Africa’s new no. 1

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Few countries face as many internal challenges as Nigeria. For the past four years, the Islamist militants of Boko Haram have unleashed deadly violence in northern and central Nigeria, killing thousands. The Nigerian army is heavily involved in the region, and the United States has recently designated Boko Haram a terrorist organization. Nigeria has the most kidnap attempts in the world, accounting for one quarter of all such recorded incidents on earth. Lagos is the world's capital of internet fraud, and the country has one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities in the world. 

And yet, Nigeria has just overtaken South Africa as Africa's largest economy, due to a rebasing calculation which almost doubled its gross domestic product to more than $500bn. GDP for 2013 in Africa's leading oil producer was almost $510bn, almost double the value estimated before the rebasing.

Over the past decade, the country has grown at 7% a year, and growth in 2013 is expected to be 6.8% at least - far higher than South Africa's meagre 2.5%. In addition, Nigeria's currency is relatively stable, and inflation fell to a new low last month. Despite problems with theft and corruption in the oil sector, Nigeria was able to grow so fast this year largely due to a strong performance in the agriculture, hotels, construction and telecoms sectors. Finally, Nigeria’s debt-to-GDP ratio is very low, at around 20 per cent, particularly compared to many Western countries. This is partly attributed to Nigeria's respected Finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, whose candidacy as World Bank director received ample support in the Global South in 2012. 

The change of guard in Africa may largely symbolic, but is in line with a global trend. The global economy will be increasingly dominated by poor countries with large populations. Nigeria's GDP per capita stands at 1500 US-dollars, which is five times lower than in South Africa, still the continent's largest economy. Yet with more than 160 million inhabitants, Nigeria is more than three times more populous. 

Continued growth in Nigeria is set to weaken South Africa's regional leadership ambitions further, and hopes in Pretoria for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council may prove increasingly unrealistic. Africa's economic powerhouses of the 21st century are, among others, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt and Angola. 

Despite all this, South Africa will continue to play a crucial role in both regional and global affairs. South Africa’s diplomatic leadership over the past two decades in multiple fora – ranging from IBSA, BRICS, the UN but also regional bodies such as the AU – and its reputation and positive legacy of peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy cannot be matched by any other African country. It was no coincidence that the BRICs leaders decided to invite South Africa, and not Nigeria, to join the grouping.  

In the long term, however, those who seek to strengthen their diplomatic and economic presence on the African continent - such as Brazil - will increasingly have to look to Nigeria. 

Read also: 

South Africa’s BRICS membership: A win-win situation?

Book review: “The rise of the BRICS in Africa” by Pádraig Carmody

O que estamos fazendo na África?

Foto: zouzou wizman/wax market;flickr