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The man from the SouthBy Gamal Nkrumah
Military rule in Nigeria is at last drawing to a close. A former military ruler who has exchanged his fatigues for the traditional flowing gown of West Africa, the agbada, has been declared Nigeria's first civilian president-elect in 15 years.
Olusegun Obasanjo was a compromise candidate, one acceptable to both Nigeria's generals and democracy activists. A former general himself, he underwent a "jailhouse conversion". Eight months ago he was still in prison, a victim of General Sani Abacha's persecution of the Yoruba people. This week, he was put in charge of the country, having won some 63 per cent of the vote -- enough to give him a clear mandate, and not enough to arouse too many suspicions. He thus becomes the first Christian to be elected president of this predominantly Muslim West African nation since independence from Britain in 1960.
Nigeria is a geo-political artifice, a country created by the British, who ruled the area as two separate colonial entities, a Northern protectorate and a Southern colony. Small wonder ethnic background and religious affiliation play a critically important role in Nigerian politics today. "I am convinced that Nigeria is a failed state," said human rights activist Beko Ransome Kuti recently. "If we can't live together as one people, we are better off living separately. How separate is one of the issues in contention."
At independence, Nigeria was handed over by the British to a largely Northern Nigerian and Muslim oligarchy. The north of the country was, and still is, far poorer than the south. In the immediate pre-independence period, Southerners dominated the Nigerian political scene, and Northerners were not particularly enthusiastic about becoming part of a nation in whose political and economic elites they stood to play only a very limited role. The British had to entice them to join the new Nigeria with the offer of legislative ascendancy, reflecting the fact that they occupied 79 per cent of the new country's territory and formed some 60 per cent of its population.
Nigeria's first president was a Christian Southerner, Chief Nmandi Azikiwe, an ethnic Igbo from Southeastern Nigeria. His shaky civilian government was effectively destroyed by a disastrous civil war, which culminated in a military coup d'état in January 1966. Since then, Nigeria has mainly been ruled by Muslim Northern generals with the collaboration of civilians such as Obasanjo's main rival in last week's elections, Olu Falae, who was finance minister under Ibrahim Babangida.
Like Obasanjo, Falae too is an ethnic Yoruba, and he too did time behind bars during Abacha's reign of terror. A Yale-educated economics professor, he was one of the architects of Nigeria's Structural Adjustment Programme and a keen advocate of privatisation and economic liberalisation. Twice a frustrated presidential primary candidate, he has refused to accept defeat and is contesting the legitimacy of last week's elections, telling reporters they were nothing more than "a farce and a charade."
Apart from ethnic tensions, the other main challenge facing the new president is the economy. Nigeria is an oil-rich country -- but it is not a rich country. Its financial management has already taken a drubbing, and its problems are set to increase as the oil price drops well below the $17 a barrel on which the country's 1998 budget was based. Meanwhile, arrears on its $34 billion external debt continue to soar. Donors are not forthcoming with much-needed credit, and environmentalist and human rights activists are targeting the oil companies. "Shell in particular, as well as Chevron and Mobil, have sided with the military dictatorships, putting profits before human lives. Nigerians have come to know that the military and multinationals are good partners in killings," said Nigerian environmental and women's rights activist Barine Teekate-Yorbe of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) recently.
Last year, Nigeria was condemned by the Berlin-based NGO Transparency International as the world's most corrupt state. The military have apparently frittered away an estimated $250 billion of oil export earnings in the past quarter of a century. Nigeria earns over $10 billion a year from the oil industry, which is the largest of its kind in Africa, and though the president has changed, the military still effectively control the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the major source of wealth and patronage in the country. During the election campaign, in an unprecedented statement, Falae mooted a hitherto taboo subject -- the privatisation of the state-owned NNPC. Perhaps it was this gauntlet cast down to his former masters that cost him the presidency. Others, however, feel he never had a chance in the first place. The generals, they say, always preferred Obasanjo.
Just how legitimate the elections were remains open to question. Several of the hundreds of international monitors, including former US President Jimmy Carter, reported widespread electoral irregularities. "We are seriously concerned," European Union monitors announced in a statement shortly after the results were proclaimed. "We have no proof, however, that there was a systematic attempt to rig the results at state or national levels."