Nigeria’s Recovery Means Rethinking Economic Diversification

With more than half its revenue derived from oil exports, Nigeria’s economic fortunes are tied to the boom and bust cycles of the oil market. Those fortunes have waned way below expectations this year and, with more than one-quarter of its labour force jobless, it is time to question the country’s economic pathway.

Expert comment Published 14 August 2020 Updated 11 November 2020 3 minute READ

Iseoluwa Akintunde

Former Academy Associate, Environment and Society Programme

Yahaya Musa, 19-year old local mason, inspects a wall of a 'plastic bottle house' in Sabongarin Yelwa village, near Kaduna, Nigeria. Photo by AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP via Getty Images.

Yahaya Musa, 19-year old local mason, inspects a wall of a ‘plastic bottle house’ in Sabongarin Yelwa village, near Kaduna, Nigeria. Photo by AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP via Getty Images.

For decades, the mantra of ‘economic diversification’ characterized attempts to reverse Nigeria’s dependence on oil with little real progress. Despite numerous reforms, international loans and restructuring programmes, 85 million Nigerians live in deteriorating conditions of poverty. The current coronavirus pandemic combined with mounting debt obligations and declining GDP gives new urgency to this issue.

The fall in international oil prices, which led government to slash its oil benchmark price from $57 to $30 a barrel and cut 20% of the capital budget, worsens these problems, but it is far from the only factor. Biomass, which drives household pollution and contributed to the death of 114,000 people in Nigeria in 2017, is the most dominant source of energy in Nigeria, amounting to more than 80% of the total energy mix, followed by fossil fuels (18%), and a negligible amount of renewable energy.

Although a diversified energy sector with a strong emphasis on renewables is known to reduce health and economic risks of combustion, there has been little emphasis on the role a diversified energy mix could play in ensuring sustainable development – even though the estimated potential of 427,000MW of solar power and photovoltaic generation means Nigeria has enormous renewable energy opportunities.

The global economy is also undergoing tectonic structural changes that will affect demand for Nigeria’s oil, leaving a fossil fuel-dependent economy more vulnerable. Improvements in global fuel efficiency, the ascent of electricity as a substitute for oil in the transport sector, and the falling prices of renewables and storage technologies all lead to a reduction in demand for fossil fuel products.

Creating structures for transition

This is not a ‘get out of oil’ prescription, and energy transition is complex. But it is inevitable. There are no universal strategies applicable to all countries; local contexts and political realities inform what is possible. Nigeria can take advantage of its abundant natural gas deposit as a ‘transition fuel’ to buy it time for putting the appropriate transition structures in place. The country has made progress in reducing the amount of gas flared, but much remains to be done for Nigeria to meet the 2030 global deadline to end flaring, after failing to meet its 2020 national target.

The first step to proper transition is to align Nigeria’s international obligations with its domestic policies and legislations - the distance between words and action must be bridged and the institutional capacity to implement raised. And, while they contain symbolic green gestures, the economic recovery and growth plan developed in response to the 2016 recession, and the post-COVID-19 economic sustainability plan, do not espouse green growth as a fundamental objective.

Nigeria must start looking inwards, investing its resources in designing and funding a green transition strategy. Its leadership role in floating Africa’s first Sovereign Green Bonds should be followed with non-debt funding options. Faced with a pandemic that has shattered the boundaries of what is politically possible, the Buhari government has overcome initial inertia to announce a halt in oil subsidy payments, although whether it will see through that policy is yet to be seen.

If it does, how it uses the savings will be significant. The money could provide support for Nigeria’s renewable sector to counteract the price disparity with fossil fuels and encourage rapid research and development. The Nigerian Ecological Fund — which is 3% of the Federation Account — should be reformed and expanded beyond its current scope of addressing ‘serious ecological problems’ to cover climate change with a strong emphasis on mitigation and resilience. That would increase Nigeria’s climate finance and minimize reliance on multilateral climate funds.

Beyond public investments in green infrastructure, the government can also incentivize the private sector to drive a green economy. As the largest purchaser of goods and services in the country, it can leverage purchasing power to green the procurement process. With the release of about $421 million to the Ministry of Works, the 2020 budgetary allocation for road projects has been fully disbursed to the Ministry, making procurement in the construction sector ripe for green reforms. The application of sustainable building techniques and materials could reduce Nigeria’s 17 million housing deficit and create more jobs.

But the task of greening the Nigerian economy is too important to be left to the federal government alone. It also requires mainstreaming climate change and sustainable development into the operations, governance, and budgets of government ministries, departments, and private entities at the sub-national and national levels.

There has been much focus on reviving agriculture, which is laudable, but agrarian practices have radically changed from the 1970s when the sector accounted for 57% of Nigeria’s GDP and generated 64.5% of export earnings. Beset by a loss of biodiversity, drought, and desertification, extreme weather events, rise in sea levels and variable rainfall, it is no longer smart for Nigeria to invest in this area without due regard for the significant climate risks. Any effort to revive agriculture and its export potential must be green-centred and integrate regenerative and climate-smart practices.

The right policy mix combined with aggressive funding can position the country as a renewable energy leader, both on the African continent and globally. And it will reap the benefits in technology development, foreign investment, decreased emissions, poverty reduction, and energy for the 80 million people currently without access to the national grid – all of which could ripple into millions of clean energy jobs in manufacturing and installation across the country.

The road to a green future must be paved with deliberate and consistent policies. Reforms hatched because oil prices have plunged should not be ditched when there is a boom. On the brink of a second recession in four years, Nigeria has learnt that the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19 is only the latest warning that pinning economic growth on a boom-bust market and the generosity of foreign donors and creditors is a failing strategy. There is another way and there is an opportunity for Nigeria to lead.