Shamed By Their Nation

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Shamed By Their Nation

Nigerians are fed up with rulers who squandered their patrimony and killed a dream of greatness

 

By

 

Jack E. White

 

culled from TIME Magazine, September 6, 1993
 

THERE ONCE WAS A NIGERIAN DREAM almost like the American Dream, and Dapo and Bola Thomas shared it. They had a bounding faith in the future of Africa's most populous, proud and pugnacious country. They believed that by earning university degrees, finding good jobs and working hard, they would live better than their parents had, and their own children would do better still.

That dream has vanished in a nightmare of relentless inflation and widespread shortages. Dapo, a 33-year-old journalist, lost his job several months ago and cannot find a new one. The fees at his four-year-old son's religious school have risen from $23 to $114. The rent on the family's modest flat in Lagos has doubled to $36.50 a month. A bag of cassava flour that sold for $13.60 when the couple married in 1988 now goes for $50 or more. "Five years ago, I thought that by now we would have a fine home and two cars," says Dapo. "Now I wonder if I can ever have those things."

The blighted hopes of the Thomas family reflect the failure of a nation whose oil wealth and industrious people once promised to make it black Africa's first world power. Decades of misrule by the military has wrecked the country, which is sliding into the worst crisis since the civil war of the 1960s claimed 1 million lives. Much of the nation's wealth has been squandered through lavish government spending whose main effect is to create new opportunities for kickbacks. Food has grown so expensive that even a university lecturer who earns 10 times the average annual wage of $219 says his children have forgotten how meat tastes. Though Nigeria is the world's 10th largest oil exporter, motorists line up for six hours to buy gasoline -- and then must bribe the attendant to fill the tank. Propane for cooking is so scarce and expensive that city dwellers are scrambling for firewood or electric teakettles to boil their drinking water, provided the water is actually running and the erratic Nigerian Electric Power Authority is having one of its rare good days. "If things keep on as they are," says Joseph Garba, a former Foreign Minister, "Nigeria will go back to the Stone Age."

The plunge in living standards has finally driven many of Nigeria's 100 million people to turn against President Ibrahim Babangida, the army general who has ruled the country with an arbitrary hand since 1985. He has repeatedly promised to restore the democratic government Nigerians believe they deserve; just as often he has gone back on his word. Since he annulled the results of a presidential election in June won by one of his handpicked candidates, Moshood Abiola, on the ground of alleged electoral fraud, Babangida has convinced the public that he will never willingly step aside.

So there was no rejoicing in Lagos last week when Babangida announced his retirement from the armed forces and installed a new "interim" government that is plainly intended to serve as his puppet. The transitional government promised to hold another presidential election by the end of next year, but Nigerians dismiss the new businessman-President Ernest Shonekan, one of Babangida's closest cronies, as a front behind whom Babangida will continue to exercise real control.

Determined to prove the new government cannot rule, the Campaign for Democracy, a human-rights group leading the opposition, brought the boisterous city of Lagos (pop. 6 million) to a standstill for the second time in three weeks by calling a stay-at-home protest. The Nigerian Labor Congress announced a general strike by its 4 million members, including oilworkers, starting Saturday. Both groups say they will keep demonstrating until Abiola, who vowed to return to Lagos this week and begin consultations to form a new government, is sworn in as President.

For many Nigerians what is really at stake is not whether Abiola takes office, but whether they will ever have a country they can be proud of. Democracy advocates detest Babangida and the other soldiers -- who have ruled the country for 23 of its 33 years of independence -- for diminishing the Nigerian soul. Endemic corruption; the narrowing opportunities in the country that once held out so much promise; the exploitation of bitter rivalries among the three largest ethnic groups, the Yoruba, Ibo and Hausa-Fulani -- all have sapped the nation's resources, its cohesion, its confidence. Instead of building a nation, the democrats charge, the soldiers have prevented it from being born. Says Didi Adodo, a labor leader: "The colonialists did not do as much damage to the Nigerian psyche as Babangida did."

The damage is most evident among Nigeria's battered middle class, the true believers in the Nigerian Dream. To survive these days, they are more likely to make deals than make things. Young Amie, a 34-year-old Yoruba who graduated from the University of Lagos with a degree in chemistry, was fired from his job at a grain-milling factory after the government banned imported wheat. Unable to find another post related to his training, he began importing "fairly used cars," as Nigerians call preowned automobiles. "The country would be better off if I were to engage in the production of items people can use, like soap," he says. "But there is no encouragement in this country for entrepreneurs or people who have learning. Money, quick money, is the only thing that matters." For most people, there is only one way to make a fast buck: from government contracts awarded on the basis of favoritism and kickbacks. Says Femi Adefope, the American-educated owner of a travel agency in Lagos: "If you do business honestly, no one will do business with you."

This is nothing new in Nigeria where "dash," or bribes, have been a regular source of income for government officials since long before independence. But the current level of corruption dwarfs anything in the colonial past. The result, says C.S. Whitaker, a Nigeria specialist at the University of Southern California, is a complete disconnection between honest effort and rewards. Nigerians see that a small number of well-connected, self- styled yuppies have enriched themselves enough from graft to own fleets of Mercedes color-coordinated with every suit in their wardrobe, while college graduates cannot find work. Many young Ibo men, traditionally among the best educated in the country, are abandoning college to pursue more lucrative professions like drug smuggling. "The result is a tremendous loss of talent that Nigeria cannot afford if it is to compete in the modern world," says Claude Ake, a political scientist at the University of Port Harcourt.

Many Nigerians who once brandished their nationality as a badge of honor now feel only shame. Those who travel abroad are shocked to learn that foreign customs officers regard all Nigerian travelers as potential drug couriers. Some foreign countries, including the U.S., have been quietly warning businessmen to beware of scams in which executives are lured to Nigeria by the promise of rich contracts, only to be kidnapped and held for ransom.

FOR SOME, THE SHAME OF BEING NIGErian has cut so deep that they are willing to contemplate what almost everyone in this fiercely proud country would have previously dismissed as unthinkable: inviting outside interference. The Campaign for Democracy has called for an international boycott of Nigerian oil until a democratic government takes office, even though that would push the economy into an even deeper slough. "We were advocates of total economic sanctions in South Africa, and we believe the sanctions were the main reason why apartheid is giving way to democracy there," says Chima Ubani, the Campaign for Democracy's general secretary. "It should be no different for Nigeria. It will place hardship on the people, but there is no freedom without sacrifice."

The brave words mask major weaknesses in the pro-democracy movement. International oil customers, hesitant to offend an influential supplier or harm their own recession-plagued economies, are not likely to embargo Nigerian crude. More fundamentally, democracy leaders have been unable to overcome the ethnic rivalries that have stood in the way of a true sense of Nigerian nationhood since its creation. Support is strong in the Yoruba-dominated southwest and almost nil in other parts of the country.

Still, pro-democracy leaders believe that international pressure combined with massive passive resistance in Lagos will force Babangida from power. They have warned their followers to keep off the streets so that soldiers will not have an excuse to shoot.

But as long as he remains in command of the only sources of wealth in the country, Babangida will not be easily dislodged. Already some thoughtful Nigerians have suggested that the interim government, though a sham, should be given a chance to solve the country's manifold problems; to do otherwise would risk more bloodshed. Yet such a prudent course may only delay the day of reckoning, when Nigerians who dream of democracy will have to risk their lives to make it come true.

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