How Indonesia overtook Nigeria

By Peter Cunliffe-Jones
Focus on Africa Magazine

  • Published
A man holds a sign showing the face of Indonesian dictator Suharto.
Image caption,
A fear of popular revolt has kept Indonesia's leaders, even dictators, aware of the public mood

From the air, the place certainly looked familiar.

I had never before been to Jakarta, the chaotic and teeming capital of the sprawling Indonesian archipelago.

But, as the plane dodged in and out between the clouds, there it lay below. And just as I had been told it would, it looked like my former home - Nigeria.

"Indonesia and Nigeria?" I'd protested to the friend who first suggested the comparison to me some weeks earlier.

"They're 7,000 miles apart. One's Africa, one's Asia. There's no comparison to make."

It was late 2003, and I was flying in from Singapore - a smart, modern Asian city, now two hours behind me to the north. I'd just been appointed Asia editor for the AFP news agency, after four years as its Nigeria bureau chief.

Lagos, my former home, is Africa's megacity, the country's hustling, bustling, trading capital. It is noisy, sometimes violent but pulsing with life.

From its crowded waterfront districts to the low-rise slums inland, it hums with activity; people making deals, making money, taking a chance and just getting by.

Looking down out of the plane's window, I took in the airport below.

"Ok, so it looks like Lagos," I thought.

Then, emerging minutes later from the plane, I settled into my taxi for the long drive into the city centre.

When we stopped at a crossroads, crowds of noisy children emerged as they would in Nigeria to hawk their wares, offering us everything from spicy foods to soft drinks, typewriter covers to newspapers.

Both Indonesia and Nigeria, my guidebook told me, are the giants of their region, home to tens of millions of people. Both were formed as one nation by Europeans around 1900. Both were governed by the colonial system of "indirect rule". Both once made money from palm oil, and later discovered oil and gas.

At independence, the standards of living in the two countries were comparable on most measures. And since independence, both have suffered three decades of military misrule and corruption.

Their first coups were launched within months of each other - in September 1965 in Indonesia and in January 1966 in Nigeria - and their military regimes died within 12 months, in May 1998 and 1999.

It was not only my friend who made the comparisons. But, talking to the editor of an Indonesian magazine the day after I arrived, I was struck by a statistic he mentioned in passing. In Indonesia, he said, the life expectancy of a child at birth had risen from 45 to 70 years since independence.

Image caption,
In 1960, Nigeria produced almost half the world's palm oil, now it covers just 7%

In Nigeria, life expectancy remains stuck just above 45; today it is around 47.

This prompted me to check other figures.

When Indonesia's second president, Haji Muhammad Suharto, took power in 1967 the number of people living in poverty was the same as in Nigeria; around six out of ten. Three decades later, it had fallen from six to two. In Nigeria it had risen from six to seven.

And today, Indonesia lies almost 50 places above Nigeria on the United Nation's Human Development Index. Adult literacy stands at 92%, 20 points better than Nigeria. Per capita income, at close to $4,000, is almost twice that of Nigeria.

Basic healthcare is strikingly better in Indonesia, and the same is true for education. Access to clean water and a good balanced diet are better too.

'Struggle is the reason'

Certainly, Indonesia has many troubles. But today, for all its problems, Indonesia is holding elections that the world applauds, while Nigeria's last elections, in 2007, were said to be the worst in Africa that year.

So why the discrepancy? The reasons most commonly given for the trouble with Nigeria - for its failure to meet its enormous potential as an African giant - are many and complex. They range from the legacy of colonial rule to the problems of a divided nation, and the impact of the so-called oil curse.

Nigeria was formed by Britain as two separate protectorates in 1900, and brought together as one in 1914.

Its close to 150 million people speak numerous languages, follow two major world religions and many more indigenous beliefs.

My own grandfather first arrived in Nigeria in the colonial days in 1928. Over the years, he rose to be part of the team negotiating independence in the 1950s.

The way he and his colleagues framed the constitution probably set the country on the path to civil war. But the comparison with formerly Dutch-ruled Indonesia shows that colonial rule is not reason enough to explain the state of things today.

Nor is a fractured society when a country as diverse as Indonesia can do as well as it has. And nor is oil, for Indonesia has that too but has managed its resource relatively well.

So what explains the difference between them? I asked a friend, Bambang Harymurti, an Indonesian journalist.

"Struggle is the reason," he suggested. Though the regime struck out at those who opposed it, Indonesians had put their leaders under pressure, he said.

Fearing revolt

While lining his pockets handsomely, amassing a family fortune estimated at up to $35 billion, Indonesia's Suharto had tasked his economic advisers with keeping him in power. What he feared most was a popular revolt.

Since the Dutch first colonised Indonesia, popular movements had always pressured their leaders. In the 1920s, a major revolt had broken out against the Dutch. The revolt failed, but it led to change.

Then between 1945 and 1949, the Islamist, communist and nationalist movements that had formed fought a bloody rebellion to force the Japanese and then the Dutch out of the colony. They succeeded.

Image caption,
Nigeria's last presidential elections in 2007 were heavily criticised

So when Suharto took power in 1965, and though he ruled brutally, he was still fearful of an uprising and had reason to be so.

For decades, spurred on by Suharto, the economists ensured the economy grew fast enough to lift millions out of poverty.

The army - which bloodily suppressed rebellions in some regions - was used to build roads and bring electricity to the poor in the Indonesian heartlands.

The economy was diversified and oil money was used to build sectors such as agriculture and fisheries, tourism and manufacturing, to provide jobs and income. Indonesia, which was once a minor player, is today the world's largest producer of palm oil.

And these changes were made to provide the poor with jobs and income. Nigeria, which in the 1960s produced almost half the world's palm oil, now accounts for just 7%.

And Suharto was right to be fearful.

Feisty Nigeria

When the economy collapsed in the Asian financial crisis of 1997, popular resistance rose and he was forced from power.

The new rulers took note and the economy is growing again.

And in Nigeria? In Nigeria - feisty, fractious, exhilarating Nigeria - rebels in the Delta have staged attacks on oil wells.

Artists such as Fela Kuti and Wole Soyinka have railed at injustice. Civil rights groups have staged protests.

But if the songs and plays have been popular, the protests have, by and large, been attended by hundreds not tens of thousands.

So in Nigeria, leaders fear being usurped by each other and not ousted by a popular revolt. And they do not make things change.

"What I realised," Chukwudifu Oputa, the retired Supreme Court Justice selected in 1999 to look into human rights abuses under the military, told me one day, "is we have not fought, not really, or not enough. And if you do not fight for your rights, nobody will fight for you."

Nigerians fight every day, of course. They fight for survival, to put food on the table and to get by.

But have they put real pressure on their leaders?

If not, is that the reason, I wonder, that the average Nigerian lives to 47, and the average Indonesian to 70?

My Nigeria: Five decades of independence, by Peter Cunliffe-Jones was published this month by Palgrave Macmillan

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