A key player in Nigeria’s emergence as Africa’s largest economy says U.S. companies are ceding investment opportunities to China and the Obama administration should do more to reverse the trend.
“The Obama administration has to focus more on Nigeria,” said Prince Adetokunbo Sijuwade, whose family holds royal status in a vital corner of southern Nigeria and is invested heavily in transportation and oil infrastructures. “We feel that we can learn from the U.S. in terms of expertise.”
In an exclusive interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Prince Sijuwade addressed the friction between Nigeria’s Christian and Muslim populations, security challenges in countering the Boko Haram terrorist group and accusations of rampant corruption.
But his plea to the Obama White House and assertion that China has surpassed the U.S. in almost every major sector of the Nigerian economy stood out, with new GDP figures announced over the weekend showing that Nigeria has surpassed South Africa as the continent’s largest economy.
He said U.S. and European companies continue to dominate investment in Nigeria’s off-shore oil exploitation fronts, but noted that Chinese interests are increasing just about everywhere else in the economy, particularly banking, construction, and power generation and distribution.
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In addition, Chinese firms have wedged themselves into Nigeria’s rapidly expanding free market by “offering cheap interest rates” on investment across multiple sectors, he said. U.S. companies are likely to miss out on Nigeria’s boom without a concerted effort by Washington to encourage more investment.
Prince Sijuwade speculated that several factors may have deterred U.S. investors in recent years, from concerns about government corruption to security. But he argued that allegations of widespread corruption in Nigeria are “overstated.”
“Corruption is all over the world,” he said, noting potential U.S. investors’ fears of violating the Justice Department’s anti-corruption laws as an inhibiting factor on Nigerian investment.
He noted that oil services giant Halliburton was forced to pay an $800 million settlement for violating in Nigeria the Justice Department’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which aims to deter U.S. businesses from engaging in “pay-to-play” tactics in foreign nations.
“It did scare people off in terms of private investment. People are thinking ‘If I go to Nigeria, what’s going to happen? I’m going to get locked up?’” Prince Sijuwade said of the Halliburton case. “But I think that message also makes a country better in terms of looking from the American side of business. If you go in, go in and do the job in the best manner possible, don’t cut corners.”
“It will reduce, corruption,” he said of the FCPA. “It has reduced corruption.”
The prince also suggested some U.S. firms may be hesitant to invest in Nigeria over concerns about stability and security. What is frustrating, he said, is that threat posed by the most publicized terrorist group in Nigeria — Boko Haram — has been partially overblown in the international media.
With Nigeria’s oil wealth concentrated in the predominantly the Christian south, Boko Haram began as a group that fed off social and economic frustrations among Muslims in the north.
The State Department last year named Boko Haram a foreign terrorist group. But for many observers it is better characterized as a nebulous movement than a jihadist group with ties to al Qaeda.
“I don’t think Boko Haram is al Qaeda. I think Boko Haram is a situation that can be solved locally,” the prince said. “Al Qaeda is an international word for terrorism, and I think Boko Haram is just people stating the fact that ‘we need to be listened to.’”
Despite incidents of extreme violence targeting Westerners in Nigeria — and an increasing trend in which al Qaeda affiliated groups in North Africa have sought to exploit Boko Haram to gain a foothold in the nation — the prince insisted the group remains isolated to a northeastern corner of the country.
He also is confident the government of President Goodluck Jonathan is working with Washington and other foreign partners in containing Boko Haram.
“I think that the international countries are going to help to fight that situation,” Prince Sijuwade said. “I can guarantee that the president today, his administration, his security, military, police are working all efforts, and I know that’s it’s an effort that will be put right.”