Nigeria has the potential to prove a key trading partner of the UK.
Paul Arkwright, The Independent
Boris Johnson has shelved plans to travel to India for his first major overseas visit since entering Downing Street. India’s devastating COVID crisis rendered a prime ministerial visit aimed at boosting trade both unfeasible and unsuitable.
But the prime minister should not totally discard his hopes of visiting a demographic giant and emerging economic powerhouse of the 21st century. Instead, he should consider turning his attention to Nigeria.
The country is Africa’s largest economy and the UK should be looking there, alongside India, to boost trade and investment – and to make a success of the government’s post-Brexit vision of a global Britain.
It wouldn’t be Johnson’s first visit. As British high commissioner, I accompanied the then foreign secretary on his memorable visit to Nigeria in August 2017. His enthusiasm for the country in all its diversity was clear. As he put it at the time: “The potential of Nigeria’s markets, people and natural resources is enormous”. That potential hasn’t gone away.
Indeed, there are striking similarities between India and Nigeria in their economic opportunities, historical and cultural connections to the UK, vibrant UK-based diaspora, and shared development challenges. Both countries possess immense demographic trump cards, with a rapidly expanding middle-class of young, educated and entrepreneurial consumers. Nigeria and India could be the two most populous nations on earth by 2100.
In each case, the UK is an attractive partner: our capital markets, service sector, and science and technology expertise have much to offer. Nigeria’s post-pandemic recovery can only succeed with improvements in healthcare provision, sustainable food production and reliable energy. UK companies and funds can help meet much of the demand for investment in these sectors.
Nigeria’s Buhari administration has launched a massive infrastructure drive, aimed at upgrading the country’s road and rail network, power grids, airports and maritime infrastructure. The recently opened Lagos-Ibadan railway is one example of successful large-scale projects, which present obvious opportunities for British engineering, legal and financial firms. In banking, insurance, digitalisation and other professional services, the UK can be an important partner for Nigeria’s institutional and commercial development.
The UK’s CDC investment arm has already made some important investments in Nigeria’s future. Now is the time to step up its engagement. It is good to see James Duddridge, the UK’s Africa minister, in Nigeria talking about business partnerships and electoral reform. But is it enough?
If the UK doesn’t seize the initiative and make the most of its privileged position now, others will fill the gap. France, in particular, is ramping up its outreach. The French trade minister recently visited Abuja, as President Macron gears up to welcome President Buhari and other African leaders to Paris for a summit on the continent’s post-COVID recovery.
Soft power and the creative arts, which provide an enormous contribution to the UK economy, represent an obvious area for cooperation with Nigeria. It can’t be forgotten, too, that Nigeria will become the world’s second largest democracy by 2050. Any alliance of democracies must support its growth, help in the vital fight against the corrosive impact of corruption, and provide investment in its youth.
Rising COVID infections in India, which scuppered the PM’s trip, also call into question India’s participation in the D10 initiative at June’s G7 Summit in Cornwall. Whether Prime Minister Modi attends or not, surely it is time to correct Nigeria’s glaring omission from the grouping and find it a place at the table, alongside South Africa. Together, they would represent the continent which, according to Bloomberg, hosted seven of the 10 fastest growing economies in 2020.
Nigeria’s successful development will be Africa’s and the world’s success. If the UK is serious about its ambitions as a truly global, outward-looking and confident country, projecting democratic values abroad, Nigeria needs to be a central part of that future.
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