(CNN)“Never waste a good crisis” is a motto for Dr. Okechukwu “Okey” Enelamah, the Nigerian minister of industry, trade and investment.
Right now, he has plenty to work with.
One of the largest economies in Africa is shrinking. Collapsing oil revenue has plunged Nigeria into a full-year recession for the first time since 1991, and caused a damaging foreign currency shortage.
Storm clouds are gathering over crucial trade and development relationships with Britain and the US, as the former contemplates an uncertain future outside the European Union, and the latter signals a shift to “America First” protectionism under President Donald Trump.
Enelamah, an experienced private sector banker, only entered government in November 2015. But the new minister believes he can chart a course through the turbulent waters, and discussed his plans with CNN in London.
Britain and the Commonwealth
Enelamah was in London for the inaugural Commonwealth Trade Minister’s Meeting, a gathering of officials from the former British colonies that make up the Commonwealth.
The host nation is keen to forge new trade alliances as it retreats from Europe. The 52 Commonwealth states — representing a combined population of more than two billion people – offer an attractive alternative.
Critics have attacked the event as an exercise in colonial nostalgia, branding it “Empire 2.0.“
But Enelamah is satisfied that Britain is not seeking a new era of exploitation, and sees opportunities for Nigeria in deeper partnership with the UK.
“My experience so far with Britain and (Trade Secretary) Dr. Liam Fox has been very equal and collaborative — I don’t sense an imperial mindset,” he says. “Any agreement would have to be a 21st century agreement, accounting for where countries are today, not where they were 100 years ago.”
Enelamah hopes Britain will support advanced industrialization in Nigeria, so the country can move further up the manufacturing value chain and away from relying on the export of raw materials – predominantly oil. He also believes British expertise can improve quality control for Nigerian exports, which would improve access to markets.
Trump and the US
The minister is warier about relations with the US. He has followed the progress of the new administration with some concern, particularly as Nigerian nationals were denied entry to the US.
“We hope this is resolved in a responsible way or there will be negative effects,” he says.
But Enelamah points to a reassuring statement from the US embassy in Nigeria, and a friendly call between President Trump and Nigerian Premier Muhammadu Buhari, as cause for optimism.
“We both understand and acknowledge the strategic importance of our countries to each other,” he says. “We intend to do more not less with the US.”
At a time of growing instability, the minister emphasizes the value of cultivating a wide range of alliances. Should the US retreat from commitments such as a major investment in the energy sector, Nigeria could lean more heavily on its burgeoning relationship with China, which underpins much of the state’s infrastructure development.
Nigeria’s most important partners could yet be on its doorstep. Intra-African trade accounts for just 15% of the continent’s total trade, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, whereas the figure for Europe and North America is over 60%.
“It’s not where it needs to be,” admits Enelamah. “We believe there is a lot of scope and opportunity to do more in Africa.”
Nigeria recently signed the Trade Facilitation Agreement, reducing barriers to international commerce, and is pushing for a free trade agreement between all 54 African states.
The African Union mandated trade ministers to create a framework deal by 2017. Several rounds of negotiation have been completed. Enelamah is confident the historic accord can be reached, and believes it will deliver political as well as economic rewards.
“We want to optimize relations among us and trade is a major force for optimizing relations between nations,” he says.
As Nigeria pursues international trade and partnerships, there is an urgent need to move beyond its longstanding reliance on oil, which still accounts for the vast majority of export revenue.
Enelamah believes the oil price crash could be a blessing in disguise for Nigeria.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he says. “Given the very negative consequences of the drop in oil and commodity prices…we must make good on our commitment to diversify the economy.”
To fulfill this ambition, the government recently launched its “Economic recovery and growth plan,” which aims to deliver 7% annual growth and 15 million new jobs by 2020.
The plan includes strategies to develop manufacturing in the food and agriculture sector, new energy projects, and advanced industrialization with a focus on small and medium-sized enterprizes (SMEs).
“It’s about going back to basics, to where we have a comparative or natural advantage,” says Enelamah. “Nigeria is in the right place for agriculture and it is natural to continue investment into the industrial agriculture value chain.”
High yield offshoots of oil are also a focus, such as fertilizers and petrochemicals, as well as textiles including cotton.
Another priority is to improve the business climate and facilitate economic activity. Enelamah’s ministry is overseeing the creation of Special Economic Zones with new incentives for business, and claims to have secured $1 billion investment from China.
For a sustainable recovery, Nigeria must resolve its foreign exchange crisis. The high cost of Nigerian currency and falling oil prices have deterred foreign investment, and reserves are severely depleted.
Economists are calling for a devaluation of the Naira, which the government has so far resisted, and Enelamah does not see that policy changing.
“If we create the right conditions foreign investors will come back in a big way,” he says, pointing to healthy returns on diaspora remittances and Eurobond sales. “People are interested in Nigeria, and the infrastructure projects we have can bring in investment. We must implement policies to create market confidence.”
The minister does acknowledge mistakes. In 2016, Nigeria’s Central Bank attempted to boost the flagging Naira through import controls on items including medicine, furniture and foodstuffs. Enelamah accepts this has created problems for Nigerian businesses and undermined prospects for a manufacturing revival.
“Some policies we passed affected manufacturers in terms of their raw materials and we are correcting those now,” he says. “We want to discourage dumping and bad practices that happened in the past. But we need to do it in a way that does not hurt local manufacturing.”