Africa’s First City

National Geographic has a fascinating take on Lagos. And since we are just under two months to the next Nigerian elections, here is my favorite paragraph:

When I asked Kola Karim if the federal government’s sorry reputation made Western investors wary of doing business in Lagos, the worldly CEO elaborately dismissed it as a nonissue. Companies partnered with companies, not with bureaucrats, he maintained. “What does government do for you anyway, apart from charging you more taxes?” he said. “Look, it’s not about who rules anymore. Lagos is a train that has left the station. And you can only slow it down—you can’t stop it. So it doesn’t matter who comes next. This is the fun of democracy! It’s not about [President] Goodluck Jonathan! It’s about progress! Forget politics!” [More here]

From a political economy standpoint, one of the most fascinating things to happen in Africa over the last decade or so has been the quiet property rights revolution. In Nigeria, and a few other African countries, millionaires and billionaires have come out of the woodwork, willing to have their estimated net worth published in Forbes and other similar magazines for all to see. Very few of them have been politicians. Yes, many made their money in no small measure because of their political connections. But the fact that they no longer feel the need to hide their wealth from the ever changing political class means a lot.

It means that entrepreneurship and politics are getting decoupled in Africa’s biggest and most important economies. This transition is important because it will allow the magic of specialization to flourish. For instance, Dangote must be a savvy entrepreneur. But I doubt that he would have created as many jobs across the Continent if he also had to worry about running Abuja.

Also, it matters that Forbes’ Africa list is increasingly dominated by politically relevant high net worth individuals, as opposed to “apolitical” migrant businesspeople. Dangote is Nigerian “through and through.” When the going gets tough, he is more likely to voice his concerns than simply exit. The chaps in Abuja can’t simply revoke his visa or work permit. His political views therefore matter a lot.

One hopes that at some point Nigeria’s Dangotes will start investing in higher quality political talent to ease the cost of doing business and improve human welfare through greater investment in public goods.  But of course there is another possible equilibrium path in which they decide that low quality political talent is what’s best for their business prospects.

Either way I hope to visit Lagos soon.

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