Nigeria: Not the Indispensable Man

6 June 2006

Nigeria: Not the Indispensable Man

By Gwynne Dyer

What kind of country would hold a census in which the enumerator recorded your sex but not your religion, your age but not your ethnicity? Those were the rules for the Nigerian census whose results are due out this week — and they were necessary because data about the relative size of different ethnic groups and the national balance between the numbers of Muslims and Christians are potentially the raw material for a civil war. So don’t ask.

There are around 130-150 million Nigerians (we’ll know in a few days), which makes it twice as big as any other country in Africa. That is precisely why the census was so coy about the details of religion and ethnicity: a quarter of the continent’s ethnic groups, almost evenly divided between the continent’s two dominant religions, live cheek by jowl in a single crowded country.

Nigerians live perpetually perched on the brink of ethnic and religious confrontation with the single exception of the Biafran war a generation ago, they have never fallen in, but they may have come quite close recently. Many people feared that President Olusegun Obasanjo’s attempt to change the constitution so that he could run for a third four-year term would launch the country into a new round of ethnic and religious violence ending in the break-up of Nigeria.

Obasanjo wanted to hang on to the presidency for another four years because the reforms he has set in motion have only begun to bite. His first term was largely wasted because of the deals he had to make with various special interests to get elected at all, but he alway did mean well.

Originally put in power by the army in 1976 as an interim military ruler after the incumbent dictator, General Murtala Mohammed, was killed in a failed coup attempt, Obasanjo voluntarily returned the country to civilian rule in 1979. Twenty years later, after the sudden death of yet another military dictator, General Sani Abacha, Obasanjo emerged from retirement to run for the presidency and win. And he really did want to change the way Nigeria is run.

No country needs it more. Year after year, Nigeria came in dead last in Transparency International’s listing of the world’s most corrupt countries, and despite its oil wealth the vast majority of its citizens remained poor. Anti-corruption officials estimate that $400 billion has been stolen from the Nigerian state since independence in 1960, an amount equal to all the foreign aid received by every African country in the same period. So in his second term, Obasanjo set out to curb the corruption that has made Nigeria poor.

He and his finance minister, Ngozi Okojo-Iweala, have made an impressive start. They took advantage of the recent high oil prices to pay off some of Nigeria’s large foreign debt, and cut a deal with the Paris Club of rich-country creditors to cancel most of the rest. Auditors went where they had never been allowed before, and senior politicians and civil servants who thought they were untouchable found themselves facing corruption changes.

Another five years of that, and the whole tenor of government and politics in Nigeria would be different. Unfortunately, the job is not even a quarter done: Nigeria currently ranks eighth from the bottom on Transparency International’s list (though it did get one of the prizes for “most improved”). The public has not yet begun to sense any real improvement in their daily lives, for these things take time to feed through — and Obasanjo’s second and last term ends in May 2007. So he began encouraging his friends and allies to seek a constitutional amendment that would let him run for a third term.

In his two separate times in office, Olusegun Obasanjo has done Nigeria great services, but he came to think of himself as the indispensable man. Changing the constitution for one individual would discredit the rule of law just when it was beginning to regain some credibility, and prolonging the rule of a Christian southerner like Obasanjo when Muslim northerners think it is their turn at the presidency again would create a profound rift along the country’s most unstable fracture line.

As US national intelligence director John Negroponte said in February, Obasanjo’s bid for a third term could unleash “major turmoil and conflict,” leading to “disruption of oil supply, secessionist moves by regional governments, major refugee flows, and instability elsewhere in Africa.” Fortunately, it has failed.

Three weeks ago, on 17 May, the Nigerian Senate defeated the constitutional amendment that would have let Obasanjo seek a third term by a crushing majority in a voice vote. “Today Nigerians have spoken and they have defeated resoundingly this monster called third term,” said opposition legislator Sule Yari-Gandi — and Obasanjo seems to have accepted his defeat.

It means that the winner of next year’s presidential election may be some tool of the vested interests, and that all the progress made in Nigeria in the last few years may be lost again. But it doesn’t mean that WILL happen — and you cannot establish the rule of the law if you change the rules whenever they do not serve your short-term purposes. It is also possible that Nigerians will elect somebody else next year who will continue Obasanjo’s reforms — perhaps even Okonjo-Iweala herself — and even if they don’t, Obasanjo was still wrong. As Charles de Gaulle said : “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“No county…poor”; and “In his…line”)