Desperate For Democracy


Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues




October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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Desperate For Democracy

After years of dictatorship, Nigerians hope the death of Moshood Abiola will usher in a new era




Jack E. White


culled from TIME Magazine, July 20, 1998

Only in a country that has been as thoroughly brutalized by its rapacious leaders as Nigeria could a shady character like Moshood Abiola be transmuted into a symbol of frustrated democracy. By the time of his mysterious death in the new capital city of Abuja last week, he had been elevated into something he never was, the figurehead of the political freedom Nigeria never had. No matter that for years Abiola was thick as thieves with the military strongmen who were stealing millions from their country; no matter that he pocketed money from sweetheart deals he had cut with the greedy generals. Nigerians were desperate for a hero to worship, and Abiola, who would have been 61 next month, fit the bill.

For many Nigerians--especially those in the Yoruba-dominated southwest, where Abiola hailed from--memories go back only five years, to Nigeria's last ill-fated attempt to elect a civilian regime. Abiola appeared to win that election, even if he did it by dumping money on the electorate. But Nigeria's military bosses refused to accept the result and annulled the election. A year later, after Abiola proclaimed himself President anyway, a new strongman, General Sani Abacha, charged him with treason and clapped him in prison. After four years of mostly solitary confinement, Abiola's spirit appeared to be broken. He was so eager to be released that he seemed to renounce his claim to the presidency in a conversation only two weeks ago with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

On the face of it, those are not promising materials for creating a Nigerian version of Nelson Mandela. But in a country where everything but misery is in short supply, people have learned to make do with whatever is at hand. Daily life in Nigeria deteriorated disastrously under Abacha's dictatorship as the economy and infrastructure crumbled. Unemployment and corruption inflamed ethnic animosity. The facts about Abiola became far less important to people than the image they could build around him of a democratic future they yearned to have.

The mythmaking will be easier because of the bizarre circumstances of Abiola's demise. Still a prisoner, he had just sat down with a top-level U.S. delegation visiting Nigeria to push for democratic reforms when he had trouble breathing and collapsed. Ninety minutes later, he died in a military hospital. The mystery of his death touched off riots in Lagos and other southwestern cities that left at least 55 dead as his fellow Yorubas took revenge on Hausa northerners, the ethnic group that dominates the military regime. Angry youths set fires and barricaded the streets of Lagos, battling police and soldiers. Though the doctors attending him said Abiola appeared to have died from a heart attack, some of his relatives immediately charged that he had been poisoned or had died because his illnesses had gone untreated while he was in detention. A Lagos newspaper suggested absurdly that the American diplomats meeting Abiola had slipped something into his tea. In what is sure to be a vain attempt to quell the inflammatory rumors, the latest military boss, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, 56, called in a team of British, American and Canadian pathologists to perform an autopsy.

Unlike his immediate predecessor Sani Abacha, who dropped dead just as abruptly a month ago, Abubakar seems to be committed to restoring democracy. In an address to the nation, he proclaimed his grief at Abiola's death and implied that if the prisoner had lived only one more day, he would have been freed. But such sentiments, no matter how genuine, are unlikely to stir sympathy from Abiola's ardent supporters. On Saturday the foreign experts issued a preliminary finding that Abiola died naturally of a heart attack. They will issue a final report when more tests are completed. Even so, many of Abiola's backers are unlikely to accept the experts' conclusions. Their need for a martyr to rally around guarantees they will continue to insist that Abiola was murdered, no matter what the evidence says.

As a revered victim of despotism rather than a live wheeler-dealer, Abiola may well become the mythic symbol of national unity that Nigerians have been hungering for since the country became independent 38 years ago. Such a symbol is desperately needed because Nigeria remains an arbitrary collection of squabbling ethnic groups living in regions thrown together by colonialism, rather than a unified nation whose inhabitants share a sense of collective destiny. Under the greedy leadership of the generals, the old clannishness has revived. Billions upon billions of dollars in oil revenues that provide Nigeria's principal source of foreign exchange have been siphoned off by the military bosses. The per capita income of Nigerians, the 33rd highest in the world two decades ago, has plummeted to the 13th lowest, below even Haiti's. In order to survive, honest hardworking citizens have been forced to resort to corruption. As Femi Adefope, an American-educated travel agent in Lagos, puts it, "If you want to do business honestly, people don't want to do business with you." These problems are the makings of a potential explosion that could spill over Nigeria's borders and engulf all of West Africa.

The question now is whether Nigerians are capable of developing the mechanisms to head off such a disaster. Thirty years of kleptocratic military dictatorship have produced a generation of civilian politicians more accustomed to doing business with the tyrants than challenging them. Millions of well-educated Nigerians who once formed an ambitious middle class have fled the country in total frustration. The deep sense of pride some Nigerians once felt has been replaced by a deep sense of shame as their country earned an ugly reputation as a font of intricate financial scams and a haven for international drug smuggling where hypocrisy rules.

Even some of the most vocal exile leaders, who have been howling for years for Abiola's immediate release and installation as President, have done business with the generals. During the eight-year reign of General Ibrahim Babangida, from 1985 to 1993, Abiola himself often operated as a bagman, showering large sums on prominent African Americans who would have been embarrassed to take money directly from a military dictator. An effort by Jesse Jackson to strengthen ties between African and African-American businessmen benefited from Abiola's largesse, as did the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation: each reportedly received a $250,000 donation. Few people asked where the money came from; even fewer returned it. The currying of favor continued under the brutal reign of Abacha. During that time, all manner of prominent African Americans from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to delegations of clergymen, newspaper publishers and businessmen accepted government-sponsored tours of Nigeria, then sang the dictator's praises.

Despite all that, there is reason for optimism about Nigeria's future. Abubakar seems to mean what he says about restoring democracy. He has released a group of political prisoners and promises to free the rest. There is enormous pressure on the military to relinquish its grip so that new elections can be held before the end of the year. And, of course, miracles do happen. Nigerians need look no further than the transformation of Moshood Abiola from a fixer into their country's new symbol of democracy for indisputable proof of that.


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