The New Igbo Economic Frontier

By Uche Amunike

I came across an interesting piece that got me glued to my phone screen until I finished reading it through. It talked about the need for southeasterners to maximize the human resources that nature blessed us with as a region, in such a way that it will boost our economy well enough to transform our region to the manufacturing hub of our country, Nigeria. He called this, Knowledge Economy which simply means, being creative enough to know the areas where we have comparative advantage and how to utilize them to develop our region. He made reference to the efforts made by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe in his days as a premier to develop the southeast, even though there weren’t much resources available to us as a people when compared to the northern and southern regions. There is a lot to learn from this. The southeast had only palm oil trade as a source of livelihood and yet, Azikiwe was undeterred and went ahead to develop the Eastern Nigerian region with proceeds made from the sales of Palm oil until it became widely referred to as the fastest growing economy in the country. It is a piece that was written by my dear friend, Johnbosco Onunkwo, a proud son of Umuchu soil and staff of AGIP Oil. He is a member of the Nigerian Films Board and former gubernatorial aspirant for the Anambra guber election in Anambra under the aegis of the APC.

Please enjoy…

In the 50s, with Nigeria still operating the regional government system comprising of the Northern, Eastern and Western governments, the Eastern government was by far, the poorest government depending merely on the palm oil trade – which had far lesser trade value than the cocoa trade in the Western region and the groundnut and other commodities in the northern region – for revenues to fund critical infrastructure and sectors necessary for the growth of its ballooning population. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the then premier of Eastern Nigeria, didn’t go about complaining about what it didn’t have. He simply went to work. By 1957, Zik has developed the Eastern Nigeria Development Plan focusing on our comparative advantage.

By 1966, Eastern Nigeria was rated the fastest growing economy in Africa. What did Zik do? He focused on the core competence of the Eastern people and developed a plan that factored the resources we had. There’s this growing obsession with the present inhabitants of the Eastern Nigeria about seaports. They are under the illusion that only a seaport in the South East will spur the economic growth of the South East. They go about championing advocacies that are nearly impossible on the need for seaports in the East. The question is, does the East need a seaport to develop? Certainly, the Southeast is a landlocked region. It’s a fact and there’s nothing wrong about it. When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, Israel was an extreme desert where grasses hardly grew. Israel is a “tiny” nation surrounded by hostile nations. The odds seemed to be against them, but they had luck; they had leaders who understood the enormity of the work at hand and rallied the populace, and in few years, Israel had become green in all sectors. With a population of circa 9 million and a land mass of about 21,000 Square metres, Israel is the 31st largest economy in the world, in terms of GDP, and is ranked the 3rd highest in the world, in terms of churning out innovations. I suggest to readers who haven’t, to purchase the small book by Dan Israel entitled ‘Start Up Nations’. Luxembourg, a landlocked nation with a landmass of about 2500 square meters and a population of about 612,000, is rated the 2nd richest country in the world based on GDP/capita. They also have the second largest investment funds after the USA at $4trillion. Luxembourg is also rated the 73rd country in export, exporting $18.4 billion worth of goods annually. Switzerland is also a landlocked nation which has prospered economically. Closer home to Africa, Rwanda and Botswana are two landlocked nations that have continued to prosper economically in Africa, breaking all limitations. Despite 70% of Botswana being in the Khalari desert, it has grown from being the poorest country in Africa in the 1960’s to one of its fastest growing economy with purchasing power parity of over $18,000 higher than most other African countries, including Nigeria. We are so aware of the success of Rwanda that we don’t need to reiterate them. The critical factor in the success of these countries is their emphasis on the knowledge economy – creative thinking. There’s no barrier, natural or artificial, that can hinder economic growth or development. All that’s required is the perfect understanding of our geographical limitations and advantages, and creatively manipulating it to develop our people and land. Fortunately, the Igbo man is renowned for being proficient in creative thinking. This gives our leaders an ample opportunity to build a knowledge economy.

Remember Chinedu Echeruo, the Igbo computer WizKid who sold his startup Hopstop to Apple for $1b in 2013 – an amount larger than the whole revenue of the Southeastern state annually. This transaction is almost 1/3 of Nigeria Customs’ annual revenue. Despite the fact that Igbo sons and daughters control the ICT sector in Nigeria, no Eastern governor has found it necessary to build an ICT hub in the East, to challenge the Western ICT corridor whom Andela has given too much exposure.

The knowledge economy should be the new economic frontier of the South East. The world has moved beyond cargo and cargo ships. The world is moving from trade to services. Singapore, despite being surrounded by the sea, makes more revenue from financial services than from the port. We can’t continue to depend on the seaports when we have a larger comparative advantage. Aba has always been the headquarters of creative small skill production for the past 60 years, yet that cluster is yet to be developed and rallied to transform the South East to the manufacturing hub of Nigeria alongside the Nnewi automotive industry. Yes, the Southeast should be the manufacturing hub of Nigeria. We have all the resources to initiate this, as opposed to trade. We can turn over to manufacturing, creating massive jobs for our people and generating enormous revenue to create social programs for the weak in our society. To begin with, the 5 Eastern States need collaborative economic initiatives to provide infrastructure needed to accelerate growth. All the 5 States should collaborate on building all roads leading in and out of their states and tolling to recover cost over time. Government funds can’t fix all infrastructures in the Southeast as a great deal of PPP is needed to make it happen. The states should also liaise with the so many wealthy men in their states to create an endowment fund to fund STEM education and the development of an artificial intelligence centre. There should also be a rail integrating the 5 states and seamlessly linking the economies of these 5 states for optimal utilization. We are the rising sun and should take the lead at all times. The future of the Southeast lies not on the seaports or conventional trading but on harnessing the enormous human knowlede to build a resilient economy bordering on the knowledge economy and transforming the Southeast to the manufacturing hub of Nigeria. This is where our comparative advantage lies.

If we need a port, the Warri Port is few kilometres away from Onitsha Inland port and can provide for all our needs. In truth, we are surrounded by seaports – Warri, Calabar, Onne and others still in the development stage. We don’t need to own one to utilize them. Comparative advantage doesn’t need you to own everything. Building resilient economy involves maximizing your comparative advantage and not forcing yourself to create what you don’t have.

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