Article written

  • on 06.05.2013
  • at 06:46 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

Nigeria’s middle class revolution: The ‘how’ and ‘how fast’ 0

These days, I find myself very much interested in matters relating to the Nigerian/African middle class. I’m not alone, journalists and academics and investment bankers and DFIs are all quite obsessed with it as well, if the number of articles and reports daily emerging is anything to go by.

The starting point for a conversation would of course be China, which has managed to convert a high economic growth rate (three decades of 10-per cent-plus growth)into significant economic benefits for tens of millions of citizens. Brazil too; analysts say President Lula’s eight-year rule (2002 – 2010) succeeded in lifting almost 30 million Brazilians into the middle class.

Let’s move over to Nigeria, and ask a few questions? How many people did President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government move into the middle class? What’s the current size of the Nigerian middle class (how reliable are the figures: an African Development Bank report estimates, based on 2008 figures, that between 10 and 23 per cent of Nigeria’s population is middle class), and exactly how fast is it growing, beyond the vagueness of news headlines.

No doubt, the eighties and nineties existed to decimate the Nigerian middle class. Entrepreneurship and industrialisation struggled and slumped in the face of the Structural Adjustment Programme, government-enforced corruption, and political uncertainty. We still haven’t done a good enough job of documenting the scale of the tragic outflow, to Europe, America and the Gulf, of Nigeria’s professional classes during that period. Many of those who stayed behind had to helplessly endure falling into a purgatory over which poverty hovered threateningly.

By most accounts, things started to change for the better around the turn of the century, with the return of democracy and the winds of relative freedom and openness – i.e. economic reform – that came with them.  The African Development Bank, in ‘The Middle of the Pyramid’, its report on Africa’s Middle Classes (2011), says: ‘Nigeria’s new middle class has emerged along with the expansion of the private sector in industries such as banking, telecommunications and services, centered in urban areas, particularly Lagos. The purchasing power of the new middle class in Nigerians can be observed at some shopping malls that have recently been opened in the country.”

Shoprite, the South African retail chain, came to Nigeria in 2005, and now already has six outlets across the country. Across the country’s urban areas, cinemas and restaurants and malls and hotels and entertainment centres are springing up, and we are seeing interesting trends play out. (Recently a Nollywood filmmaker told me Box Office returns from the cinemas at the Ikeja City Mall dwarf those from cinemas on the Island – which says something about the distribution of the middle classes. Generally, we like to assume that the biggest catchment areas for disposable income in Lagos are on the Islands namely – Victoria Island, Ikoyi – and Lekki, but it is starting to seem that the real money may be on the Mainland – which makes perfect sense if one considers that about 70 per cent of the population of Lagos lives on the Mainland).

We can spend all day fascinating swapping stories about the resurgence of the middle class, and the entrepreneurship opportunities that that market presents (the latest glimpses of the potential are to be found in the increasing proliferation of investor-backed e-commerce sites), but for me, what we should be focusing on the most is the How (by what means is this middle class growing) and the How Fast (relative to how fast it needs to be).

Especially considering the predilection of our governments for cheap propaganda. I still chuckle every time I recall President Goodluck Jonathan’s panicky speech during the Occupy Nigeria protests in 2012, when he announced that his government was going to create 370,000 new jobs. Just like that, as though the announcement carried the evidence of the accomplishment. For me, it was further evidence of the extent to which Nigeria’s leadership likes to treat citizens as though we were all a bunch of fools.

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By Tolu Ogunlesi – The Punch

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