Nigeria Striking A Delicate Balance


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Nigeria Striking A Delicate Balance

A tough and spirited Military Leader is off to a promising start




John Moody


culled from TIME MAGAZINE, February 17, 1986


As diplomats and VIPs assembled at Lagos' Tafawa Balewa Square for Nigeria's 25th Independence Day celebrations last October, a sudden downpour sent many notables scrambling for cover under the grandstand. Within moments, ordinary Nigerians in the bleachers were soaking wet. So was a bullish army officer striding across the parade grounds. Spurning an aide's offer of an umbrella, Major General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, 44, continued to inspect a military honor guard in the rain. The crowd roared its approval and gave a standing ovation to the new President of Africa's most populous nation.

That common touch has served Babangida well since last Aug. 27, when he came to power in a military coup. Babangida deposed the country's former military leader, Major General Mohammed Buhari, who himself had overthrown the government of President Shehu Shagari in a 1983 New Year's Eve coup. Buhari had alienated the country of some 95 million people with his repressive tactics, which included jailing political enemies and using military tribunals instead of civil courts to dispense justice. Babangida's bloodless, well- planned takeover was the fifth in Nigeria since it gained independence from Britain in 1960, and the third time in ten years that Babangida played a vital role in shaping a new leadership. This time, instead of turning over the government to someone else and returning to the barracks, Babangida seized power himself, declaring his intention to run "an open administration that is responsive to the yearnings and aspirations of all the people."

For the past five months the new President has tried to blend military orderliness with the freedoms of a democratic political system. So far, his resolve has withstood mounting economic pressures. Until 1980 Nigeria was flush with revenues from its oil industry, which at one time produced 2.3 million bbl. a day and yielded $23.4 billion a year in revenue. But the worldwide petroleum glut has left the country, which earns 95% of its foreign currency from oil exports, teetering on the edge of economic collapse. Last year Nigeria produced a daily average of 1.4 million bbl., earning $11.3 billion. Even if the current world price of around $16 per bbl. stabilizes at $20, some economists believe, the country's foreign-exchange reserves will dry up by late 1986.

Astonishingly, one of Babangida's first moves was to invite public debate on how to deal with Nigeria's $24 billion foreign debt. In a series of unprecedented public meetings, as well as in newspaper editorials, Nigerians resoundingly opposed the government's application for a new $2.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Although the money was badly needed to keep pace with the debt, Babangida suspended negotiations with the IMF. Instead, he shrewdly used his mandate to impose many of the draconian austerity measures that the IMF had suggested. Among them: doubling the price of gasoline and tripling the price of diesel fuel by dropping state oil subsidies, cutting wages, and allowing the naira, the national currency, to depreciate by 20% in an effort to stimulate sagging exports. "It was a courageous move in the right direction," said a U.S. official. One unfortunate side effect of the much needed program was that it set off a new round of domestic inflation.

As well as taking action on the economic front, Babangida moved aggressively to ensure basic human rights for Nigerians. An hour after taking the presidential oath of office, he abolished an edict that Buhari had used to muzzle criticism from the lively Nigerian press. Babangida permitted Buhari to retire honorably from the army. Buhari's right-hand man, Major General Tunde Idiagbon, a Muslim, was allowed to return from Saudi Arabia, where he was making a pilgrimage to Mecca when the coup occurred. Noted a Nigerian journalist: "In most countries, a man like Idiagbon would have been shot."

The same was true of Mohammed Rafindadi, who headed the National Security Organization, Nigeria's intelligence arm. A former clerk in the Foreign Ministry, Rafindadi used his power to conduct a purge in Nigeria's diplomatic service, firing some of its very best people. He also rounded up many ordinary citizens and kept them in "protective detention." Babangida sacked Rafindadi and curbed the powers of the NSO.

The new President released more than 100 detainees and made a point of inviting critics of past Nigerian governments to serve in his administration. He took steps to defuse tribal conflicts by distributing important government jobs among representatives of Nigeria's major tribes, the Ibo, Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani. Babangida himself is a Muslim from the Nupe tribe in the northern part of the country. His striking wife Maryam is a Roman Catholic of Ibo background. The First Couple have become well known for their frequent soirees where guests can easily and openly engage in discussions of nearly every aspect of Nigerian life.

Babangida's pro-human rights stand did not endear him to some elements of the military. In December, 14 dissident officers planned to overthrow the government. Their plot was uncovered, but it underlined the fragility of Babangida's regime. As army Chief of Staff, his confident, wisecracking style won him the backing of the officers' corps. As President, however, he refused to exempt the army from wage cuts of up to 20% that he ordered for all workers. Said one Western diplomat: "Babangida is reaching outside the military, trying to create new political forces to sustain him. As long as Nigerians feel that the screws are tightening on everybody, they will feel better about it." Babangida has been slow, however, to address one of the country's most pressing problems: official corruption. Last month former President Shagari, who had been kept under house arrest since 1984, was cleared of personal involvement in corrupt practices, despite reports that $1 million a day was skimmed from the public treasury during his administration. And a methodical purge of corrupt officials begun by Buhari has been slowed down. Concluded a British expert on Nigerian affairs: "Babangida will always fall short on ruthless measures against corruption because nearly everyone involved in the government is corrupt."

In a New Year's Day speech, Babangida pledged to sponsor a national debate on the transfer of power to a civilian government. Said he: "I wish to reaffirm that this administration does not intend to stay in power a day longer than is required to lay the necessary institutional framework to bring about a better and more stable Nigeria." The voluntary and orderly turnover of power to a civilian government would flout the norm in Africa, where coupmakers have all too often made similar pledges. Many observers, in fact, believe that Babangida's program will entrench military power for years to come. Still, he has promised to restore Nigeria to civilian rule by 1990, and last month he named a 17-member political bureau to recommend methods of + transferring power. In the meantime, Babangida has persuaded Nigerians to accept his brand of military democracy. In many ways, his performance as President will define that seeming contradiction.


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