This week is fashion week in Lagos. This is an image of Nigeria that rarely makes the headlines. More often, it is the other side of life in this extraordinary country that catches the eye of news makers: corruption, sectarian violence and poverty. Recently, Boko Haram, the Islamic group behind a series of violent attacks in the north and that operates on the fringes of al-Qaida has been dominating international perceptions of Nigeria.
This perception does reflect the reality of much of life in the country. Nigeria has been a poster child for the curse of oil. It has defined the all too familiar tale of how fragile post-colonial political institutions succumb to the flood of money that washes through the corridors of power as oil is literally sucked from the coastal swamps and dispatched across the Atlantic to gasoline-hungry US consumers. Add in an already complex ethnic and religious matrix and it is not surprising that Nigeria has set the standard for countries where the abundance of natural resources and chronic wealth disparity go hand in hand.
Sitting in the foyer of one of the now numerous five star hotels on Victoria Island in Lagos, the trappings of all this wealth are easy to spot. Well-heeled guests pull up outside the hotel in their brand new Range Rovers and bustle through the swing doors in a swirl of Italian designs and private equity chatter. Secure in this hotel, we are cocooned away from the teeming chaos of the rest of Lagos where the millions that have migrated from the countryside to create one of Africa’s biggest cities are still largely waiting for the trickle-down effect from this extraordinary concentration of wealth and power at the apex of Nigerian society.
But to see Nigeria only as a society polarised between the plutocratic few and the impoverished rest and riven by the fault lines of communal violence is to miss the other reality of modern urban Nigeria. This is one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the world. I am writing this in Shanghai having left Lagos a few days ago and, while the two places could not be less similar in almost all senses, they share the same impatient, restless sense of capitalism unleashed. This always strikes me every time I visit Lagos. For all its very obvious problems and appalling poverty, this is not a city made sullen by the enormity of the challenge ahead. There is an energy and vitality that is hard to match anywhere in the world.
Nigeria has always had a productive middle class. The problem has been that most of them have chosen to live elsewhere and not in their home country. That may be changing. The fashion industry, the movie business and a growing financial services sector are all pulling the Nigerian diaspora back home. Of course, the economy is still dominated by hydrocarbons and the government’s efforts to reform the sector are bogged down in a mire of vested interests and going nowhere fast.
But with expected growth of 8% this year it is not surprising that Nigeria is catching the eye of international investors. The pitfalls are significant – the distinction between the legitimate and illegitimate sides of the economy are famously blurred – and caution is required. But it is worth looking beyond the traditional stereotype to see what Nigeria may really have to offer.