In case you hadn"t noticed, on April 6, Nigeria"s economy doubled in size, surpassing South Africa"s as the largest on the continent after it updated its gross domestic product data for the first time in over 20 years.
The economy expanded to an estimated 80 trillion naira ($488 billion) for 2013. The rebasing was legitimate, most say largely accurate, and was the result of the abandoning of a quarter century old baseline that should have been updated every five years.
However, Nigeria"s decision to rebase its GDP is not only about economics, as African governments firmly believe that economic power is tied to political influence. Nigeria"s deliberate decision to increase the official size of its economy represents a philosophical shift in how elites around government view their country, and how they want the country to be viewed by others.
Many of Sub-Saharan Africa"s 47 other countries that are lagging behind in overhauling their GDP data are likely to follow suit. Kenya is due to announce new GDP numbers in September, and as countries like Angola, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Sudan also rebase, on paper another several hundred billion dollars will be added to Africa"s overall GDP.
To understand how such a disparity between official figures could have happened in Nigeria, one can only conclude that there has been willful neglect by all parties involved. Nigeria has some of the best-trained technocrats in Africa, longstanding support from the international financial institutions, and vast oil wealth.
Change all on paper? Irrelevant!
The failure to rebase every 5 years in line with international best practice is not from lack of capacity, but rather a conscious decision not to allocate resources. Before April, the last year Nigeria had recalculated the weight of its sectors was 1990. Since the 2000s alone, phone lines have grown from 300,000 to 110,000,000 today. Everyone knew that seismic changes were happening. Everyone knew the old GDP figures were grossly inaccurate.
It is ironic that Nigeria announced with excitement that it is now a middle-income country, and yet it was under the same finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, that the country positioned itself as poor in order to be granted debt forgiveness. From the perspective of Nigeria"s desire to be Africa"s spokesperson on the world stage, any suggestion that the change is "all on paper" is irrelevant.
A popular demand
This change is about geopolitics and Nigeria"s new GDP figure, combined with the proud national psyche, makes it a safe bet that it is only a matter of time before a president demands entry to the politically influential G20. Whether or not Nigeria would be successful is anyone"s guess but, successful or not, the demand would be popular among Nigerians. Furthermore, while both South Africa and Nigeria are generally disliked on the continent for hegemonic tendencies, rejection of a black African country taking its rightful place will likely win for Nigeria allies across the continent.
For its part, the international media has excited itself with Nigeria"s rebasing, perhaps partly an extension of a shallow excitement over Africa in general. Financial reporters have asked cliché questions whether foreign investors will now be keener to invest; economists have theorised on things like Nigeria"s new debt capacity; the left has mused over whether the news simply accentuates the nation"s gross inequality; and, among the deeper analyses, some have considered what the inaccurate GDP figures might say about the weakness of other African statistics.
While these are all interesting perspectives, few have examined how the numbers are a painful indictment of development progress to date. With this updated picture of wealth, it seems many indicators are worse than previously thought, especially when it comes to basic services for average people.
Based on the new GDP figures, many key indicators that are judged against overall national wealth such as rates of tax collection and spending on things like education and infrastructure are not just low, but utterly abysmal. If Nigeria and others intend to spin a positive message from the rebasing, it will not be about past achievements in development.
My own history in Africa began when I was a young undergraduate studying in Ghana. I have since spent close to a decade living and working in more than a dozen countries on the subcontinent, conducting technical and commercial studies across industries. I remain positive on the continent"s overall trajectory, but the changes in global perception and African elites" views of their countries, have far outpaced actual improvements on the ground.
Whereas in my early days everyone wanted to hear about HIV/AIDs, poverty and corruption, now everyone wants to hear about positives such as investment, Oscar winners, and mobile money. Among the media in particular, it seems the negative is an undesirable story in an Africa where Afripolitans sip champagne, entertainment industries are thriving and diaspora are flocking home.
Thus, rebasing is perhaps not about a nation or continent that is finally capable of collecting data, or even about one that is wealthier than many thought. The decision to rebase now is more likely part of a larger narrative and dialogue that has been growing over the past decade.
After a difficult period of structural adjustment in the 1990s, and the last decade of booming commodity prices, African elites seem ready to re-write the narrative and emerge on the global stage in a more positive light. Other countries will also go the Nigeria way, sending a message about the image of the Africa they want to be part of, and attempt to define themselves as serious economic and political players in the process.
The difficult test of this new narrative will come from the populations that these elites rule over. What about the millions of people who live in daily fear in northern Nigeria, or the disenfranchised populations along the coast of Kenya, or the vast segments of the Angolan population who continue to feel excluded after a long conflict? Will they accept a message of prosperity and power in the midst of poverty?
Whether or not African governments understand the responsibility to their people that should come with such proclamations is yet to be seen.
•The author is a Canadian Rotary Global Grant Scholar reading for an MSc at the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford and co-chair of the Oxford Africa Conference: www.oxfordafricaconference.com