Obasanjo’s Nigeria

The signs never looked very good for President Olusegun Obasanjo. In early May, 42 Nigerian Senators – five more than is necessary – announced that they would be opposing the president’s ill-advised and irresponsible bid to seek a third term by tinkering with the constitution, with sets the term limit at two. Two-thirds of the membership of both Houses of the National Assembly – House of Representatives and the Senate – have to support such a fundamental amendment. Then on 16 May, the voting finally took place, and the Senate – perhaps to the surprise of most Nigerians, and certainly to the consternation of the Presidential camp – overwhelmingly threw out the bill sedulously seeking to prolong Obasanjo’s tenure, signaling an end to the matter. Obasanjo has publicly announced that he will respect the senate vote, but one has to be optimistic to take this assurance at face value. Throughout the process,, Obasanjo encouraged proxies to spearhead the campaign, giving himself away only intermittently; and in Nigeria, few imagine that the wily Obasanjo, who is credited with devising the strategy that won the Biafran War of the late 1960s, will not try again, though the normal legal option seemed foreclosed. It truly is a great moment for Nigerian democracy.

Those opposing Obasanjo’s foolish third term bid still need all the support that can be given by Nigeria’s foreign supporters and partners. Though somewhat less than robust, this support has been forthcoming; both the US and Britain, Obasanjo’s most influential backers, have stated clearly that they are opposed to a third term bid. But as events in Uganda, where President Yoweri Musevi got away with extending his tenure-ship, showed, the West would continue to support any Third World leader who is sufficiently servile or amenable to its agenda. This point is particularly true in oil-rich Nigeria’s case. In Wole Soyinka’s recent memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (Random House, 2006), the Nobel Laureate cites instances where the West has persistently supported suppliant dictators, even helping to rig elections to make sure that a progressive, forward-looking leader does not head the potentially powerful but impoverished African nation. In other words, Nigerians – who have never been lacking in vigour and determination – should continue to stand firmly against this latest (putative) usurper.

The stakes are very high. As both Obasanjo and his supporters are never tired of pointing out, the President has undoubtedly registered remarkable gains. By the time he became President (for a second time) in 1999, Nigeria had fallen to its lowest depth. Under the scrofulous General Sani Abacha, the country had become a pariah and highly criminalized state, with the government openly sanctioning political murders and looting the country’s treasury with almost neurotic energy. Nigeria was utterly dysfunctional, with its main international airport – the Murtala Muhamed Airport in Lagos – a chaotic den of thieves. To say that there was absolutely no state accountability is to imagine that the thuggish Abacha even had a conception of statecraft beyond the raw, unmediated power it conferred on him. It was clear that almost any other regime would be an improvement; Nigeria had hit the bottom.

To be fair, Obasanjo has done more than what was moderately expected by most cynics. He has turned around the economy, and with rising oil prices, Nigeria recently paid off its external debt. Murtala Muhamed is now a functioning, neat airport, and the country can claim to have instituted measures of transparency in its fiscal policies which were undreamt of before. None of this, however, justifies Obasanjo’s claim to a foreign newspaper that a third term would allow him to complete initiatives he started in his previous seven years in office. He told the Washington Post, apropos of anxieties over his plans to extend his tenure, that the “reforms that we are putting in place have to be anchored, anchored in legislation, anchored in institutions.” This self-serving statement assumes, as a matter of course, that only he and no one else is honest and competent enough among Nigeria’s 150 million or so citizens. This posture has rightly been rejected by many of Nigeria’s intelligentsia.

True, the prospect of an Ibrahim Banbagida (a former military dictator) or Abubakar Atitu (the current Vice President) – both of whom have expressed an interest to run for the highest office in the land, and both are well-positioned to present a serious bid – presidency can hardly be reassuring. Banbagida is a notoriously corrupt soldier who democratized theft in the country (it is estimated that he stole well over $4 billion from the state’s coffers); and Atiku has never cut a clean, competent image – his friends include Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the wretched former governor of Bayesha State who, on being put under house arrest in the UK for money laundering, donned a woman’s wig and with a false passport to match escaped to Nigeria, only to be arrested and detained there. There is no reason to suppose, however, that more able and serious leaders, some of them within the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) who are now suppressing their ambitions because Obasanjo seems determined to overstay, will not emerge to lead the country.

All of this is of interest not just to Nigerians but to every other people and country in the region and beyond. Nigeria is West Africa’s most important and strategic country. It is highly influential in Africa. Obasanjo has naturally emerged as one of the respected statesmen in Africa. Any bad example he sets will be emulated by others. But there is a more immediate and unsettling fear. Nigeria is notoriously volatile and violence-prone; within the past ten years or so, more people have died in the country’s communal violence than did in Sierra Leone during its decade of dirty war. Widespread violence is always the natural company of political chicanery and instability, and a violently unstable Nigeria will engulf the whole West Africa in a destructive conflagration, if only through refugee movement alone. This is not being alarmist; already there is a nasty armed rebellion, led by one Jomo Gbomo, in the Niger Delta region of the country. Gbomo’s group has blown up oil pipelines, kidnapped and sometimes murdered oil workers, and has created a level of anarchy in some parts of the region.

Inchoate groups such as his Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) can only be fueled by political confusion at the top of the country’s leadership. Obasanjo should really congratulate himself on what he has done so far and organize an orderly transition against 2007. Only by doing so will his legacy – and Nigeria’s future – be assured.

A version of this article has appeared in Africa Analysis.

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