Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 April 2007
Issue No. 841
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nigeria fastened with nails

Nigeria's struggle for political stability and prosperity is a marathon effort, given the outlook for this week's regional elections and next week's presidential polls, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Click to view caption
Masked militants stand with guns in southern Nigeria's oil-rich state of Rivers

It is precisely because Nigeria, a federation of 36 states and by far Africa's most populous nation, is big and boisterous that it can give the impression that it does not need stronger international assistance. But it does.

Nigeria's economy keeps getting better, but its 140 million people are becoming poorer. The old adage about a hungry man being an angry man is true. A Nigerian diplomat once paraphrased the biblical Isaiah to me thus: "Nigeria is fastened with nails. It is ready for the soldering: and he fastened it with nails, that it should not be moved," he lamented.

To some this is tosh. But for others, there is a grain of truth in this biblical allegory. "He nails down the idols," Isaiah reads. Nigeria needs to be fastened with nails. The country faces ethnic and communal tensions. The militant Islamists of the northern states with Old Testament zealotry want to institute Islamic Sharia law -- they have actually promulgated Islamic laws in 12 states. The country is the sleeping African giant, and if awakened it can lobby at international forums for the interests of the entire continent. Sometimes, though, it is said to be too garrulous for its own good.

The struggle for good governance has not quite gone according to plan. Neither has the war against corruption. It is therefore vital for Nigeria's future that the victor in this battle is the rule of law.

Protesting against results of regional state elections which put the ruling party ahead of opposition forces, opposition supporters took to the streets. Regional elections are important in Nigerian politics. State governors are powerful personalities. Some of them control budgets of around $1 billion.

As angry armed youth set up roadblocks and burned houses, more than 20 people were reported killed in election- related violence. An estimated 70 others were also killed in pre-election campaigning.

Most of the country's presidential hopefuls are former military dictators. Realism would lead us to the conclusion that Nigeria is still run by the generals, albeit masquerading in civilian clothes.

Outgoing Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was himself a retired general who ruled the country three decades ago. The leading presidential candidate for next week's poll is Umaru Musa Yar'Adua who is running for the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP). He is the brother of the late Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, Obasanjo's deputy when he was military ruler from 1976 to 1979. His running mate is the lacklustre Goodluck Jonathan.

Another former military strongman, major-general Mohamed Buhari, is the presidential candidate of the All Nigerian People's Party, the country's chief opposition group. Both Buhari and Yar'Adua hail from the impoverished northern and predominantly Muslim ethnic Hausa state of Katsina -- a bastion of traditional conservatism and fundamentalist Islam.

The oldest presidential hopeful is Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, 73, of the All Progressive Grand Alliance. He led the ethnic Igbo breakaway state of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war. The ex-general ruled Biafra with an iron fist. He is the only major Christian presidential hopeful, and his chances are not good. Ojukwu has reshaped himself as an icon of resistance -- especially as far as Igbos are concerned.

Then there is Vice-President Atiku Abubakar of the Action Congress, who fell out of favour with the president. Obasanjo, in a true reflection of the polemic nature of Nigerian politics, intended to change the constitution to extend his presidency for another term. He was stopped in his tracks by some of his closest associates including Abubakar. He has been suspended from membership of the ruling party, even though he was a founding member of the PDP, after he was accused of embezzling some $125 million for personal business purposes. He is putting on a brave face.

There are, however, bright stars in the Nigerian horizon. Chief among these is the popular ex-policeman and Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Nuhu Ribadu. The EFCC has recovered more than $5 billion and has successfully prosecuted 82 people. It was the EFCC that investigated Vice President Atiku Abubakar for fraud and embezzlement, but this matter is rumoured to have been engineered by the outgoing president for his own political ends.

However, the vice-president could not be stopped from running as a presidential candidate. Those who stand accused of corruption by the EFCC and are currently being prosecuted tend to be political rivals who fell out with Obasanjo, but Ribadu hotly denies that this has anything to do with his investigations.

The EFCC's task looks impossible, but it is too soon to conclude that the country is ungovernable. The overriding message of the presidential hopefuls is, indeed, hope -- hope in the country's future, in the resilience of its people.

Indeed, the EFCC has become a crucible for Nigeria's long- brewing political problems. Still, economic liberalisation and privatisation have taken a terrible toll, with unemployment a staggering 40 per cent. Nigeria exports $20 billion worth of oil a year, but the vast majority of Nigerians live in abject poverty. The brain drain is weakening the country further. Millions of young Nigerians are seeking employment opportunities in Europe and America.

Saddled with a huge foreign debt of $30 billion and a fiscal deficit of five per cent, the Nigerian economy is heavily dependent on oil exports which account for 95 per cent of the country's foreign exchange earnings. Despite producing two million barrels a day, which is planned to double in the future, Nigerians are poorer now than they were under British rule in 1960.

Nigeria's 80 million voters, it appears, by and large have placed their trust in Obasanjo's political heir Yar'Adua and thrown in their lot with the ruling party. But while Obasanjo, a Christian from the Yoruba ethnic group, Nigeria's second largest, was a seasoned politician, Yar'Adua strikes most Nigerians as a political novice. Obasanjo spearheaded a campaign to stamp out corruption and embark on political reform leading to greater democracy and transparency in governance. Will Yar'Adua strengthen and deepen his predecessor's legacy? That remains to be seen.

Nigeria enjoys a vibrant free press and there has been a marked improvement in human rights since the days of military rule, but behind the thin veneer of democracy, economic and social problems threaten to derail or rather de-nail the society. Obasanjo's election in 1999 ended 15 years of military rule in Nigeria, but the preponderance of men with military backgrounds in politics combined with the explosive socio-economic conditions worries Nigerians and outsiders.

At the 2003 presidential polls, the All Nigeria People's Party bitterly complained about counting irregularities, ballot box theft and the like. The electoral process appeared to be especially flawed in oil-producing regions such as River State. This and the terrible economic situation fuel growing ethnic and religious strife between the Muslim north and the largely Christian and animist south, the legacy of the bitter civil war of 1967-70.

The hungry man, especially if his vote isn't counted, is an angry man: will the next government be able to keep the nails in place?

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