Nigerian Governor on Ebola, Boko Haram and Africa’s biggest Economy

With 175 million people and a $500 billion GDP which has overtaken South Africa to make it the largest economy in Africa, Nigeria has enormous potential. But as Governor Isa Yuguda from the north eastern Nigerian state of Bauchi conceded on Friday at a LAWAC lunch, the country also faces significant problems, from the extremist Boko Haram militants who kidnap schoolchildren to rampant financial corruption and, not least, the threatening specter of the Ebola epidemic that has been growing in west Africa.

Although Nigeria has had just 11 confirmed cases of Ebola infection and four deaths, “our country and our leadership consider Ebola a very serious threat,” Governor Yuguda said. Earlier in the week he had been part of a 7 hour-meeting with the President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, where top officials discussed how to contain the Ebola outbreak. “We do not want to wait until it happens and get caught unawares, because we know that even one case is an epidemic.” Ebola was transmitted to Nigeria in July by a man who flew back from Liberia and collapsed at the airport before being isolated for treatment and subsequently dying. Liberia’s president has since apologized to Nigeria for allowing the already feverish man to board the plane from Liberia in the first place. Ebola has so far killed 1,060 people, mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and some 2,000 more have been infected. Nigeria, with 45 doctors per 100,000 people, (compared to 1 doctor per 100,000 people in Liberia) has more public health resources than the other afflicted countries. “We have had a very aggressive response” to the disease, said Yuguda, tracking down every single person who came in contact with the sick man on the plane and isolating anyone who showed any symptoms. He is optimistic that Nigeria’s actions will contain the current outbreak, but acknowledges the ongoing threat is very real: “We have here a disease that could wipe all of us away.”

As if Ebola were not bad enough, Nigeria also has the ongoing problem of Boko Haram, Islamic extremists in the north east, who have killed thousands of people in their fight against modernity and western education. After Boko Haram fighters kidnapped 267 schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria in April there was an international outcry, but so far the Nigerian government has not been able to rescue the girls. “We know where they are, but it is in a very remote area, and we are concerned we may end up losing all the girls in a rescue,” said Yuguda. Nigeria has received assistance from the US and Israel in locating the girls. The kidnappers, he said, “are not human – they don’t hesitate to kill. They are a cult,” and are linked to al Qaeda and other terrorist networks like al Shabab in Somalia, from where they get some of their weapons and financing. At the root of the problem, said Yuguda, is joblessness – young men with nothing to do. “Then they become radicalized on the internet.”

On the economy, Yuguda said that Nigeria’s economic growth in services in particular had boosted it past South Africa to become the biggest economy on the continent. It is also by far the most populous, and he said there is huge potential in the technology and communications sectors, as well as in agriculture and tourism. He admitted that Nigeria regularly ranks close to the bottom on international surveys of corruption, but said that didn’t mean foreign investors couldn’t operate there – “the big international oil companies are all in Nigeria, so other companies can function there too.” Any foreign investor who is asked for a bribe can report it to the government and the problem will be taken care of. “We are gifted by nature – we have very rich soil, a long coastline, and no natural hazards [like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods etc]. Unfortunately we don’t have the capital – the difference has to be made by you people [pointing to the audience]. America has supported the rest of the world… now it is time to come to sub-Saharan Africa.”