Author of Economic Diversification in Nigeria: The Politics of Building a Post-Oil Economy, Zainab Usman, believes the task of economic diversification is Nigeria’s foremost development challenge: ‘Nigeria needs to diversify its economy beyond reliance on oil exports, a large informal economy and small-scale agriculture to become a more modern and highly industrialized one that generates jobs, opportunities and self-actualization for the vast majority of Nigerians.’
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First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up, I read a wide range of books across most genres except for (auto)biographies. My earliest memories of reading are of English fairy tales and fables from the Lady Bird series as well as Enid Blyton. We read so many of those. The good thing is that mum wisely ensured that we also read children’s books from Nigerian authors; I have fond memories of reading Esther Bali’s Tarok folktales with lots of stories about the wily tortoise, and some books written by Mamman Vatsa—I cannot remember the book titles now. From around age twelve, I read my first James Hadley Chase and I was hooked. This marked my transition, in my teenage years, to reading books with serious themes of crime, thriller and horror, such as Sydney Sheldon, Ann Rice and the best of them all, Stephen King. I still love a good Stephen King book any day any time.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
This is difficult. I am not sure I have an answer. I am at a stage in life where I am very careful about the kind of information I consume—there is so much fake news and active disinformation out there. Therefore, the moment any written material starts to seem like it is not well-grounded in evidence or that the framing is so skewed to advance an agenda, I put it away. When I read publications with new information, it is either this material successfully changes my point of view or that it confirms what I already (subconsciously) believed anyways.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
Interestingly, the book that recently changed my mind about the author is Prince Harry’s Spare. I picked it up the week it was released because, for some reason, I imagined that it would be a light read, like a version of a funny reality show. But I was completely blown away by, (1) how well it was written; (2) how much Prince Harry has been mischaracterized by the media; (3) the tragedy of his situation, in a sense. It is no surprise that the autobiography has broken world records to become the fastest selling nonfiction of all time. The book completely changed my mind about Prince Harry.
When I read publications with new information, it is either this material successfully changes my point of view or that it confirms what I already (subconsciously) believed.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
What makes a text powerful is a combination of the subject-matter as well as the prose. The ratio is probably 70:30 in favour of the substance over the style. Perhaps I am biased; while I tend to be completely enamoured by clear and elegant writing, I cannot stand prose that is excessively complicated and pedantic. There is no reason to make reading too laborious on the reader.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
My writing process entails producing a comprehensive draft zero, and then proceeding to edit it. For that reason, it often takes me a long time to write the very first word of any block of text. I need to have the complete picture of what I want to write first, before I begin. And once I start, the process becomes very easy and moves very quickly. I can easily knock out 2,000 words a day once I have a framework. And without a framework, I sit in front of a blank screen for hours unable to write a sentence.
What was your process for writing for your book, Economic Diversification in Nigeria: The Politics of Building a Post-Oil Economy?
The process of writing my book followed the pattern above. I developed a working outline for the entire book, with a summary for each chapter, which then informed the writing process. Of course, I kept reworking the outline as I proceeded with the writing. Because the book is rather academic, it comprised of a combination of theoretical, policy and empirical analyses and therefore, there were chapters that took longer to write than others because I had to pause, collect more data and then resume the process of analysis and writing up the analysis.
How long did it take you to write this book?
The book took about five years to write, and combined with the background research that informed it during my doctorate, about ten years altogether.
Why was it important that you wrote on economic diversification and relevant issues on building a post-oil economy in Nigeria?
The task of economic diversification is Nigeria’s foremost development challenge. Nigeria needs to diversify its economy beyond reliance on oil exports, a large informal economy and small-scale agriculture to become a more modern and highly industrialized one that generates jobs, opportunities and self-actualization for the vast majority of Nigerians. Even though the concept of ‘economic diversification’ features regularly within the country’s policy discourse, Nigeria has not made rapid progress on this front—oil exports account for around 80 per cent of the total, and oil earnings provide more than 50 per cent of government revenues (depending on the volume of oil production and exchange rates at any point in time). This is despite the fact that more than 90 per cent of the Nigerian economy, with respect to its Gross Domestic Product in terms of value addition and employment generation, is derived from activity that is non-oil.
The topic of economic diversification is one that I care about personally as an individual of Nigerian origin, but also professionally as a scholar with interest in Africa’s economic development. Nigeria’s future will be determined by how well the country achieves sustained economic growth, diversification and transformation to become an industrialized and high-productivity economy. My work on economic diversification, and the role that policy choices play, attempts to fill the existing knowledge gaps on this issue and that, I believe, is relevant for Nigeria’s future. The book is a culmination of a decade of research that I felt needed to be communicated to a broader policy audience beyond subject-matter experts.
Nigeria’s future will be determined by how well the country achieves sustained economic growth, diversification and transformation to become an industrialized and high-productivity economy.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your writing?
Someone quite important sent me an email to appreciate the ideas I put forward in my book and then described it as ‘intellectually elegant’. That made me so happy because when I was writing that book, the word ‘elegant’ was one I kept reciting, literally, in terms of what I aspired the book to convey. In addition to other aspirational adjectives like analytical, clear, informative and evidence based. I hope those are the words that come to mind when people read my book and my other publications.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
A mentor once said to me, ‘Let the data guide you.’ I have taken this advice to heart since then. In fact, this evidence-driven approach to me seems to be the best way to overcome our biases as human beings. I have my idiosyncrasies, biases and personal politics but I find that the best way to put those aside when conducting research is to work with data and evidence.
Nigeria is in the process of democratic transition from one government to another. What aspect(s) of the economy do you suggest that the incoming government prioritize?
To turn the Nigerian economy around, the incoming government must do everything to prioritize: i. Steady, reliable and affordable access to electricity; ii. Security from violent and petty crime.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
My favourite topics to read on are as follows:
- Africa’s precolonial history.
Especially regarding Africa’s interaction with the rest of the world starting with the transatlantic slave trade in understanding why the continent is where it is today. This is so important as people who were raised in Nigeria were not adequately taught any of this important history in primary and secondary school. There is so little knowledge of what factors laid the foundations of the current problems across many African countries, and indeed for the black race and how to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.
Here, I’d recommend Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard French. French’s critically acclaimed book goes into detail about the motivations and dynamics of the transatlantic slavery in which more than 12,000,000 Africans were shipped to plantations in South America and the Caribbean. Basically, all the stuff we didn’t learn in school. More importantly, French makes the strong argument that: African resources (human and natural) were central to the making of the modern world, in particularly the economic ascendancy of Europe. It is a difficult and heart-breaking read, but absolutely required. It should be on the curriculum of every secondary school across the African continent.
I’d also recommend Inglorious Empire: What Britain Did to India by Indian intellectual, Shashi Tharoor. What I love about this book is how striking the parallels are between the colonial experience of India and Nigeria. Like Nigeria, the British colonial rulers practiced Indirect Rule in India, played off one group against the other (Hindus versus Muslims, for example), and also developed an extractive economic system, orienting the country’s colonial education and infrastructure around the extraction of commodities from India to imperial Britain. Basically, more or less the same experience, and in some cases, worse than Nigeria’s. More Nigerians should read about these kinds of historical comparators to their own experiences to realize that Nigeria’s challenges are not unique and can, indeed, be overcome.
- Global economics and economic history
Here I’d suggest Trade Wars are Class Wars by economists Matthew Klein and Michael Pettis, which examines how domestic political choices to serve the interests of the rich at the expense of workers and ordinary retirees drive trade policy. The book gives fascinating insights on macroeconomics, trade and the underlying politics, and makes very provocative points about the state of the trade relationship between the US, China, Germany, Japan and other major trading nations.
The Future of Money: How the Digital Revolution is Transforming Currencies and Finance by Eswar Prasad gives important insights into the rapid changes to the world of currencies driven by the digital revolution. It’s a very long and dense book, but also a fairly easy read—covering the uses and functions of money, cryptocurrencies, central bank digital currencies and other innovations.
The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets by economist Thomas Philippon makes the provocative case that industries across the U.S. economy—mobile telephony, cable, pharmaceuticals—are becoming more oligopolistic and less competitive. This growing trend of oligopoly, he argues, will continue driving down investment, productivity, growth, and wages, resulting in more inequalities. Beyond the thought-provoking arguments, the book is a great microeconomics 101 refresher.
- Anything on China
China is the world’s second largest economy and is now Africa’s largest economic partner in areas such as trade and infrastructure financing. Africa’s future will be heavily influenced by China. Yet, there is so little effort among many Africans (and Nigerians in particular) to really understand China—its economy, its history, its politics and the mechanics of its engagement with African countries. For nearly a decade now, I have been trying to get my hands on as many books that offer useful insights on China as I can. Here are some I would recommend.
When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order by Martin Jacques. Written way back in 2009, this is a good intro to China’s rapidly changing global role. The ridiculous title doesn’t really do justice to the nuanced points the author makes, and his prescient observations about China’s economic and political clout that we now see today. My advice: ignore the title but read the book—his earlier chapters on Japan are absolutely thought-provoking.
The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa by Deborah Brautigam. Written in 2009 as well, this is a foundational book for anyone who wants to genuinely understand Chinese aid and economic engagement in Africa. Brautigam is a world leading authority on China in Africa. I highly recommend it.
A.I. Super Powers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee, an entrepreneur, technologist and A.I. expert. He explains how China is quickly catching up with the US. I found his comparisons of the tech innovation ecosystems of the US and China to be very interesting.
The Three Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu. One of the best books ever written on this earth. It is totally mind-bending, in the genre of near-future sci-fi—it combines international relations, game theory, history, physics and so much more. It is just a very different style of writing fiction.
There is so little knowledge of what factors laid the foundations of the current problems across many African countries, and indeed for the black race and how to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.
Question from Chinelo Okparanta: When you set out to write your latest book, did you have any concerns, worries, fears? If so, how do you push past them?
Writing a book that is accessible to a non-specialist audience⎈
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