Last updated: April 21, 2012 12:33 am

Twelve days in west Africa: Abuja-Lagos

On the second part of his journey through the region, Lionel Barber meets Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and finds a city full of promise in Lagos
West Africa map

Abuja - Lagos

Tuesday-Thursday

To lunch at the heavily fortified British high commissioner’s residence. Or not to lunch. The kitchen, it appears, is hors de combat. A sandwich, perhaps? Apparently not. I congratulate our man in Abuja on following the coalition’s austerity programme. A crisp tour d’horizon follows. Whatever its culinary shortcomings, the FCO still produces top-class diplomats.

Next stop is the Nigerian finance ministry – and another surprise. We are due to interview Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, but the reformist finance minister is on a plane from Addis Ababa, where she has just won the backing of all 54 African states for her candidacy to be the next president of the World Bank. She flies on to Delhi tonight. A major disappointment. The FT is coming out tomorrow with an endorsement of her candidacy. We decide to delay departure to Lagos.

The gamble pays off. Three hours later, I present the FT endorsement. “Are you really serious?” asks the minister. Her bid is against all odds because the Americans have the votes to retain the top Bank post. But developed countries have promised a fair contest on merit and Ngozi’s credentials are excellent. Not only has she run economic policy in one of the world’s most challenging developing countries, she has also served as a managing director of the World Bank in Washington, DC.

Ngozi is tough and savvy behind her friendly smile. While colleagues wobbled earlier this year, she defended the decision to scrap the multi-billion-dollar fuel subsidy that brought thousands to the streets. The government staged a partial retreat, but Ngozi says pointedly: “The protesters demanded accountability and that is a good thing in civil society. It was very empowering.” As for the reform programme, Ngozi, who made her reputation under OBJ, says the naysayers are wrong. Momentum is with the government and the private sector is responding. And what better place to test the minister’s words than Lagos, hustler capital of the world. To enter Lagos is to experience an assault on the senses: the clogged traffic, the rattle of private generators, the stench of the slums, the swanky nightclubs and the skyscrapers rising along the waterfront. Above all the seething mass of people on the move – and on the make.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala with Lionel Barber©Jane Hahn

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala with Lionel Barber

The man who has turned round the city is a former lawyer and devoted Manchester United fan who counts Sir Alex Ferguson as a personal friend. Tall and quietly spoken, Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola has widened the streets, cleaned up the crime and grime and begun to build the infrastructure necessary to sustain a population of 15-plus million which could more than double by 2025. This is a rare example of civic leadership but for a Nigerian, Governor Fashola is uncharacteristically modest: “People were used to government by decree. Now they are beginning to realise that they have a role to play.” In practice that means paying taxes to fund hospitals, schools and local police forces, a huge cultural shift for Nigerians, rich and poor, who expect little from the state but are not used to paying anything either. On the governor’s desk are several framed letters from young schoolchildren thanking him for his efforts to bring education to the masses. Now he is thinking about the “new Lagos”, a knowledge-based financial centre offering tourism, IT services and more development of Nigeria’s thriving film industry (“Nollywood”).

Governor Fashola©Getty

Governor Fashola

The scale of ambition is impressive, especially given he is factoring in a population of up to 40 million for Lagos. But the governor – seen as a potential future president – remains undaunted. “I don’t contemplate failure. I anticipate difficulties. The bigger the head, the bigger the headache. But the bigger the potential.”

And so to dinner with Nduka Obaigbena, the fashion impresario and media mogul who counts Beyoncé, the Blairs, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton among his star turns. A huge man with a paunch and silvery goatee, Nduka might have been a Bond movie villain in another life. He lives in an apartment stuffed with modern African art, marble and faux Louis XIV furnishings. A giant TV screen features Barcelona versus AC Milan in the Champions League. Cocktails are Courvoisier or Johnnie Walker Blue Label (“three shots or four?”). Dinner features giant snails, shrimp, smoked chicken and lamb, washed down with pink champagne. Every 10 minutes, Nduka’s cell phone rings. Every 30 minutes, a giant fist pounds a silver bell to demand more champagne.

Nduka Obaigbena©Eyevine

Nduka Obaigbena, a fashion impresario and media mogul, who launched the national newspaper This Day in the 1990s

Nduka launched the This Day newspaper in the 1990s, shaking up the industry and riling the country’s military rulers with brave news reporting. He left Nigeria for exile in London but returned to build a media empire. Tonight he has invited two serving national newspaper editors and a former one who was slung into jail during military rule. The last guest is a super-smart financial analyst called Bismarck who is wearing spectacles, a black T-shirt and Mont Blanc pennants and looks like the backroom money-man in Shaft.

The conversation starts politely and turns deafening as we discuss the future of Nigeria. Boko Haram, the oil curse, the north-south divide, income inequality, President Goodluck, Occupy Nigeria: all are the source of intense and informed debate. Nduka offers a Karl Rove-quality analysis of the Nigerian electoral map and shouts everyone down except Bismarck who pinpoints Nigeria’s weak spot: jobless growth. The editors shout back, while deferring to Nduka as “Dukes” or “Senator”. I riskily point out that Nduka is the only unelected senator I have ever met. Raucous laughter. After the Fortnum & Mason tea arrives, accompanied by Harrods coffee, the debate slowly subsides. Nigerian democracy in action.

Lionel Barber is editor of the FT. Next instalment: Port Harcourt, Niger delta

Read a Q&A on the future of west Africa with Lionel Barber

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