On a visit to Nigeria eight years ago, Felix Ekundayo spotted what he thought was the perfect business opportunity. Ekundayo knew sub-Saharan Africa's biggest oil fields lay in the vast southern swamps of the Niger Delta. As an engineer, he was also aware oil drills suck up natural gas with crude. But instead of capturing gas, Nigeria was flaring it, burning $2.5 billion a year. The pollution was turning a natural paradise for birds, insects and fish into a vast, lifeless black lake. Tap the gas and pipe it to gas-fired power stations, Ekundayo estimated, and Nigeria could generate enough power for the whole country, with exports to spare. An end to flaring actually illegal since 1984 would also reduce pollution, perhaps appeasing a rising tide of popular anger in the Delta.
So in 2005, Ekundayo quit a career in London and moved back to Lagos. Six years on, the 42-year-old employs 35 people in a business that turned over $8.5 million last year. Not bad, but a fraction of what it should be. Ekundayo blames corrupt officials, who he says block his expansion to preserve their own monopoly on Nigeria's energy supply. "We're basically still where we were," he says.
Nigeria should be Africa's star. Its population of 160 million is the biggest on the continent and the seventh largest in the world. It produces 3% of global oil reserves and supplies 12% to 15% of U.S. oil imports. Within its borders is some of Africa's best farmland, and off its coasts some of its richest seas. But for most Nigerians, the half-century since independence in 1960 has been less than stellar. The population exploded more than tripling but little else did. For 25 years after 1980 the economy barely moved. Nigeria slipped ever lower in global rankings of health and poverty, and life expectancy is just 48, an increase of less than four years in three decades. Around two-thirds of Nigerians still live in absolute poverty and most lack reliable power or serviceable roads. Poor maintenance of state oil refineries means Africa's biggest crude producer has to buy most of its fuel.
Enduring poverty means frustration, which means instability. Seven years after independence, Nigeria erupted into civil war over the attempted secession of the province of Biafra. More than a million people died in the famine that followed. Three decades of military dictators, and six coups, followed, and conflict continued after the return of democracy in 1999. In the dirt-poor southern Delta, the anger has turned into a fully fledged insurgency. In the north, Muslim and Christian militants regularly slaughter one another across the line where North African Islam meets southern African Christianity.
Why did what should have been Africa's colossus become a continental embarrassment? The main reason is atrocious government. Military or civilian, Nigeria's rulers have often been indistinguishable from its criminals. According to the World Bank, $300 billion disappeared from Nigeria in the three decades to 2006, while the country's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) says the figure from 1960 to 2006 is $380 billion. In Nigeria, corruption doesn't just pollute the system, it is the system. Hence the global perception that Nigeria's contribution to the world is limited to drug smugglers, e-mail scams and silk-cloaked Big Men.
And yet as Nigeria holds presidential, parliamentary and regional elections this month, it finds itself on the threshold of change. The elite that misruled for five decades is aging. The population explosion of the past 30 years, now finally slowing, means an extraordinarily young Nigeria is emerging: the U.N. says 62% of the country is under 24, while 60% of voters are ages 18 to 35. Factor in an official unemployment rate of 19.7%, then compare those figures with Egypt, where disaffected youth led a revolution despite the fact that the country is older (only 52% are under 24) and more employed (9.7%). Is Nigeria headed for a similar explosion?