Black China: Africa’s First Superpower Is Coming Sooner Than You Think

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It’s midnight in a medieval palace in the oldest city in West Africa: Kano, Nigeria.

A thousand years ago, this was one of the richest cities in the world, the terminus of the cross-Saharan trade that brought salt to exchange for slaves, gold and ivory. The palace has 5-foot thick walls, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, stone pathways and ornate mosaic domes. On the walls are large color photographs of a serious-looking man wearing a white turban with a veil across the bottom of his face. The two tails of the ceremonial knot that holds the veil in place look like bunny ears.

The man is Muhammadu Sanusi II, the 14th emir of Kano, the second most important religious position in Nigeria. I watch as his assistant crawls across the carpet on his hands and knees. Bowing his head to the floor, he hands my business card up to the emir, then crawls away backward. Sanusi motions me to sit.

I’m here to find out what the future holds for Nigeria. I’ve been told the emir is one of the “three or four” people who may know the answer. It’s an important question, and not just for Nigerians. In 30 years, Nigeria will be, by population, larger than the U.S. By the end of the century it will be the third largest nation in the world, behind India and China, and the most densely populated large country, with more people per square mile than even India. It will have more Muslims than any other country in the world, and more Christians. And if it can get its socioeconomic act together, it may also be the continent’s first superpower. It’s got a tremendous number of advantages that should help it do that: resources, scale, talent, work ethic and a democratic government, but it has an equally long list of challenges.

I’m hoping Sanusi can tell me which will win out.

The emir has a degree in Sharia, Islamic law. He also has a master’s in economics. Before becoming emir, he was head of the Nigerian equivalent of the Federal Reserve. His reform agenda was so aggressive it was known as the Sanusi tsunami. It earned him recognition as the top central banker in the world. He has an equally ambitious agenda for his emirate. I listen as he describes a future that has stronger rights for women and children; he also explains how to use education and child support laws to end child marriage and slow population growth. He talks about modernizing agriculture and investing in its value chain.

Can it happen?

State of the State

When you’re standing on a dusty street ankle-deep in trash, watching young men load a cart with 5-gallon jugs of water that they will sell door to door to homes that lack indoor plumbing, it’s not easy to envision Nigeria as a superpower. Expectations for the country have been high before: just after independence in 1960 and during the Africa Rising enthusiasm of a decade ago.

And yet, despite having had so much going for it, Nigeria has remained stuck near the bottom of the indexes used to compare nations—social progress, human development, peacefulness, governance, innovation, fragility, corruption and ease of doing business—while Asian nations have taken off. Nigeria is not a failed state, but neither is it a successful one. Oge Onubogu, who leads the Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says, “Nigeria lurches from one crisis to another, but whenever you think it’s about to topple over, it pulls itself back.”


It’s in one of those crises at the moment. Yemi Koyejo of the Nigerian-American Multicultural Council in Houston says that all Nigerians want is “a decent life.” She says this comes down to basic services. “It’s really bad right now in Lagos, and if it’s bad in Lagos, imagine what it’s like in the rest of the country. The average person wants shelter, security, health care and electricity.”

Meanwhile, the population is exploding, growing more than twice as fast as the world average. That is especially true in the North, where fertility rates are typically around seven children per woman. Except in Lagos, local governments struggle to collect taxes and provide basic services. “Middle class” is defined as the ability to afford bottled water and a generator. Even more worrying to most Nigerians is the security situation. On average, seven middle-class Nigerians and oil field workers are kidnapped and held for ransom every day. Only a few years ago, most people made the short trip from the capital Abuja to Kaduna by road. Now, most go by train. At Christmas, an ISIS offshoot of Boko Haram released a video showing 10 Christians being beheaded in Maiduguri. Every conversation about traveling ends with two words: be careful. Amenities in luxury condos include bulletproof glass.

Most say that the security situation is linked to the economy and that those who commit cyber fraud, extortion, piracy and robbery do so because they have no legitimate way to participate in the economy. They are entrepreneurs of violence. “If you have something at stake, you won’t be enticed to wear a suicide vest,” says Fareedah Yahuza Yashe, who runs the Community Engagement and Social Development Initiative. (CESDI is a nongovernmental organization in Maiduguri that helps female victims of the militant group Boko Haram.)

The emir of Kano sees a future of, among other things, stronger rights for women and modern agriculture.PATRICK VAN KATWIJK/GETTY

It’s hard to make progress anywhere, but it’s particularly hard in Nigeria. A complex set of policies and agreements keeps the peace between Nigeria’s many constituencies—a population of over 250 ethnicities split evenly between Muslims and Christians. In practice, that makes it hard to get anything done. A bill to increase transparency in the oil industry has been stuck in the National Assembly for 19 years. And many are resistant to change. In 2014, Sanusi was fired from his banking post for exposing corruption. Soon after his appointment as emir, Boko Haram suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the mosque next door to the emir’s palace, killing over 120 people. Now, the governor of Kano state and a frequent target of Sanusi’s criticism, Abdullahi Ganduje, wants to break up the emirate to reduce Sanusi’s power.

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Many of the issues, and much of the gridlock, come back to oil. Roughly $100 million worth of oil pours out of the ground each day. Spread across that huge population, that’s only about 50 cents per person per day. That’s not enough to make everyone rich, but more than enough to make some very rich. It’s estimated that 80 percent of the proceeds from oil has gone to 1 percent of the population. It’s money worth fighting over, and that’s what Nigerians do at every level of the economy. Oil has given politics an outsized importance. As Onubogu says, “If you’re excluded from politics, you’re excluded from the economy.”

Oil accounts for 97 percent of Nigeria’s official exports. Over the past 21 years, the benchmark price of oil has roller-coastered between $17 and $145 per barrel. High oil prices have encouraged fiscally irresponsible policies, like excess spending, vanity public works, subsidized imports of refined petroleum products, currency manipulation and high levels of protectionism. During boom times, Nigeria splashed around oil money hosting international events like the 2003 All-Africa Games. It spent on grandiose projects like the Moshood Abiola National Stadium in the new national capital of Abuja and the Nigerian space program, which has now launched five satellites. During periods of low prices, Nigeria has been forced to borrow.

Oil has also been ruinous for the environment. Although progress has been made, there’s a long history of less than best practices by international companies, like gas flaring, which contributes significantly to climate change, as well as the environmental disasters caused by bandits who steal oil from pipelines and entrepreneurs who operate illegal (and dangerous) kerosene and diesel refineries and dump their waste product into the land and waterways.

Another Economic Miracle?

Transforming an economy isn’t easy, but it can be done. When Mao Zedong died in 1976, China was one of the world’s most backward and impoverished nations. Gross domestic product per capita, essentially a measure of average income, was about $200 (adjusted for inflation). Two years later, Deng Xiaoping came to power and deregulated the economy. It exploded. Average annual income is now close to $10,000; 850 million people were lifted out of poverty. The transformation was accomplished with astonishing speed. Uche Orji, a former Wall Street investment banker who’s now CEO of the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority, says he first went to China in 1998. When he went back five years later, it was “pleasantly unrecognizable.”

Nigeria’s numbers today are surprisingly close to where China’s were before reform. In 1978, China’s poverty rate was 55 percent, almost identical to the most recent statistics for Nigeria. And adult literacy in China was only 65 percent, comparable to Nigeria’s 62 percent. Today, China’s poverty rate is almost zero, and literacy is at 97 percent.

Fulani girls attend the day’s lessons in a Wuro Fulbe Nomadic School classroom in the Kacha Grazing Reserve, Kaduna state.LUIS TATO/AFP/GETTY

If a comparison to China seems too ambitious, how about India? Nigeria and India have more than a few similarities: Both are ex-British colonies and have an extraordinary number of ethnic groups (2,000 in India), endemic corruption, religious conflicts and a loyal and highly educated diaspora. Before 1991, India had a heavily regulated socialist economy, with extreme levels of protectionism for domestic industries and notorious levels of red tape and bureaucracy. Facing default, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh began a reform program of reducing tariffs, opening the economy to competition and foreign investment, and slashing bureaucracy. GDP per capita rocketed from $368 to $2,010. Between 2014 and 2018, India grew faster than China.

As with China and India, much of the case for Nigeria’s potential comes down to one word: size. Large countries have huge advantages over small ones, both in terms of economic efficiency and in their ability to attract investment. It was the potential of China’s huge domestic market, not its usefulness as a source of cheap products, that attracted foreign investment in the 1980s. Nigeria is the “last major open market on earth,” says Randy Buday, DHL Express’ regional director for West and Central Africa.

It has around 200 million people, 10 times that of an average African nation and almost twice that of the second largest, Ethiopia. One out of every seven black people on earth is Nigerian. Nigeria’s population is already larger than Russia’s and in 30 years will pass that of the U.S. According to the U.N., by the end of the century, Nigeria will have 733 million people. It has what Folasope Aiyesimoju, CEO of the conglomerate UAC and formerly with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts in London, calls “demographics to die for.” In other words, a young population. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy as well, surpassing South Africa. According to Canback Consulting, which focuses on emerging economies, it already has a small but growing middle class.

Of course, like China in 1978 and India in 1990, Nigeria has in place a set of economic policies that stifle innovation and efficiency. The government provides too much control and not enough support, such as infrastructure and basic services. One CEO says off the record, “Businesses pray to not be noticed by the government.” Another describes a “continuous parade of government types coming through my office trying to shake me down.”

Andrew S. Nevin of PwC points out that the public sector in Nigeria is tiny compared with those of most countries. True. But if Nigeria removes the barriers to growth, its economy could explode too.

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Secret Weapons

Some pieces of the puzzle are already falling into place. Nigeria has a functioning stock exchange and capital market. Pockets of the country are thriving. Sanusi points to Lagos state, which provides an excellent model for what Nigeria could be. It’s dynamic and things work, in part because the government collects taxes and reinvests them in improving infrastructure and providing services.

The export economy is diversifying. Nevin says Nigeria’s most valuable export is now people, not oil. Around 5 million Nigerians live abroad, mostly in the U.K. and the U.S. The diaspora is highly educated. Almost a third of the Nigerians in America have advanced degrees. This diaspora is also passionately loyal. Nigeria gets more each year from remittances, money sent home by those working abroad, than it does from foreign aid. Nevin estimates that formal and informal remittances could total as much as $40 billion. But the diaspora provides more than just money. It is a real-time link to Western know-how and technology.

Nigeria also has a booming arts and entertainment industry, which is a source of both export earnings and pride. Nigeria has produced an astounding number of first-rate novelists, including Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe—whose Things Fall Apart has been translated into 57 languages—Biyi Bandele and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The Nigerian film and television industry, or Nollywood, is reckoned to be the second or third largest in the world, after Hollywood and India’s Bollywood. It produces around 50 movies each week, in every genre. Nigerian movies are shown in homes, movie theaters and video parlors throughout the country, as well as across Africa and the far-flung Nigerian diaspora. They are consumed by all levels of society, from those wealthy enough to have satellite dishes to those who flock to “community viewing centers”—in essence, mini-theaters using flat-screen TVs. TV stations in many African countries buy Nigerian programming. It’s common to encounter Nigerian soaps and sitcoms on TVs in cafés and bars across the continent, even in francophone countries. Vendors walk the streets of Sierra Leone’s Freetown wearing plastic ponchos containing Nigerian DVDs, often pirated.

Most are hastily shot and low-budget—some by what actor and director Ali Nuhu calls “roadside filmmakers.” But Nigeria also has an upmarket segment. The film Lionheart was entered this year for an Oscar for best foreign film, before being disqualified for having too much English dialogue. The irony, of course, is that Nigerians speak English.

The Nigerian arts industry has been so dominant that artists in other African nations have paid it the ultimate compliment: complaining about “Nigeriazation.” Nollywood is important as a source of jobs and export earnings, but even more than that, it is a reminder to Nigerians of what they can do when they set their minds to it.

Entrepreneurs Everywhere

But there’s even more in the plus column. Oil, movies and the diaspora are well established. However, the future belongs to companies that aren’t even on the radar yet. Nigeria has a robust and vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. Yaba, in Lagos, is Nigeria’s Silicon Valley. It has attracted support from international technopreneurs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Nigeria is particularly strong in fintech and telecoms. And the high-tech explosion is not just in Lagos. Amal Hassan has built Outsource Global Technologies into a world-class organization that provides outsourced call center operations. Her company is located in the North, in Abuja and Kaduna.

There are thousands of startups in Nigeria, and they’re not just producing high-tech products targeted at the upper and middle classes. Some are trying to get traction in that tricky ground between making a profit and taking on big social problems. After finishing her MBA at MIT, Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola started WeCyclers, basically a motorbike-based trash collection business that serves the 60 percent of Lagos’ population that lives in slum neighborhoods where people are too poor to pay for trash collection. WeCyclers takes their waste and pays them with money it earns from recycling.

MIT grad and WeCyclers founder Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola navigates the tricky ground between making a profit and doing good in Lagos.PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/GETTY

The spirit of small business is everywhere. The informal sector—street vendors, local businesses and tradespeople—is booming as well, particularly in Lagos. Nigerians have a work ethic that makes Scandinavians look like slackers.
No one sits in Nigeria. It’s impossible to walk down the street without being approached by someone selling something, from peanuts to windshield wipers to an on-the-spot manicure. In Kaduna, the governor has converted a section of the market into a “recycling program” to provide employment for youth. It’s backbreaking and dangerous work: smashing old alternators to pieces with hammers to pluck out the copper wire inside; bending old, razor-sharp roofing sheet metal to make bread bins; and melting down aluminum cans to recast them into cooking pots. The program has no shortage of applicants, many of whom are less interested in getting the basic skills the program provides than in earning money to pay their school fees so they can move on to better jobs. Nigerians are passionate about education and self-improvement.

That’s all great. But movies, high tech and street retail are not enough to support three-quarters of a billion people. As Aiyesimoju says, “Google’s been a great success, but it hasn’t transformed the American economy” alone. Transformation will require addressing core industries like petroleum, manufacturing and agriculture, making them more efficient and competitive. In the case of petroleum, there’s also the need to streamline the state company that oversees the industry, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. In the case of agriculture, it’s moving away from subsistence farming using almost Stone Age tools and techniques toward modern high-yield farming and redeploying those displaced workers in what Tufts University economics professor Margaret McMillan calls the “modern sector.” So far, progress is spotty.

But Nigeria has a secret weapon: democracy. Academics Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, authors of Why Nations Fail, argue that authoritarian states that free up their economies get a short-term boost, but it doesn’t last because sustained success requires “inclusive capitalism” and democracy. That’s what is happening in China now. A wave of autocratic leaders post-Deng hasn’t been able to resist reasserting control of the economy and reversing many of his reforms. As they have done so, growth has cooled.

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Massive farms have pushed out nomadic herders, which has resulted in violence.LUIS TATO/AF/GETTY

Nigeria’s democracy may be imperfect, but it’s democracy. Since the end of military rule in 1999, Nigeria has had five elections of increasing validity. In 2015, an opposition candidate won and came to power peacefully—no small achievement in sub-Saharan Africa. An entire generation of Nigerians has no memory of un-democratic government. It has a mostly free press and a vibrant civil society. Successive civilian governments have moved to protect democracy by reducing what has traditionally been the greatest threat: the military. They have deliberately coup-proofed the country by weakening the army, retiring its senior leaders and repositioning it as an internal security force that is scattered across the country. According to, the Nigerian army now ranks 44th out of 137 countries, which puts it somewhere between Peru and Denmark, and well behind South Africa.

Investors aren’t moving into Nigeria yet, but they’re watching. The talk used to be about the economic potential of the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Now it’s MINT—Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey.
“Right now, Nigeria is seen as just too hard, but there’s a wall of money waiting to come in if it gets it right,” Aiyesimoju says. According to Orji, Nigeria is “just a few tweaks away” from being an attractive place for investors. “Look at South Korea,” he says. “All it took was changing one thing—the landholding law.” (That change allowed larger farms, which enabled farmers to invest in mechanization.)

Jeff Schlapinski of the Emerging Markets Private Equity Association, an industry group for private capital in emerging markets, ticks off some of the changes that would make Nigeria attractive. “Corruption is a nonstarter for Western investors. And they don’t like uncertainty.”

It’s worth noting that, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index, Nigeria’s corruption problem is no worse than that of fellow oil state Russia and only slightly worse than China’s. The current president, Muhammadu Buhari, was elected on an anti-corruption campaign. Schlapinski says ending the policy of propping up the currency would be a good start.

Ready? Or Not?

The path to superpowerdom is not easy. The economy can be the catalyst, but it will take more than economic reform to create the Nigeria that Nigerians want. Sanusi believes it will require a change in society. Asked why he accepted the role of emir rather than going into politics, he says, “I didn’t accept it. I sought it out. I’m trying to change the entire worldview of a society. I can only do it from this role.”

There are also political issues. The country will need to navigate the same gauntlet and deal with the same maturity challenges as China, India and even the U.S. For example, keeping the country together. The U.S. faced 11 rebellions in its first 100 years. China has had rebellions in Tibet, Xinjiang and now Hong Kong. Experts have long predicted that Nigeria could break into pieces. As former U.S. Ambassador John Campbell explains, “The [Christian] South is exasperated with what they see as the North’s stubborn refusal to leave the Middle Ages and join the modern world.” But Nigerians scoff at the idea of breakup. Nigerian lawyer Sam Kargbo says, “Oil holds this country together. As long as there’s oil, no one’s going anywhere.” But there are too many geographic, ethnic and religious divisions to rule it out.

Politicians often exploit religion, both to stir up support for themselves and to distract voters from issues like the economy. Nigeria prides itself on being the most religious nation on earth. In 2014, a man was sent to a mental institution for admitting to being an atheist. Nigeria has a raft of traditional religions, like Islam, Protestant Christianity and Catholicism. It also has a booming “prosperity gospel” sector complete with rock star pastors who provide salvation-tainment. Just a few miles from the national mosque in the capital is the Dunamis Glory Dome, which has the world’s largest auditorium, capable of seating 100,000. At least it’s the largest until this year, when the Hand of God Cathedral in the Rivers state is finished.

Worshippers at Salvation Ministries, a Pentecostal church in Port Harcourt.YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/GETTY

Nigeria will also be forced to deal with thorny social issues like pollution, climate change and inclusivity. Many prominent Nigerian women are in business and government, but women overall do not have the same rights and opportunities as men. In rural areas, they are often the target of violence. In Borno state last year, herdsmen gang-raped five girls. Police dropped the case, and many believe they were paid off, according to Rebecca Dali, who in 2017 won a U.N. Sergio Vieira de Mello Award for her humanitarian work. CESDI’s Yashe, who lives in Borno, says Nigeria is three to five generations behind the U.S. in terms of women’s rights. She’s talking about Lagos. It will take longer in the North, she notes.

But Sanusi says things are already starting to change. “A generation ago, the emir would have told his daughter who to marry. But my daughter has been to school. For her, things are different.” Still, he says, Africa isn’t “ready” to take on LGBT rights.

Nigeria could take off. But will it? And if so, when? It’s hard to say, of course. Whether it finally breaks through will come down to leadership. The president, Buhari, is not naturally inclined to make the economic policy changes that would jump-start growth.

As Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says, “Buhari has a retrograde and unorthodox view of how to run a modern economy. Import substitution. Currency manipulation. Protectionism.”

A senior government official has a more positive assessment: “It’s a matter of priorities. Buhari’s first trying to mend the social fabric of a nation.” Either way, Buhari will likely step down in 2023. As one expert says, “It’s hard to know what happens next. Nigerian politics are like a snow globe.”

Nigeria could become the next China. It may not. It may be something in between. My granddaughter may be writing the same article 50 years from now. Maybe Nigeria will always be the country of tomorrow.

Yes, Nigeria is overpopulated and poor and loud and dirty and unsafe. It’s not the Africa of travel magazine spreads, with people in open-topped Land Cruisers snapping pictures of lions as a red sun dips behind an acacia tree. But there’s something about Nigeria. An it factor. A throbbing energy that is palpable. An exceptionally high self-regard and belief in its own exceptionalism. In Nigerian-ness. As one of my sources says, “We like to beat our chests.”

I would not bet against it.

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