming to Abuja particularly because there's a perception that Africa is going to be the next area of explosive economic growth. And there's going to be, I think, a very interesting debate going on between people who are coming from the rich world and maybe are moving on from traditional aid policies towards Africa and seeing a potential for Africa to grow its way out of poverty.

INSKEEP: Is it strange for business leaders to meet in Nigeria and talk about these new possibilities for the continent, which lots of people are, but be there at a moment when this kidnapping - this mass kidnapping - of girls is grabbing all the headlines around the world about Nigeria?

BISHOP: There is a real sense of political risk here and I think people see Nigeria is very much at a crossroads, you know, the next year or two there's important elections coming up. You know, Nigeria is going to go up in one of two directions, it's either going to sink back into a real political turmoil or maybe it's going to find an answer and move to a new path of growth that really benefits the population as a whole. But there are some real hard political struggles and the rise of fundamentalism and there's a real problem of corruption.

INSKEEP: So is Nigeria really the largest economy in Africa?

BISHOP: Well, earlier this year, they basically revised their GDP figures to double what had been thought to be their number for their economy. And that now means that it's slightly bigger than South Africa, which was previously the biggest economy in Africa. And yet, it's still per capita, it's got a population three times the size of that of South Africa so it is still, you know, a giant that is not performing all that well for its people and there's lots of problems that you can see on the ground.

INSKEEP: And you are, as you mentioned, in a very populous country, the most populous in Africa - one with a lot of oil and other natural resources. Does it feel like there's a lot of potential there?

BISHOP: Well, it's clearly a lot of potential. I mean Nigeria has got extraordinary natural resources - most notably, oil, although that industry is riddled with problems. But it's got a very dynamic population, very entrepreneurial people, quite well-educated so I think there's a lot that could happen here and I would expect to see growth accelerate.

INSKEEP: You know, at the same time, I'm remembering sitting in the office of a Nigerian official some years ago and the official was scratching her head and trying to figure out how to get back billions of dollars that had been put in Swiss bank account previous rulers of the country. Isn't there a huge problem with corruption in Nigeria?

BISHOP: We currently are dealing with the dismissal by the president of the head of the central bank who appears to have upset people by pointing out that about $20 billion of oil revenues have gone missing. There seems to be rife in the oil industry at best, and also corruption associated with it.

INSKEEP: Part of the source of that kind of unrest that we've been describing might actually be the contrast, that some people are now making money in Nigeria, but most people are not and people see the difference.

BISHOP: I think that's right. I think that's one of the challenges of development is that you start to get a lot more information about the group that are leading the way out of poverty. And some of those people are making their money (unintelligible), but a lot of them are the kleptocrats, the people who are seizing the country's resources, the people who have those Swiss bank accounts.

INSKEEP: Matthew Bishop of the Economist is in Abuja, Nigeria. Thanks very much.

BISHOP: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.