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Obasanjo--the Last Great Hope for Nigeria?



Feb 24, 1999

LONDON- Olesegun Obasanjo, the likely winner in Nigeria's presidential election on Saturday, combines to a rare degree brain, brawn and charm. Of massive build, his self assurance and determination often compel others to bend before his will. His detractors would call him ruthless; he does not suffer fools, and many have withered before his unconcealed scorn. Yet he is not a self-inflated man. Arrogance is not his vice.

Only released from prison last June, after three years of struggling to maintain his spirits in a dank cell, he has moved quickly to regain the presidency he voluntarily relinquished twenty years ago. It was the same self-perpetuating clique of self-enriching military officers who incarcerated him, who had turned to dust his earlier effort, when he was president in the late 1970s--and himself a military appointee--to return the country to democracy.

Two summers back I went to visit his old and trusted friend, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and we had ended up discussing Obasanjo's plight and how to bring more pressure to win his release from prison. "We've tried everything", Schmidt said. "(Former British Prime Minister James) Callaghan even got Thatcher to intervene. Abacha is immoveable" "Frankly", he continued, taking a pinch of snuff, "Abacha needs to be bumped off".

Last June, Nigeria's dictator, General Sani Abacha, did unexpectedly die of a sudden "heart attack", although there have been well informed suggestions that in fact it was murder. Even his closest associates had had enough of the way, for his own gain, he was bleeding Nigeria of its oil revenues and running the country more into the ground every day. The state has been looted almost to emptiness. As Martin Woolacott has observed, "What remains in Nigeria is pure predation, the seizure of national assets by those who control the means of violence and the ruthless suppression of any who oppose the process".

Yet despite sixteen years of military rule since the coup that overthrew the democratically elected Shehu Shagari, Nigeria remains Africa's most vital state, where a tradition of tolerance, art and literature (it is the home of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and fellow novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the regime) vie actively with the crassness of an oil economy that became a drinking trough for the most muscular and the most self-seekingly amoral.

Nigeria remains, even after Abacha, a hopeful paradox. It has more problems than any other major African country, with the exception of Zaire, yet it also possesses a vitality second to none.

Although it sits only a few degrees north of the equator, the visitor is inevitably impressed by the sense of immense energy and entrepreneurial spirit. Lagos, its capital, is built on an island swamp. In any other country its multitudes would make it an impossible place to live. It appears dirty, disarranged and, to the automobile driver, anarchic. Nevertheless it survives, its millions of inhabitants hanging together, the strong tribal and family ties making the daily burdens of life just bearable.

Rank and file Nigerians often give the appearance of living more on hope and good will than on immediate tangible reward. This was how they managed to come out of the civil war that consumed the country in the late 1960s. General Yakubu Gowan, the then military ruler, moved quickly with his policy of reconciliation, to bring the defeated Ibos of the would-be state of Biafra back into the mainstream of Nigerian life.

Now, one of his junior officers, Obasanjo, will try the same task again, of bringing the alienated back into the political and social fold of a democratic state. And persuading Nigeria's powerful, and often secession-minded tribes to pull together. Just as in 1979, when he engineered the return to democracy with careful precision, he will need today all the attributes he exhibited then--firm leadership combined with personal sensitivity to bruised egos, particularly in the military. But today he has more to give: the confidence that comes from over twenty years of reflection on Nigeria's problems--above all, as he has told me repeatedly, the dangers of an oil economy which has produced tremendous wealth but improved the well-being of relatively few.

When he stepped down from office in 1979 Obasanjo turned to farming. He wanted to prove to his country what he had preached as president: that their future was in the land, not oil--60% of Nigeria's people still work in agriculture. He put on a pair of blue jeans and started a highly profitable chicken and vegetable farm. Often, he used to sleep rough in the farm's outhouses, watching over every detail of the farm's early progress when he was still in his late thirties.

Obasanjo has always said he sees a three or four generation timetable for a transition to making Nigeria a modern state. At the most he will now have ten years of that hundred to give the country his guiding hand. But what he does--or fails to do--will undoubtedly make or break the timetable. Without exaggeration, after so many decades of missed opportunity, it is probably fair to say he is Nigeria's last great hope, if the disintegration of the continent's most populous--and potentially richest--country is to be avoided.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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