Sometimes you need to leave Nigeria to see it clearly and to gauge its progress. I am writing from the backseat of a car on a main road in northern Ethiopia, making this a letter about Nigeria but not from Nigeria. The road we’re on alone tells the tale of two countries: where in Nigeria we’d likely be bouncing from pothole to pothole, fearfully awaiting the next police ‘checkpoint’, Ethiopia offers a smooth and unobstructed road ahead, save the occasional calf or donkey.
Since arriving here from Abuja a week ago, I have been consistently pleasantly surprised at the apparent health of the country’s development and its infrastructure advances; after all, many of us still carry with us a sole, unhelpful image of Ethiopia, that of children starving to death during the famine of the 1980s.
In capital Addis Ababa, a brand new metro system has recently opened, thanks largely – as with many major infrastructure projects in Ethiopia – to a Chinese loan. In our hotel lobby there’s a row of functioning cash machines. Even tiny corner shops in small towns take credit cards for a basket of groceries. At the airport the visa on arrival process for tourists was straightforward and relatively inexpensive at $50 (R690).
Maybe it’s hard to imagine if you’re reading this in South Africa, but when you’re coming in from Nigeria, you may as well be landing on Mars when you land in Ethiopia. On the one hand you are grateful for the amenities at hand and the convenience of the place, but on the other it throws Nigeria into ?grim relief.
Lagos, a city six times the size of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, remains reliant on buses to get its workforce to and fro. If you need to get cash out in Abuja, your first job is to find an ATM that hasn’t been beaten in, isn’t broken or hasn’t run out of cash. If you can’t get cash then you’d want to use a card in a shop or restaurant, but so few places in Abuja accept them and if they do, then the machines are more often without signal than with.
At the airport arriving visitors and business people don’t have the option of visa on arrival and will have spent weeks and hundreds of dollars on securing the right papers, if they managed to get a visa at all, given Nigeria’s tortuous and often unsuccessful application process.
With apologies for reiterating something you all know, but something that’s pertinent here: Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and its biggest crude oil exporter. Ethiopia is its ninth largest; its major exports are coffee and rapeseed.
Ethiopia isn’t perfect and faces substantial struggles of its own; it would be naïve to suggest on the basis of a few ATMs that it’s some kind of Elysium, especially given the number of children I can see working in the fields as we speed by. But being here and seeing its successes gives an idea of just how far Nigeria has to go to get itself onto a road even half as smooth as the one I am on now.
This article originally appeared in the 8 October 2015 edition of Finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.