Hands Up For Democracy


Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues




October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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Hands Up For Democracy

Olusegun Obasanjo's election is another faltering step in Nigeria's long struggle to end military rule




Simon Robinson


culled from TIME Magazine, March 15, 1999

Three days before Nigeria's presidential election, Olusegun Obasanjo arrived at a political rally in a northern suburb of Lagos. Surrounded by enthusiastic followers and a rowdy brass band, the candidate for the People's Democratic Party sat inside a balloon-festooned marquee and listened to a series of speeches by P.D.P. party chiefs. Finally, he climbed the stage himself. Some of the few thousand supporters had spent more than eight hours waiting for their hero and they roared in approval. Obasanjo spoke slowly and deliberately in his native Yoruba, relating a proverb about the futility of examining the past. At the end of his speech he raised his fist and punched the air. "Power!" the crowd cheered. "Power! Power!"

And power it shall be for Obasanjo, who emerged last week as the winner of presidential elections held on Feb. 27. But he must wait until May 29 when, if all goes according to plan, the retired general who once led his country as part of a military junta will be sworn in as head of Nigeria's first democratically elected government in more than 15 years. The rare chance to vote for their leader attracted 30 million people to 110,000 polling stations across Nigeria, Africa's most populous country. They voted in the hope that a civilian government can repair the country's crumbling infrastructure and end the corruption and mismanagement that has turned their once prosperous nation into one of the world's poorest. Says 18-year-old shop clerk Enitan Adekoya: "I want to be proud to be a Nigerian." Such hopes now rest with 62-year-old Obasanjo, who secured 63% of the vote to defeat Olu Falae, a career civil servant and former Finance Minister.

Obasanjo is no stranger to power. He ruled Nigeria from 1976 to 1979 as head of a military junta before ceding power to elected civilians--the first Nigerian dictator to do so. After resigning from the military in 1979 he took up farming and founded an international think tank called the Africa Leadership Forum. He has criticized recent military regimes and was jailed in 1995 for allegedly plotting a coup against General Sani Abacha, head of the last military government whose death in June cleared the way for these elections. "He may want to leave the legacy of being the one who brings Nigeria back together," says U.S. Congressman Donald Payne, one of hundreds of outside observers who monitored the election. "He's not the panacea, but he's probably the best man for the situation."

Yet nothing is certain in Nigeria. The military has ruled for 29 of the 38 years since independence from Britain and past attempts at democracy have been less than successful. A presidential election in 1993, apparently won by millionaire businessman Moshood Abiola, was annulled by Nigeria's military bosses, who installed Abacha as leader instead. The rapacious Abacha jailed Abiola on treason charges, cracked down on political enemies and stole billions from the national treasury. After Abacha died the more moderate General Abdulsalami Abubakar took over and promised a return to democracy.

Obasanjo's first challenge will be to convince Nigerians he won fairly. International observers reported ballot box stuffing and other inconsistencies during voting and Falae plans to appeal the result, which he says was rigged. Critics charge that wealthy military backers, who need someone unlikely to seek retribution for their profligacy and human rights abuses, engineered Obasanjo's win. The former general dismisses those claims and says he is committed to democracy. "Nothing that is designed and executed by human beings is perfect," he told reporters soon after voting in a dusty street behind his Abeokuta home. "But from what I have seen in my own polling station, I can say that [Nigeria] has not done badly."

However he got there, the President-elect will find Nigeria close to collapse. Three decades of kleptocratic military rule have left the country's infrastructure in tatters. Schools and hospitals are run down, roads are crumbling, power and water supplies erratic. "The military has turned our country upside down," says Olamilokun Mojeed, a 25-year-old electrical engineering student. "There are no facilities at university, no hope of finding a job."

Lack of investment has left Nigeria almost solely dependent on its huge oil deposits. Sales of its high-quality crude account for more than 90% of export earnings and around 75% of government revenue. When the price of oil is high Nigeria can just about balance its books. When low, as it has been for the past two years, growth slows and budget deficits and foreign debt soar. "It's not that we are poor but that a certain class has made us poor," says Dan Omoweh, an economics professor at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. "Instead of putting our oil money into other sectors the military has squandered it, embezzled it, wasted it."

The wastage has led to the irony of a fuel shortage for one of the world's leading oil producers. Nigeria's neglected refineries break down frequently, forcing the country to import its fuel. Nigerians now pay up to three times more at the gas pump than they did a year ago, even as world oil prices have continued to fall. General Abubakar says at least one refinery will soon be restored but that's little comfort to industries coping with huge hikes in the cost of power and car owners forced to queue for hours for a tank of fuel.

A privatization plan imposed by the International Monetary Fund may eventually solve problems at the refineries and shake up other areas of the bloated and inefficient state sector, but results are years off. "Nigeria is a very hard environment in which to privatize," says one Western diplomat. "It could be that investors end up concentrating at the top end of the market because the rest is just too inefficient and not worth their effort." Foreign investors are also wary of Nigeria's culture of bribery. Dashing, as locals call it, is so widespread that the country persistently ranks among the most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International, a Germany-based research group which Obasanjo helped to found in 1993.

Obasanjo promises to rectify the fuel shortage, encourage foreign investment and end bribery by establishing an anti-corruption agency and leading by example. He also says he will create more jobs and restore free education. The problem is one of balance: following the IMF's recipe will upset voters; delivering on generous election promises will cost money Nigeria doesn't have and feed inflation. "A serious government should be able to end our fuel shortage and power failures within three months," says Father George Ehusani, deputy secretary-general of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. "But it will take 10 to 15 years to make a big impact on the mass unemployment and poverty."

Some Nigerians will not wait that long. In the huge Niger River delta region, where multinational oil companies pump out around 2 million barrels of oil a day, impoverished ethnic groups like the Ogoni and Ijaw are demanding greater autonomy, a bigger share of oil revenue and compensation for environmental damage caused by spills. If not, some threaten a continuing campaign of kidnapings, violence and vandalism. "That could create the excuse for another set of military people to step in and say they have to save us from ourselves," warns Ledum Mitee, acting president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People.

Despite the huge challenges, there is room for optimism. Many people seem prepared to overlook the flawed vote and Obasanjo's military past. "Electing a President in itself does not bring democracy but at least it gives us a chance," says Chima Ubani, general secretary of the Democratic Alternative, which like many small parties failed to meet the requirements needed to contest the elections. "Now we must all focus on building a new political culture." Nigeria's shattered economy will benefit from proposed debt rescheduling and the dropping of trade sanctions imposed during Abacha's reign. And deals like the joint venture that is under discussion between Virgin Atlantic Airways and Nigeria Airways will provide much needed capital and should become more common in time. "A lot of investors have been waiting for the right atmosphere to make their move," says Rasaki Oladejo, head of research at the Nigerian Stock Exchange. "We're ready for them."

Nigeria's greatest assets are her 110 million people, whose optimism and energy seem irrepressible. After three decades of coups and corruption Nigerians have created their own make-do economy. Pragmatic solutions abound: when the power fails, boys sell blocks of ice to stores to keep stock cold; roadside garages knock together cheap copies of expensive imported spare parts; cars are patched and kept running for years. "People rely on their own informal contacts to survive; not on State House, not on the budget process," says Ubani. Most have little choice. "It's my country, I can't run away," says Victoria Olumide, 52, sitting in her tiny roadside store surrounded by crates of warm bottled soft drinks. She stares at the unlit bulb hanging from the ceiling. "This morning we had light and maybe we will get it back again," she says. "Yes, the light will come soon." After decades of darkness, Nigerians hope she's right.


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