New Nigeria seeks break with corrupt past

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In the old days going shopping in Nigeria meant going to London. Now Nigerians, at least in Lagos, can go to the country's first shopping mall and parade past air-conditioned shops of clothes and jewellery or sit in armchairs in a coffee shop and sip lattes or cappuccinos. The centrepiece is a South African Shoprite supermarket - again Nigeria's first - where the middle classes can browse and buy ordinary things as biscuits and pre-packed beef.

Not far away on the edge of the street are the old "shops" - open air markets where women sit with little piles of tomatoes or onions on the ground in front of them. Nearby in the open air hang hacked slabs of meat feasted on by flies. Until a few years ago these markets and a few family stores opening directly onto the street were all that was available as shops.

Elements of the old Nigeria are still visible at the Palms Mall. At Shoprite there is rather a lot of goat on the meat counter and the manager, Andrew Mweemba, a 37-year-old from Zambia, complains that containers of perishables regularly get held up at the port. The local electricity supply is too unreliable so the whole mall is powered by generators, which puts prices up. But, says Mr Mweemba, they are hitting their targets and controlling costs. They are planning several other malls in what must be one of the last countries in the world to enjoy retail services the rest of the human race take for granted.

This is probably the most visible sign of a new Nigeria, a Nigeria that is becoming more in tune with the rest of the planet. Its cause is the growth of a young middle class, many have whom have returned from London or New York to work in the booming financial services industry.

The Nigerian "Big Bang" started in 2001 with a free auction for Nigeria's mobile phone licences. Stung by a global reputation for corruption and fraud, President Olusegun Obasanjo's government started to reform the banks, reducing their number from 89 to 25 and supporting businesses that wanted to do things according to international standards. In the old days Nigerian business people were simply agents, getting contracts from the state or acting for foreign companies. Nigeria produced little except oil and gas and its exceedingly rich elite stayed rich because of connections, not competence.

Osaze Osifo, 39, who worked for HSBC in London, is typical of the new generation. He and six other Nigerian professionals are setting up a $300m equity fund in cool, glass panelled offices with a view across the lagoon and out to sea. They have brought international businessmen on to their board to make sure everything is done in accordance with international business practice.

"It is not just local people and people coming back from overseas," he explains, "Nigeria is where it is at. The hotels are full and the merchant banks are beginning to arrive." What encouraged bright young people like him to return home was the business space opened up by the economic reforms. Mr Obasanjo picked a business-minded team to run the economy and the national bank and appointed a brave young police officer to run the anti- corruption body, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Its spectacular investigations and arrests of prominent people have gone some way to persuading outsiders that you can do business in Nigeria without being corrupt.

The sale of mobile phone licences in 2001 was the start of the new era, according to Mr Osifo. The business tyros are challenging the old oligarchs in business and, inevitably, in politics. "More and more people in Nigeria have too much at stake. They have something to fight for and they don't want their businesses ruined by the reputation for corruption", says Mr Osifo. In this weekend's gubernatorial elections and next Saturday's presidential, several of the "new Nigerians" are running for office. Few will win but their voice is increasingly being heard. Their main concern is for the incoming government to make the reforms irreversible. The next big task is to sort out the energy sector - the country still suffers daily power cuts - and the oil sector, the source of the worst corruption.

Lagos also used to have a frightening reputation for robbery and violence but that too has subsided.

Ten years ago the biggest companies on the Nigerian stock exchange would have been subsidiaries of multinational corporates. Today the three richest companies are all Nigerian. Its top 10 banks, most of them new, have announced returns of between 14 per cent and 38 per cent on shares.

Nigeria's richest business man, Aliko Dangote, turned 50 last week. A manufacturer of everything from cement to orange juice, he is reported to be worth $8bn - and may not be the richest man in Nigeria. Some of the oligarchs may be richer, but not for much longer. Nigeria used to be known as the land of no tomorrow. Some Nigerians have learnt deferred gratification.