20 February 2023
By Gwynne Dyer
There is something wrong with Nigeria. It is Africa’s most populous country, with a fifth of the continent’s entire population (200 million). It is a major oil producer, pumping 1.5 million barrels a day. But its GDP per capita is slightly less now than it was in 1980, and only 60% of its school-age children are actually in school.
South Africa, the next-biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, has seen its GDP per capita double since the end of apartheid in 1994, even despite the wave of corruption that swept the country under President Jacob Zuma and his cronies after 2009. And though South Africa’s schools are just as bad as Nigeria’s, almost all its children are at least in school.
If there is one thing that Nigeria has a surfeit of, it is poor leaders. The military regimes that ran the country almost all the time from independence in 1960 until the end of the 20th century were mostly corrupt and incompetent, and the elected civilian presidents of the past two decades have carried on that tradition.
No wonder so few people bother to vote – around one-third of eligible voters in the last national election in 2019 – but this weekend’s presidential election could be different. Ten million new voters have registered since last time, and that may shift the average age of the electorate down far enough to produce a different outcome.
The usual process is that most voters choose between the two long-established parties that informally represent the interests of the major ethnic and linguistic groups. The names of the parties change over time, and they don’t normally have strong, coherent policy platforms. Vague promises suffice, because it’s really more about identity.
A case in point is Bola Ahmed Tinubu, twice governor of Lagos state and known as the ‘godfather’ of Nigerian politics. He claims to be responsible for outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari’s election victories in 2015 and 2019. His slogan, “emi lo kan” (‘It’s my turn” in Yoruba), could well define the entire existing political system.
It’s a system in which corruption is normal and accepted. The origins of Tinubu’s great wealth are disputed, but US Dept. of Justice documents allege that he was laundering money through Nigerian bank accounts for the heroin trade in the late 1980s. (He reached a compromise settlement with the Nigerian authorities and forfeited $460,000.)
The other ‘traditional’ presidential candidate is Atiku Abubakar, a 76-year-old man with four wives and 28 children. He too is rich, of course, and nobody much minds where his money came from either. But it seems to have arrived when he was vice-president, some twenty years ago.
In 2006 Abubakar was investigated for diverting $125 million worth of public funds towards his business interests while he was vice-president. A 2010 US Senate report also accused him of transferring $40 million of “suspect funds” to the US, using his American wife’s bank account. But such petty details don’t hamper senior Nigerian politicians for long.
Unfortunately for Abubakar, a Muslim from the north, the unwritten rule in Nigerian politics is that southern Christians and northern Muslims take turns in the presidency. Since the outgoing president is also a northern Muslim, he is fighting custom and tradition – which may open the path for a man who doesn’t have much use for either.
The dark-horse candidate is Peter Obi. He’s not exactly young (61) and he’s not really new to politics either (he has changed party four times since 2002), but he is the fresh young contender in this election. A wealthy businessman, he is nevertheless the insurgent leader of the youth revolution.
The small Labour Party has become a major player because Obi took it over. As a devout Catholic from the southeast, he automatically gets the votes of the Igbos (Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic group), and those of many other Christians as well. With the Muslim vote split between Tinubu and Abubakar, he could just pull it off.
Whether Obi could then use the presidency to jolt Nigeria out of its long rut – whether he really even wants to do that – remains to be seen. But his social media campaign is transforming Nigerian politics, and it would certainly help to have a functional Nigeria.
Nigeria matters. It will overtake the United States to become the world’s third-biggest country about 2050, when each country has about 375 million people. By the end of the century, if current predictions hold, it will be catching up on China. (Nigeria 546 million, China 771 million.)
By then, on its current course, Nigeria will be a famine-stricken basket-case of a country – or, with wise leadership and decent government, Africa’s greatest power and a major player in all the world’s major decisions.
Not that Obi can necessarily make that happen, but somebody certainly needs to.
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Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.