Nigeria Spotlight: An Interview with Ann Oden

Nigeria is now the largest economy in Africa—what are the opportunities ahead for partnership and growth?

Nigeria is a huge market. By size, it is five countries in one, more or less, so for any business, the market is there. And then there is our growing democracy. We certainly have our challenges, but we have come a very long way from our authoritarian past. Nigeria’s democracy is becoming more mature—elected leaders coming from different backgrounds, not just the elite. The last thing is that, like it or not, we have the oil resources. We are the number-one producer of oil in Africa and the fifth- or sixth-largest exporter to the United States. In short, opportunities abound!

A lot of stereotypes prevail about the difficulties of doing business in Africa, and especially in Nigeria. To what extent are these true or not? What implications does this have?

That is a very interesting question. A World Bank report several years ago laid out all the challenges around business environment, taxation, land ownership, and other legislation as well as security challenges. That report drives most people’s understanding of Nigeria’s business environment. When the World Bank says something, we all tend to agree, mostly because we don’t have something to counter it. But in reality, the government, especially government at the subnational level, has worked hard to try to overcome the legislative challenges, eliminate the bottlenecks, and ensure that it is easier to do business in Nigeria. By the time the World Bank puts out its next report, I hope it will reflect positively on this progress.

Security is an area where Nigeria has not made the progress needed for business to thrive. This is a critical challenge, but there is a significant government commitment and many resources are being directed at strengthening security. It is also significant that for the first time, the Government of Nigeria has sought assistance from other nations, including the United States, to bring resources, skills-transfer and intelligence to help us resolve this challenge.

What guidance can you offer foreign businesses interested in doing business in Nigeria?

They need to come in with an open mind and not rely on stereotypes presented in the international press. It might be worthwhile for these foreign businesses to do early reconnaissance on the opportunities that they wish to invest in. One way I’ve seen this done well is through global pro bono initiatives, such as IBM’s Corporate Service Corps and Smarter Cities Challenge programs. These programs provide excellent insights and help business leaders understand how to be successful in Nigeria. At the same time, they contributed real social value by advising local governments and NGOs on how to solve some of their core challenges in service delivery.

It’s critical for foreign businesses to find a good local partner that can help them navigate the Nigerian context, which is a critical part of a local security strategy, as these partners have the best sense of risk and safety. These local entities can be vetted through the Investment Promotion Commission, which directs investors to credible local partners.

How does Nigeria’s great wealth of natural resources figure into the country’s future? Is it a blessing or a curse?

Until recently, we were the only oil producer in our neighborhood. Now the newer producers, like Ghana, are saying, “Let’s look at Nigeria and learn from their mistakes.” We would certainly prefer not to be held up as the negative example, but that is certainly an understandable position. While we cannot say that the oil has been exclusively a curse since it has kept our economy afloat, there do seem to be more curses than blessings to date. The oil has been a curse, in no small part, because we had no one to learn from, especially regarding environmental degradation, and allocation of oil resources and revenues. There is a current national dialogue afoot and resource allocation is a key issue that is being discussed, though without consensus yet. All of the security issues in the Niger Delta are rooted in the inability to resolve this debate in the past, and that is clearly a tough one to chew on. Nigeria has a key decision to make in order for our future to be secured as a sovereign nation. A ‘sharing formula’ needs to be worked out in a way that works for generations to come—that would help to turn the curse into a blessing.

With regards to the environment, everywhere in the world, where natural resources such as oil are extracted, reasonable resources are allocated to address the degradation that comes from extraction. It is important that Nigeria addresses this issue quickly. Communities around the oil producing areas must have adequate resources to alleviate the impact the environment degradation and the necessary infrastructure for sustainable development.

You’ve held influential posts in a variety of institutions, including USAID, DfID, and Cross River State Government. From such an informed vantage point, what have you seen that has the greatest promise?

Yes, we must be honest—we face some real challenges, but I still think we are moving in the right direction and there is light at the end of the tunnel. We are seeing new types of investments across the country. There is growing excitement for agribusiness among youth. This is a critical sector to create jobs and to feed the nation and the region. The government is also investing in an Agriculture Transformation Agenda. We are also starting to see the oil and gas sector seek out new ways to ensure that more Nigerian citizens benefit from that natural resource; for instance, they are looking at ways to build the capacity of local businesses to effectively supply the industry. While it is true and unfortunate that we have not been blessed with good leadership, as someone who has spent most of her career in development, I strongly believe that there is real momentum. We are seeing incremental change now, and we will see enormous change a few years down the line.

Ann Oden

Ann Oden is the Nigerian Country Director for PYXERA Global. Ann has over 20 years of experience in international development, most recently with USAID Nigeria where she served as Senior Program Management Specialist for Education. Prior to that, Ann held posts with the Department for International Development and Cross River State Government. Ann is also a renowned gender rights activist and advocate with a track record of successful work with international development agencies, NGOs, and community-based organizations in Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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