Beneath the surface in Nigeria
Associate since 1991
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June 23, 2008
LONDON - On the surface Nigeria these days seems extraordinarily calm- the dispute over last year's very flawed election has subsided and few question that the self-effacing Umaru Yar'Adua has a right to to be president. The army - once the originator of coup upon coup - was effectively de-fanged by his immediate predecessor Olusegun Obasanjo. Now it concentrates on peacekeeping, the largest contributor to African Union efforts.
The religious tensions between northern Muslims and southern Christians gradually faded away during the Obasanjo years. His stern lecturing of the nation, combined with steady policing, seemed to have had an effect. “Neither the Christian nor the Muslims of Kaduna (where murderous riots broke out in 2000) need to resort to violence in defense of their positions on the Sharia issue since God, whom they both claim to worship, is quite capable of upholding his own causes,” he said in a broadcast.
Similarly, tribal tensions have ebbed, partly because the rapid advance in agriculture has brought rising incomes to the countryside and the small rural market towns.
Oil income has started to be used better, if not well enough. Even the threat of multiple air crashes appears to have diminished as Obasanjo pushed fly-by-the-pants airlines to consolidate and retire clapped out panes.
In Lagos the streets are noticeably cleaner- and no longer are there dead bodies at the roadside, waiting to be removed. Lagos itself is becoming a different place from the days when it was an out-of-control, mass of teaming humanity. As Ben Okri ,the Nigerian novelist, wrote a few years ago, “The air vibrating with poisonous heat...the sun bared the reality of our lives and everything was so harsh it was a mystery that we could understand and care for one another or for anything at all.”
Long time observers of the huge metropolis were amazed that in the election there were no reports of violence or vote stuffing.
Large modern houses are springing up all over town; a middle class is rising with all its accoutrements- restaurants, shops with the latest fashions, chic ladies perambulating. Crime remains a real problem, especially after nightfall, but during the day people walk around at a sharp pace, many of the men in suits and ties, despite the humidity, pursuing their work and their business interests with an intensity that reminds a visitor of New York.
Nevertheless, there are serious tensions and rifts within Nigeria. The worst are in the oil-producing Delta. The militants seem to have lost sight of their original cause, which was to persuade recalcitrant local governments and the oil companies to improve the lot of the local people. Today, armed to the teeth, they are terrifying both foreign workers and local, stealing oil, buying more guns and spending their loot on expensive cars. Obasanjo never seemed to get a grip on this problem. Yar 'Adua is trying a different approach. “By patient negotiation”, he told me, adding “You know Obasanjo with his military manner was not very good at patience.”
It is too early to say if this will bear fruit, but he has had one important success. Two weeks' ago it was announced that Shell was puling out of Oganiland, the tribal area of the human rights campaigner and poet Ken Saro-Wiwa, whom the military regime executed for stirring up protests. Then there were 10 years of stalemate, with the Ogani people refusing to allow Shell to continue drilling. Shell will now be replaced by another oil company.
Then there are the abiding tensions between north and south. Obasanjo is a southerner and Yar' Adua a northerner. The north is poorer, less well educated and rather resentful of the south where most economic growth takes place. During the Obasanjo years there were constant rumours that northern politicians were trying to destabilize his rule. Now the feeling is that Yar 'Adua is surrounding himself with people some of whom want to cut Obasanjo down to size. Not only has the government decided to suspend some of Obasanjo's last round of big projects, but it has sacked the head of the Financial and Economic Crimes Commission who was investigating allegedly corrupt governors who had funded Yar' Adua's campaign for the presidency and were prepared to do so next time as well.
The latest sharp thrust was the indictment of Obasanjo's daughter who was chairman of the Senate's health committee. Informed observers believe she is only guilty of the misuse of funds not embezzlement but the government are insisting on a high profile trial. Obasanjo, the anti-corruption campaigner, is incensed. “Yar'Adua has declared war on me”, he told me in an outburst, although the previous day, before I brought this subject up, he kept telling me to give Yar'Adua time before we criticize him.
Despite this Nigeria is unusually stable. There will be no power struggle between the two men. There will be no coup. Economic advance will continue at a fast rate. And democratic and judicial institutions will continue to improve.
Copyright © 2008 Jonathan
Jonathan Power can be
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