People wait to vote at a polling station in Abuja on March 28, 2015 (AFP Photo / Nichole Sobecki)

Nigeria’s vote, in my classroom

ABU DHABI, April 27, 2015 - When the AFP Foundation asked me to go to Abu Dhabi to train a group of Nigerian news editors in advanced business reporting, I had no idea I would be getting a first-hand glimpse of politics in Africa's most populous nation, in an air-conditioned Emirati facility nearly 6,000 kilometres from Lagos.

Course organiser was the Abu Dhabi giant TwoFour54, which runs a vast international media hub (the latest instalment of ‘Fast & Furious’ was entirely shot there) as well as a large-scale media training operation.

Classes were to start on March 29, 2015. But Nigerian democracy played havoc with our schedule. The general election planned for February 14 was postponed to March 28 because of fears over security and the Boko Haram insurgency. Since the Nigerian participants would need to vote, and possibly work, on polling day, our course was also pushed back by a day.

NIGERIA-VOTE

A campaign billboard for Nigeria's incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan in Lagos on February 24, 2015

 (AFP Photo / Pius Utomi Ekpei)

When the editors finally arrived on the Sunday, there was all the excitement of a young democracy in the air, despite fatigue from an overnight flight. Would the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, hold on to power or would challenger Muhammadu Buhari carry the day? It was clear that the editors from Lagos and Abuja had national matters on their minds, though they willingly got down to analysing inflation and trade data, how to second-guess central banks and what interest rate changes mean to homeowners and consumers.

Competing for attention with a cliffhanger vote

It quickly became clear, as the one-day vote was extended over technical glitches, that I would have to compete with the excitement of the political drama in Nigeria. Quite a challenge. What did I throw into the battle?

A Total oil platform at Amenem, offshore from Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta, in April 2009A Total oil platform at Amenem, offshore from Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta, in April 2009 (AFP Photo / Pius Utomi Ekpei)

Nigerian economics, of course. The oil market, futures contracts, inelastic demand and OPEC price policy. And we went on a roll. We analysed how the oil price could fall by half in a year and what that means for an economy like Nigeria’s, with oil accounting for around 76 percent of government revenue. We discussed why Nigeria is considered an ‘unstable’ producer (because of rebel attacks) and why oil producers never let the price go through the roof (because then oil consumers may invest more in alternatives). I had their full attention.

Dutch disease

And so I intrepidly threw the ‘Dutch disease’ into the debate (a term coined by ‘The Economist’ in 1977 after the Netherlands found that oil exports hurt its industry). Is Nigeria a textbook case of the Dutch disease with its over-dependence on a single commodity? Did it not go from being a net exporter of agricultural products to being a net importer? Was the local currency, the Naira, not boosted by demand for oil to the point of ripping non-oil industry to shreds?

Vehicles queue at a filling station in Lagos during a fuel shortage on March 1, 2014Vehicles queue at a filling station in Lagos during a fuel shortage on March 1, 2014 (AFP Photo / Pius Utomi Ekpei)

This was no academic discussion. Here were opinion makers, business news professionals, grappling with the country’s present, and its future. Jibes flew across the room between supporters of Jonathan and of Buhari about whose fault it all is, and who was best-placed to solve it all. (There was exasperation on both sides, but no insults, or at least not within earshot).

Line their pockets with oil money

Yes we have the Dutch disease, the editors acknowledged, freshly armed with solid theoretical background on the matter. What’s the cure? Well, the cure is to keep the oil bonanza out of the country (‘sterilise’ is the technical term) and use it for investment elsewhere (like Norway has been doing), or to bring it into the country in a slow trickle to spare the local currency a lethal upswing. That’s easy for the Norwegians to do, they’re rich to begin with, objected one participant. Point taken. It’s hard to forego the oil bonanza when you need it to pay your way.

And then there’s corruption, added another. A big problem in Nigeria. Nobody who can line their pockets will agree to ‘sterilising’ oil money somewhere out of reach.

A glum atmosphere descended on the classroom as both sides of the political divide admitted that the task ahead is monumental, regardless of who holds power.

But there’s hope: Nigeria has a strong banking sector, a growing telecoms industry, and of course, music of global renown. Inflation is in single digits and the debt-to-GDP ratio - although it would not get Nigeria into the eurozone - stands at a respectable 11 percent. Economists predict that Nigeria will be among the 20 largest economies in the world within three decades or so. “Of course we have to assume that the ones we have to push out will do nothing in the meantime,” observed one editor drily. Spoken like a true sceptical reporter.

By the third morning of our course, Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat. His fans in the classroom reacted with grim dignity and, perhaps unsurprisingly for Nigerians, a soccer metaphor: “It’s like a football match. One side has to win,” said one. “It’s a victory because democracy works,” added another.

I hope the Nigerian editors honed their skills during our sessions, and took with them a fresh outlook on their country’s business reality, and perhaps a few story ideas. I certainly learned a lot about Nigeria’s economy and politics. For a few days in Abu Dhabi, Nigeria was both 6,000 kilometres away, and right there before my eyes.

Jurgen Hecker is a video journalist at AFP TV.

NIGERIA-ELECTIONS-RESULTS

Nigerians celebrate the victory of opposition presidential candidate Mohammadu Buhari, in the northern city of Kaduna 

on March 31, 2015 (AFP Photo / Nichole Sobecki)