Four years before Nigeria gained independence from Britain, oil was discovered and the potential for prosperity was clear. Thus, after independence, the economy appeared very promising.

Many saw the country, with a chunk of Africa’s population, as an emerging economy. But despite the enormous oil reserves, this potential has not materialized and the country is still more or less stagnant.

The hope at independence has suddenly given way to despair as the freedom ages. The much talked about dividends that come with the attainment of political freedom is a sad commentary and a paradox to the present reality. Nigerians are poor, collective victims of rampant corruption and insecurity.

Consequently, the country is described variously as a “developing nation,” “Third World country” and “Africa’s sleeping giant.” Such clichés stem from the absolute lack of socioeconomic and political development in the oil-rich nation.

Regardless of the state of things, Nigeria is still one of the most developed economies on the continent and the country plays an important economic role in the world, especially as a producer of crude oil. But can the western African nation fulfill its potential and become the biggest African success story?

Most importantly, the indices of development begin with the development of human beings. It is the humans that will, in turn, develop other facets of the society such as the economy, natural, mineral and all other resources available in the country.

In Nigeria’s case, the enormous potential that lies in its nearly 200 million people is the country’s biggest bet in becoming a major global economy, not the currently most prized economic resource – crude oil.

Economists hold that the development and utilization of human capital are important in a nation’s economic growth. It is an important factor in the conversion of all resources to the use and benefit of mankind.

As a matter of fact, there is a positive correlation between human capital development and economic growth. For instance, China’s economic success is largely attributed to reforms that created favorable incentives and unleashed productive forces among the people, a favorable demographic structure and adequate labor supply.

In thirty years of reform, China’s economy has achieved a nearly double-digit growth on average and increased the GDP per capita from $190 in 1978 to $5,432 in 2011. Also within that period, the Asian giant improved the level of its human capital sharply and entered the group of middle-income countries, and in 2010, surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy.

Moreover, a recent research paper shows that a one-percentage-point increase in the proportion of residents with a college degree is associated with about a two percent increase in the GDP per capita of a U.S. metropolitan area.

But Nigeria’s young and dynamic population is not advancing at the pace it should be. From a lack of access to education and healthcare to poverty and hunger, the problems are seemingly insurmountable. The UNDP Human Development Index, which measures human development progress, ranked Nigeria 157 out of 189 countries and territories in 2017.

Nigeria also ranked 152 out of 157 countries on the World Bank 2018 Human Capital Index, sharing the bottom of the list with countries like Chad, South Sudan, Niger, Mali, and Liberia.

Two key meters for measuring the development of human capital are education and health. While the education and health sectors are underfunded by the government at all levels, the little funding earmarked for both sectors by government and non-state actors is often mismanaged, leading to dearth of human capital.

Reasons for the nations’ backwardness and little or no human development are complex with the most significant being years of neglect from the powers that be. Successive governments have long invested in economic growth by focusing on physical capital — infrastructure. But they have often under-invested in the people, in part because the benefits have been much slower and harder to measure.

However, the emergence of a new crop of young, thoughtful and upright leaders – who are committed to creating value and improving their communities – is what gives the country hope in fully unlocking the potential of millions of Nigerians. And today, the world recognizes that some of the future technology leaders are located in Lagos and Abuja.

Moving forward, Nigeria must prioritize human capital development for its economic growth and development. By investing in its people, in young leaders, the country can catalyze an entire, era-defining generation.

“To anchor the economy over (the) long term, investments in infrastructure and competitiveness must go hand in hand with investments in people,” Co-founder and Technology Adviser at Microsoft, Bill Gates, said while advising Nigeria on developing its human capital. “Roads, ports, and factories without skilled workers to build and manage them can’t sustain an economy.”

With the country’s political freedom nearing almost six decades, Nigerians can only hope that the political will exists to make the most of the country’s enormous potential, especially the people.

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