With 200 million people, Nigeria is the most populous country in the world’s most food-insecure continent. Producing food at home matters more as importers struggle to access dollars to pay for shipments from overseas after an oil price crash sapped foreign-currency reserves. “We are heading toward famine and starvation,” Niger state Governor Abubakar Sani Bello warned some months ago.
The challenges come as the world is forecast for a sharp rise in food insecurity because of Covid-19’s impact. As many as 132 million more people globally may fall into the grip of hunger this year, including in many places that used to have relative stability.
In Nigeria, working the land can be a dangerous occupation because of longstanding religious and ethnic tensions and, more recently, organized crime. That’s as farmers already were having to contend with flooding or drought. It’s all now hitting agriculture just when the country needs it most. The pandemic has triggered a surge in food prices in a nation that imports more than a tenth of its food supply.
With more than half its revenue derived from oil exports, Nigeria’s economic fortunes are tied to the boom and bust cycles of the oil market. Those fortunes have waned way below expectations this year and, with more than one-quarter of its labour force jobless, it is time to question the country’s economic pathway.
For decades, the mantra of ‘economic diversification’ characterized attempts to reverse Nigeria’s dependence on oil with little real progress. Despite numerous reforms, international loans and restructuring programmes, 85 million Nigerians live in deteriorating conditions of poverty. The current coronavirus pandemic combined with mounting debt obligations and declining GDP gives new urgency to this issue.
The fall in international oil prices, which led government to slash its oil benchmark price from $57 to $30 a barrel and cut 20% of the capital budget, worsens these problems, but it is far from the only factor. Biomass, which drives household pollution and contributed to the death of 114,000 people in Nigeria in 2017, is the most dominant source of energy in Nigeria, amounting to more than 80% of the total energy mix, followed by fossil fuels (18%), and a negligible amount of renewable energy.
Although a diversified energy sector with a strong emphasis on renewables is known to reduce health and economic risks of combustion, there has been little emphasis on the role a diversified energy mix could play in ensuring sustainable development – even though the estimated potential of 427,000MW of solar power and photovoltaic generation means Nigeria has enormous renewable energy opportunities.
The global economy is also undergoing tectonic structural changes that will affect demand for Nigeria’s oil, leaving a fossil fuel-dependent economy more vulnerable. Improvements in global fuel efficiency, the ascent of electricity as a substitute for oil in the transport sector, and the falling prices of renewables and storage technologies all lead to a reduction in demand for fossil fuel products.
Creating structures for transition
This is not a ‘get out of oil’ prescription, and energy transition is complex. But it is inevitable. There are no universal strategies applicable to all countries; local contexts and political realities inform what is possible. Nigeria can take advantage of its abundant natural gas deposit as a ‘transition fuel’ to buy it time for putting the appropriate transition structures in place.
The country has made progress in reducing the amount of gas flared, but much remains to be done for Nigeria to meet the 2030 global deadline to end flaring, after failing to meet its 2020 national target.
The first step to proper transition is to align Nigeria’s international obligations with its domestic policies and legislations – the distance between words and action must be bridged and the institutional capacity to implement raised.
And, while they contain symbolic green gestures, the economic recovery and growth plan developed in response to the 2016 recession, and the post-COVID-19 economic sustainability plan, do not espouse green growth as a fundamental objective.
There has been much focus on reviving agriculture, which is laudable, but agrarian practices have radically changed from the 1970s when the sector accounted for 57% of Nigeria’s GDP and generated 64.5% of export earnings.
Beset by a loss of biodiversity, drought, and desertification, extreme weather events, rise in sea levels and variable rainfall, it is no longer smart for Nigeria to invest in this area without due regard for the significant climate risks. Any effort to revive agriculture and its export potential must be green-centred and integrate regenerative and climate-smart practices.
The right policy mix combined with aggressive funding can position the country as a renewable energy leader, both on the African continent and globally. And it will reap the benefits in technology development, foreign investment, decreased emissions, poverty reduction, and energy for the 80 million people currently without access to the national grid – all of which could ripple into millions of clean energy jobs in manufacturing and installation across the country.
The road to a green future must be paved with deliberate and consistent policies. Reforms hatched because oil prices have plunged should not be ditched when there is a boom.
On the brink of a second recession in four years, Nigeria has learnt that the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19 is only the latest warning that pinning economic growth on a boom-bust market and the generosity of foreign donors and creditors is a failing strategy. There is another way and there is an opportunity for Nigeria to lead.