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Nigeria's Optimism Amid Ebola's Threat

09/23/2014 05:25 EDT | Updated 11/23/2014 05:59 EST
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A Nigerian health official wearing a protective suit waits to screen passengers at the arrivals hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. Nigerian authorities on Monday confirmed a second case of Ebola in Africa's most populous country, an alarming setback as officials across the region battle to stop the spread of a disease that has killed more than 700 people. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Ken Saro-Wiwa, the late Nigerian author and activist, insisted that the observer "cannot merely X-ray society's weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future." Today, in Nigeria, observation has swelled into optimism about burgeoning prosperity, born of a perception of changing reality, a perception that is spreading far beyond the country's borders.

In a Sept. 22 interview with Forbes, Minister of Health Dr. Onyebuchi Chukwu, said: "Nigeria will be as clean as any other country as far as Ebola virus disease is concerned."

Optimism resides in Nigeria, despite the potential horrors of Ebola's global spread. Why so?

As of September 23, the Centers for Disease Control has 21 confirmed cases with eight deaths in Nigeria from Ebola. In context, Nigeria is the most populous country in the continent, with 177 million people. And in this country of contrasts, there was a spirited democrat debate over whether school classes should resume, as they did (despite low turnout), on September 22. This is, in part, because childhood education is essential to the rising Nigerian economy.

According to newly rebased government GDP data from the country's National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria is Africa's largest economy. Rebasing as defined by the UN is the "process of replacing present price structure (base year) to compile volume measures of GDP with a new or more recent base year."

International companies are weighing the benefits of entering the West African nation. A recent presentation by Probal Bhattacharya, marketing director of CHI Limited, one of the country's biggest fruit juice makers, noted at the recent Juice Africa conference in Cape Town that Nigerians are among the world's happiest citizens and express confidence "that tomorrow will be a better day."

Trust in public institutions and government is essential not only to innovation, but also to curbing Ebola, a notorious and horrible disease. This is why when Lagos officials started spreading the word about hand hygiene through churches and mosques, the people listened. The panic and mayhem seen in Liberia has reportedly been avoided.

Why such trust and calm?

Although World Bank data show Nigeria to be ranked first in Africa in terms of net inflows of foreign investment (2009-2013 data), the country is far from an economic superpower globally, with 95 per cent of the population falling outside of the middle and upper classes. Currently, only 9 per cent of Nigeria's working age population is employed. And yet, growing optimism following its newly official economic status may change that. Nigeria's Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala stressed the positive "psychological impact" of the re-calculated GDP announcement on foreign investors.

Before the announcement, the stock market capitalization to GDP ratio was 33 per cent, compared to 270 per cent for South Africa. After the announcement, the ratio is 18 per cent. The country is now ranked as the 26th largest economy in the world. As Harvard University's Bryan Mezue noted recently in Harvard Business Review online, "Emerging market investors looking for upside potential in Africa will look at those numbers with interest. At the same time, inbound foreign direct investment into Africa may become more comfortable with basing operations in Nigeria or using the country as an entry point into Africa." Recently, James Entwistle, US Ambassador to Nigeria, said improvements in the regulation of the Nigerian capital market and in the general business environment would attract more investments from the US.

Signs of an economic inflection point were clear two years ago, when 20 Nigerian companies made the Forbes Africa Top 25 Companies in West Africa. Nigeria's GDP total of $510 billion outstrips South Africa by $190 billion. Nigeria will thrive with better infrastructure. United Nations data show Nigeria's population will surpass the United States by 2045, and will be the third largest in the world.

Today, the signs of brimming optimism in Nigeria are considerable. In a 2013 31-country study with more than 50,000 respondents for the global risk company Europ Assistance USA, The RIWI Corporation found that, among the largest nine African cities examined, Lagos ranked consistently well ahead of the average of its peer cities on attitudinal issues of perceived safety at night; perceived safety in one's neighborhood compared to one year earlier; perceptions of crime rates; and perceptions of the safety of foreigners, Americans and perceptions of the safety of women within Nigeria.

In 2013, data from a 150-country RIWI study presented at the 17th Annual Conference of the International Association of Prosecutors in Bangkok found that Nigeria ranked among the top three highest-performing nations in terms of citizens' confidence in prosecutors; and among the top three nations surveyed in terms of citizens who said they would not bribe business people.

Whether perception and self-reported data mirror reality is always debatable. What is not debatable is that Nigeria enjoys growing international and domestic attention to its real economic growth amid local national pride in that progress. As the great Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa might have said, when the observer and the observed see increased promise, health and increased prosperity, so then should we.

Have no doubt: With all its might, a powerful Nigeria will surge to fight the uncertainty and fear of Ebola amid growing optimism and a trust in local authorities.

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