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Nigeria

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Absent Presidents

Newspapers still need copy to hold the ads apart even when nothing much is happening. So I was quite pleased when I noticed that the presidents of two African countries, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, were both “missing in action”: spending most of their time in hospitals overseas, while their spokespersons denied that there was anything wrong.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with the continent’s biggest economy. Zimbabwe is dirt poor and dead broke, but its president, Robert Mugabe is Africa’s longest-ruling leader. So you call the piece ‘Absent Presidents’, you do a few arabesques around the themes of absolute power and irresponsibility, and you get to go home early.

There were even a couple of juicy quotes to lead with. One of the supporters of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, Senator Shehu Sani, had warned publicly: “Prayers for the absent Lion King have waned. Now the hyenas and the jackals are scheming and talking to each other in whispers; still doubting whether the Lion King will be back or not.”

And President Buhari’s wife Aisha replied, also in public, that he would soon be back to clean house: “God has answered the prayers of the weaker animals. The hyenas and jackals will soon be sent out the kingdom.” How deliciously ‘African’. The piece practically writes itself. It couldn’t be simpler.

Unfortunately, it’s too simple. It feeds into all the stereotypes about feckless African presidents who cling to power too long and lead their countries to ruin. In fact neither Buhari nor Mugabe is a thief (although some of the people around them are), and Buhari’s illness is a real misfortune for his country. Whereas Mugabe’s demise would not come a moment too soon for his unfortunate country.

Robert Mugabe’s life has been a tragedy. He led Zimbabwe’s independence struggle, and in the early days he was sometimes even compared to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, a wise and generous man who relinquished the presidency after only five years in power to let the next generation take over. But although Mugabe was clever, he was never wise.

Zimbabwe flourished in the early years of his rule, with high education and living standards, but he has now been in power for 37 years and his increasingly arbitrary actions have wrecked the economy. Few people have real jobs, hyper-inflation has destroyed the national currency, and about a quarter of the population has emigrated in search of work, mostly to South Africa.

Mugabe is now 93 years old, but he talks of living and ruling until he is 100, and is certainly going to run again in next year’s election, which will be rigged as usual. His wife, Grace Mugabe, says he should run “as a corpse” if he dies before the vote (but she might just decide to run herself.)

So the fact that Mugabe is now in hospital in Singapore, for the third time this year, is not causing widespread dismay in Zimbabwe. Opposition leaders complain about him “running the show from his hospital bed,” but they wouldn’t actually mind if he died. They think nothing could be worse than more of Mugabe – although they could be wrong about that. The scramble for power when he finally goes could turn very violent.

If Robert Mugabe is a classic case of a good man gone bad, Muhammadu Buhari may be just the opposite. He first came to public notice as one of Nigeria’s revolving-door military dictators, seizing power in a coup in 1983 and losing it to another coup in 1985. The one thing that distinguished him from all the others was that he actually did fight the rampant corruption that has kept the great majority of Nigeria’s 180 million people poor.

Buhari, who calls himself a “converted democrat”, ran for the presidency unsuccessfully in 2003, 2007 and 2011 before finally winning in the 2015 election. There were high hopes that he would be the one who finally brought corruption under control, and perhaps he could have been – but nothing actually happened. In fact, it took him six months just to select all his cabinet members.

In retrospect, it seems likely that Buhari fell ill not long after he took office, and has been severely distracted by his health problems since mid-2016. He has been in London for medical treatment more than half the time since January, and has not been seen in public at all since early May. Despite his wife’s assurances to the contrary, it is unlikely that he will ever really run the country again.

This is not necessarily a disaster for Nigeria – the graveyards everywhere are full of indispensable men. But it may represent a lost opportunity, for Buhari did really sound like he meant it. Better luck next time.

There, you see. I did get an article out of it after all.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“There were…simpler”)

Gambia and the 1999 Protocol

As military interventions go, it was practically flawless.
Last month Gambia’s long-ruling dictator, President Yahya Jammeh, lost an election that turned out to be a little freer than he had planned. After first conceding defeat and even phoning up the victor, property developer Adama Barrow, to congratulate him, Jammeh changed his mind and decided to stay in power.
Within days the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had condemned Jammeh’s action and ordered him to hand over power to Barrow. Within weeks the organisation was organising a military force to make him do so, while the presidents and prime ministers of other ECOWAS countries shuttled back and forth trying to persuade Jammeh to see reason.
On 19 January (last Thursday), with Jammeh still clinging to power, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution supporting ECOWAS but asking it to use “political means first.” Typically, however, it did not endorse military action at all. It was the usual Security Council compromise, saying the right thing but not demanding decisive action for fear of triggering a veto.
So ECOWAS just went ahead anyway. On Friday a multinational force of 7,000 troops from five West African countries crossed the border from Senegal into Gambia. Barrow, who had fled to Senegal to avoid arrest or worse, was sworn in as president and immediately ordered the Gambian army not to resist. And with very few exceptions, it didn’t.
Most of Saturday was taken up with a series of missed deadlines for Jammeh to hand over power and leave the country. However, that evening he boarded a plane and left for Guinea, en route to his permanent place in exile in Equatorial Guinea, a country so isolated and obscure that it makes Gambia seem positively metropolitan.
The likely reason for the delay was revealed on Sunday, when Mai Ahmad Fatty, one of President Barrow’s advisers, reported that $11.3 million was missing from the Gambian government’s coffers, which were nearly empty.
Yahya Jammeh did not spend his 22 years in power stealing the country’s money and hiding it abroad like any normal dictator. As a full-time megalomaniac, he simply didn’t believe he could ever lose power. But when reality finally came crashing in, he quickly understood that maintaining his lifestyle in exile would require lots of money, so he grabbed whatever was available on his way out.
Good riddance – and not a single life was lost in the whole operation. Gambia has seen the first legal transfer of power since its independence in 1965, and ECOWAS has once again shown that it is the most effective regional security organisation on the planet.
You will never see the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the Arab League intervening militarily to defend democracy. The Organisation of American States doesn’t do military interventions at all, and one doubts that the European Union would actually resort to force to stop a dictator from coming to power in one of its Balkan members.
The African Union does a bit better (e.g. the interventions in Somalia and South Sudan), but its huge membership of 54 countries makes decision-making a lengthy and tortuous process. Whereas ECOWAS’s fifteen countries have repeatedly and successfully intervened to defend or restore democratic governments in its member states, most recently in Côte d’Ivoire (2010), Guinea-Bissau (2012), and Mali (2012).
ECOWAS was founded in 1975, and its members first committed themselves to respect human rights and to promote democratic systems of government in 1991 (when a number of them were actually still dictatorships). But the key year was 1999, when they all signed up to the Protocol relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peace-Keeping, and Security (Protocol-Mechanism).
It could be compared to the UN Security Council in the sense that it has the right to order military interventions in sovereign states to stop wars, but it goes further in two important ways: it can also intervene to thwart unconstitutional attacks on democracy – and there is no veto. Even giant Nigeria, which has half of ECOWAS’s total population, has to accept majority decisions.
Decisions to intervene are taken by a two-thirds majority on the Mediation and Security Council, a nine-member body with a rotating membership. Nigeria obviously has huge influence, which it regularly wields in favour of democracy, but it is sometimes not even sitting on the MSC when it takes its decisions.
The Southern African Development Community and the African Union (with responsibility for the whole continent) have subsequently followed ECOWAS’s lead and adopted similar rules for intervention, but this kind of tough international protection for human rights and democracy is non-existent outside Africa.
You could argue, of course, that it’s Africa that needs it most, and you would be right. But the point is a) that Africa does have it, and b) that several other regions of the world would benefit from similar institutions.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“The likely…out”)

Nigeria: A Plunge Into the Unknown

“I think, once a dictator, always a dictator,” said Sonnie Ekwowusi, a columnist for Nigeria’s This Day newspaper. “Many people are afraid that if (Muhammadu Buhari) wins, they will go to prison.”

Well, Buhari did win the presidential election, and there are many people in Nigeria who really should go to prison, mainly for corruption while in political office. Quite a lot of them worked with or for the outgoing president, Goodluck Jonathan, whose six years in office were marked by corruption that was impressive even by Nigeria’s demanding standards.

The problem is that the last time Muhammadu Buhari was president, in 1984-85, he was a general who seized the office in a military coup and jailed not only the elected president, Shehu Shagari, but some five hundred politicians, officials and businessmen. Many of them undoubtedly deserved it, but legal norms were not observed – and many other people whose only offense was criticising Buhari (like famed musician Fela Kuti) also ended up behind bars.

That President Buhari, now thirty years in the past, was single-minded in his anti-corruption drive, but also somewhat simple-minded. At the petty end of the spectrum, civil servants who short-changed the government by showing up late for work were forced to do frog hops. At the other end, he ordered the abduction of Shehu Shagari’s former adviser, Umaru Dikko, who was found drugged in a shipping crate at London’s Stansted airport.

He was the loosest of loose cannons, and his own military colleagues overthrew him after twenty months of arbitrary mayhem. But once democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, Buhari started running for president as a born-again democrat. Now, on his fourth try, he has won, and by a safe margin: 15 million votes to Jonathan’s 12.5 million.

It’s a typically low Nigerian turnout – around a third of eligible voters – but it is nevertheless a famous victory. It’s the first time in half a century of Nigerian independence that one elected president has handed over power to another after losing an election. Full credit to Goodluck Jonathan for that: unusually for Nigeria, he didn’t dispute the outcome of the election. But there is still a large question mark over his successor.

Partly it is a question of whether the leopard can ever truly change his spots. Buhari claims to have changed a great deal in thirty years, and has apologised for his past behaviour in power, but the doubts inevitably linger. And partly it is a question of whether anybody can rule Nigeria successfully.

The country has three major problems that cannot be solved in the short term. The population, now 182 million, is growing at five million a year, and the birth rate had not dropped at all in the past ten years. Nigeria will overtake the United States in population by 2050, but it will be packing them all those people into an area only slightly larger than Texas.

Secondly, Nigeria is more or less evenly split between Muslims, mostly in the northern half of the country, and Christians in the centre and south, but per capita income in the north is in the north is only half that in the south. The election of Buhari, a Muslim from the north, restores the traditional alternation of Christians and Muslims in the presidency, but that deal is unlikely to last much longer because the northern birth rate is far higher than in the south.

Thirdly, the poverty and over-population of the north has been an excellent incubator for extremism, and an Islamist cult called Boko Haram has now seized control of much of the north-east. At least 13,000 people have been killed in the ongoing violence since 2009, and a million and a half have been displaced. Boko Haram now swears allegiance to the “caliph” of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) in the Middle East, and competes with it in cruelty.

Oh, and the price of oil, the main source of government revenue, is down by half. Muhammadu Buhari may be a reformed character, and he will certainly do much more than Goodluck Jonathan on the anti-corruption front. (He could hardly do less.) But all these other problems will continue to undermine Nigeria’s stability and prosperity even if he manages to eliminate the worst of the corruption.

On the other hand, it could be a lot worse. As Wole Soyinka, the celebrated author who has become Nigeria’s public conscience, told The Guardian on Tuesday, “Unambiguously it is good that the Jonathan government has been removed. It was impossible. Even a plunge into the unknown was preferable to what was going on. We were drowning.”
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 4. (“That president…airport”)

Nigeria: An Election Under Fire

Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, has lived up to his name again. Three minutes after he left an election rally in the northern city of Gombe on Monday, a suicide bomber blew herself up in the nearby parking lot. “The president had just passed the parking lot and we were trailing behind his convoy when the explosion happened,” said a local witness, Mohammed Bolari. But Jonathan’s luck held.

His rival for the presidency in the election on 14 February, former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, also has his share of luck. Last July he barely escaped an assassination attempt in the northern city of Kaduna. As in Jonathan’s case, the attack was almost certainly mounted by Boko Haram, the self-proclaimed affiliate of “Islamic State” that now rules an area about the size of Belgium in north-eastern Nigeria.

“A fast moving vehicle made many attempts to overtake my security car but was blocked by my escort vehicle,” Buhari said after the attack. “We reached the market area of Kawo where he took advantage of our slowing down and attempted to ram my car and instantly detonated the bomb which destroyed all three cars in our convoy.” But he too survived.

Good luck for them, but it’s not so easy to say that it was lucky for Nigeria. Africa’s most populous country by far (180 million people) has a long history of dreadful presidents, but these two both rank quite high in that list.

Buhari has been president before. After a lengthy period of military rule, Nigeria got an elected civilian president in 1979 – who unfortunately proved to be spectacularly corrupt and incompetent. So in 1984 General Buhari seized power and imposed military discipline on the nation. The military then stayed in power for another fifteen years – but Buhari lasted only twenty months.

He jailed hundreds of politicians, officials and businessmen for corruption. Most were probably guilty, but he didn’t bother with proof. As part of his “War on Indiscipline”, he ordered Nigerians to form neat queues at bus stops, and sent whip-wielding soldiers to enforce the order. Civil servants who were late for work were publicly humiliated by being forced to do frog jumps.

So Buhari was overthrown by another general after only twenty months – but as soon as democracy returned in 1999, he began his campaign to return to the presidency. Every four years he runs again, and this time he might even make it. That’s partly because the four main opposition finally united and made him their candidate, but it’s also because Goodluck Jonathan is such a hopeless case.

Jonathan is clearly intelligent – he has a PhD in zoology – but he has a reputation as unimaginative, unambitious man who rose to the presidency almost by accident. He was a humble environmental officer for the Niger Delta Development Commission when the governor of his home state, Bayelsa, chose him as his deputy. Then the governor went to prison for corruption, and Jonathan became governor.

From there he was picked as a safe running mate for President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner who needed a Christian southerner (but not a potential rival) to balance the ticket. Then Yar’Adua died, and Jonathan became president of Nigeria. By accident, so to speak.

That was six years ago, however, and Jonathan ran in his own name in 2011. Now he’s seeking a second term as president, so we can forget the bit about his not being ambitious. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to dismiss the claim that he is inept, inert and unimaginative, and that most of the people around him are corrupt and very greedy.

When 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria last April, it took Jonathan forty days even to mention the incident. Ten thousand Nigerians have been killed by Boko Haram in the past year, but he didn’t even mention the organisation’s name in the speech launching his reelection campaign.

Nigeria’s defence budget is $4 billion, but the soldiers fighting Boko Haram are less well equipped than the rebels, and often lack food, ammunition or even decent uniforms. The north-east’s biggest city, Maiduguri (pop. 2 million) is under attack by Boko Haram and could fall any day.

When the governor of the central bank, Lamido Sanusi, pointed out last year that $20 billion had gone missing from the state oil company in only 18 months, Jonathan responded by dismissing him from his job. He has been a disaster as president – but would an unrepentant ex-dictator like Buhari be any better? Nigeria deserves a better choice, but the system was not designed to produce that.

“The Nigerian system was designed by colonialists to extract as much as possible and transfer it to (an elite group),” said Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, director of the Lagos-based Centre for Public Policy, in an interview with The Observer. “From time that group changes – first it was colonial masters, then the military, then a select group of citizens. So from that point of view, the government is functioning as it should be.”
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. (“A fast…survived”; and “Nigeria’s…day”)