Leaving Nigeria for the Maghreb

July 9, 2015

Marie-Francoise Marie-Nelly Vanguard newspaper

Preparing to leave Nigeria has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life. Even before leaving, I am already feeling nostalgic about this amazing, classic African country - at the crossroads of tradition and modernity.

My departure coincides with the change of guard at the helm of this nation of 183 million people. Something about my pulse at this time exactly matches the pulse of Nigerians and their new administration: relatively calm, hopeful for the next four years, committed to change, and reflective on lessons learned over past years.
It is hard to find anyone who does not have their own perception of Nigeria. I am taking and will carry with me, an immense but nuanced sense of a Nigeria that continues to win despite its many daunting challenges. Despite its many great stories of perseverance, endurance and achievement, no one is blinded to the challenges: the recurrent violent attacks by Boko Haram extremists; the fiscal shocks from the huge drop in oil revenues; and the social vulnerability of still far too many Nigerians; etc. The resilience of Nigeria in the midst of this persistent backward pull would give anyone great hope in its future.

The unshaken faith that so many Nigerians possess, which was somewhat confusing to me at first, now seems almost intuitive. After four years and now “proudly Nigerian”, my suitcases are filled with stories of success despite all odds; of fond memories of the friendship and generosity of Nigerians; and of the unique lessons learned here that will stay with me forever.

It feels like yesterday, but I arrived Nigeria in October 2011 and was immediately struck by the energy of the people. Throughout my tenure, I observed with awe, aspects of an entrepreneurial spirit - unparalleled anywhere else. Over the past four years, I observed the ever growing spark of innovation from Nigeria’s creative industries -- from Nollywood to the music and comedy industries to the fashion industry. I was pleasantly surprised at the level of the country's cultural penetration beyond Nigeria’s borders and far into other continents. This level of creativity and innovation also shows strongly in Nigeria’s thriving technology industry. Konga and Jumia are two of the foremost e-commerce platforms in West Africa and both have their roots in Nigeria. In education and ICT, Micro-works is a part of the many ways that has provided a means for graduates to acquire the skills that make them employable and lead the country in a forward march of progress.

I have been particularly touched by the innocence and playfulness of Nigeria’s youth – who make up a huge proportion of the population and the future of this country. I have seen the strength and the resilience of the Nigerian woman, a pillar of the family and of the Nigerian society. I also keep vivid memories of the rich natural tapestry in Nigeria such as the lush Obudu Cattle Ranch, Awhum water falls in Enugu, Olumo rock in Ogun State, the hot springs in Ekiti State and the Mambilla Plateau in Taraba. Despite the unexplored yet immense potential of these tourist sites, one cannot speak of Africa's rise or economic revolution without speaking prominently of Nigeria's.

The World Bank Group – Nigeria’s biggest development partner albeit not exactly a major player relative to consolidated public sector spending – has built a strong partnership with many achievements to its credit. We have responded to explicit needs of the country and helped put in place significant blocks for the "Winning Nigeria" of tomorrow. For example, working alongside other partners, Nigeria seems to be winning the battle against polio and is on the road to becoming a polio free country. The recent focus on maternal health with a result-based approach where disbursements to states are linked to measurable improvements in health outcomes, is a real game changer. Its sustained application over the next five-to-eight years should dramatically shift health performance in Africa given Nigeria’s demographic significance on the continent. The establishment of the mortgage refinancing facility will help mobilize long-term financing and in turn boost construction, allowing many more Nigerians to own their homes while creating jobs for both skilled and low-skilled labor. The Bank is also helping to enhance productivity and the integration of the agricultural value chain, because millions of jobs are likely to come from the non-farm activities spurred by, and linked to agriculture – a guaranteed source of more inclusive growth; of transformation across rural Nigeria; of job and wealth creation and of enhanced food security and nutrition outcomes. The Bank has also initiated significant work to put more coherence to the instruments for social protection.

During my tenure, I saw how young entrepreneurs with small but awe inspiring incentives such as the You Win Initiative demonstrate their capacity to create new products or service lines. I have seen flickers of Nigeria’s immense potential once it can resolve its most daunting challenges – among them, power and training, notably for young people in this crucial sector.

The reality, however, is that the environment, both economic and social, is not the most favorable. The significant drop in oil prices has seriously reduced government revenues at a time when the ambitions have never been as large. Balancing both factors will require significant adjustment and consensus on the core priorities of Nigeria. This is the way to help turn things around and create what I call, a virtual cycle of development.

I have learned that Nigerian problems need Nigerian solutions.  I have found that Nigerians know how to find the answers to their own problems, when they are determined. They eloquently demonstrated this in the fight against the Ebola pandemic last year. This deeply ingenious manner of finding solutions to problems is part of the reason why I have worked with a group of distinguished Nigerians representing the various facets of the society and sought their advice on very complex and difficult issues - from how to approach our engagement in the North, to the understanding of the root causes of poverty. Their advice has been extremely valuable and I hope that my successor will continue this approach.

As I depart from a country that has blessed me with so many fond memories, I have three main thoughts. Firstly, Nigerians need to work together to reach consensus on important common issues. It is clear that we need to do development differently in Nigeria, looking at the local context while bringing the global experience, and nurturing the local leadership. This can only be achieved through cooperation. Secondly, there is a need to include the poor and vulnerable as this is imperative for Nigerians to win as a people. Finally, it is crucial to persevere and remain focused on the critical issues -- what I describe as remain “relentlessly boring”.  

The good news is that I am not going very far --I am just crossing the Sahara to Rabat, where I will cover the Maghreb Countries and Malta.  I'll be checking in from time to time, sharing in the joy of Nigeria's continued wins, and remaining hopeful for the future of this truly stunning country.

Marie-Nelly served as the World Bank Country Director for Nigeria from October 2011 – June 2015.