Despite ongoing violence in Nigeria, opinions about the country’s security challenges and what they mean for investors differ widely among local entrepreneurs and international business leaders.
Some executives, whether in Lagos or other commercial centers like Abuja or Port Harcourt, say they aren’t concerned. They believe business will continue as usual and that the threat from militant group Boko Haram will subside after the elections in February next year.
Boko Haram is generally believed to be sponsored by a few political forces who are keen on influencing election results. The group’s terrorist activity has increased dramatically since the election of President Goodluck Jonathan, the country’s first Southern and Christian president, and some believe that Boko Haram was able to emerge because traditional power structures were disrupted in many of the northern states when the central power shifted to the South.
Other business leaders are deeply troubled, not only by the rising violence but by its underlying dynamics.
“We don’t understand why Nigerians are blowing themselves up for a cause. It simply isn’t part of the Nigerian psyche,” a senior manager of a consumer goods company told me.
The head of marketing at a Nigerian bank echoed these sentiments, before adding: “The dynamics here are changing. Everything is getting more expensive because most of our food comes from the north, prices have been going up and what the average Nigerian earns is simply not enough anymore. I fear this may impact the balance here in Lagos, particularly as we get more refugees from the north. Our infrastructure can’t cope with it.”
The volatile state of Nigerian security has also lead to varied experiences among business leaders. As the owner of a distribution company explained: “In our annual sales meetings, one of our local representatives stood up and pronounced huge losses due to the instability in the North. In response, another representative exclaimed that his major customer sits in Borno state!”
Consumer goods companies tend to be the businesses that suffer most, selling low value, high volume products in the populous yet poor northern states. State-imposed curfews mean less people are going out to buy things, and many traders in neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon have ceased buying their products in bulk from Northern Nigeria.
Still, businesses operating in affected areas are developing creative ways to address the challenges.
“We just had to adapt to the environment. When Boko Haram destroyed the mobile phone masts, we couldn’t call our local representatives anymore. So we just invested in VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocoll) technology, which is a little more expensive, but now we can communicate frequently with our local representatives, and business is flourishing,” the CEO of an FMCG distribution company told me.
A Common Enemy
While the threat resulting from Boko Haram is still geographically contained around the Northern and central states, the country’s commercial capital has been spared. It is believed that those funding Boko Haram have business interests in Lagos they do not want to be undermined.
Many business have refocused their attention to safer and more prosperous parts of the country to capture the abundant commercial opportunities Nigeria has to offer, but there is till concern that what led to the rise of Boko Haram is not just political maneuverings but real socioeconomic grievances which if left unaddressed could incite insecurity in more stable places.
Some business leaders stress the need for the government to take action. But as Nigeria enters what is only its fourth electoral cycle, others are more patient. They believe that more time is needed for democratic processes to mature and for the disrupted traditional structures to be corrected, calming the power struggles that lie at the heart of the Boko Haram threat.
And still a few try to look at the situation with a typically positive Nigerian attitude:
“In history, the unifying factors of nation states have often been the existence of a common enemy. We have that now, and it could help us focus less on what divides us as tribes and regions, but what unites us as a country.”
Anna Rosenberg is Head of Sub-Saharan Africa Research at Frontier Strategy Group, a Washington headquartered information services provider advising multinationals on doing business in emerging markets. Anna is currently on a research trip to Nigeria and Ghana, meeting representatives from local and international businesses, journalists and government officials. Follow Anna on twitter @anna_rosenberg
*This article is Part 1 of an ongoing series, originally published in conjunction with How We Made it in Africa.