Another sombre anniversary
BY Rose Umoren
Published: 01-OCT-03

Few countries represent lost opportunities better than Nigeria which marks its independence from Britain on 1 October, prompting many to perennially wonder if it was ever destined to hold together.

But it has, over the past 89 years, 43 as an independent nation. It has survived a messy civil war which claimed some two million, a succession of military rules which in the 1990s rendered it an international pariah and persistent economic difficulties which often appear debilitating.

Nigeria can also boast an enduring foreign policy, which has over the years seen it participating in various global bodies - from the United Nations through the Commonwealth to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

It can also reasonably claim peaceful coexistence with its neighbours despite its dominance in economy and population; allowing for a few testy moments with Cameroun over Bakassi before the World Court last year ruled in Cameroun's favour, and occasional irritation with Benin such as last August when it temporarily shut the border.

It has similarly managed good relations with East and West, including astutely navigating the Cold War as neutral. Even within the triumphant West, it has related well with all countries as reflected especially in external trade which has the hotly competing United States, Britain, France, Germany fairly represented.

These glories, however, derive largely from the past. Internal tensions, increasingly reminiscent of the 1967-70 civil war eve, have engendered an external weakness sometimes bordering on impotence even in West Africa, its primary zone of influence. Driving the tensions are 22 years of economic malaise bolstered by political

Internal tensions have engendered an external weakness

exclusions. Income per capita has slumped to the 1960s level of about US$245 while wealth has become more concentrated with the top 2 percent (2.4 million) now owning 55 percent, up from 17 percent, according to a recent IMF paper.

This has left some 84 million living in penury and generated bitter claims of marginalisation and economic injustice, as the wealth concentration has tallied with access to power, controlled by, until recently the Fulani of the north and since 1999, the Yoruba of the southwest. The one source of wealth is oil, controlled exclusively by the federal government.

With the entrenched refusing a negotiation of the federation, the situation is radicalising the disadvantaged. Among the eastern majority Igbo who spearheaded the civil war, support is increasing for resurrecting their stillborn Biafra Republic. Their neighbours, the 40 Niger Delta minority tribes which backed the federal republic in the war, providing invaluable access to the Atlantic and other waterways, are alleging betrayal.

Sidelined politically, the region's some 20 million people constitute Nigeria's poorest with under US$120 per capita income. Yet, the Niger Delta is where oil has been drilled since 1956 with revenues of some US$300 billion since the 1970s, amidst tear-jerking environmental devastation. Parts of the area traditionally famed for its serenity have become theatres of war.

Incohesive within, Nigeria has retreated from its once vibrant foreign policy. Many believe the eruption in Cote d'lvoire caught it wringing its hands, as did that in Liberia until the US, under pressure to intervene, asked Nigeria to.

With its traditional leader's weakness, the sub-region's integration programmes have also suffered, leaving West Africa arguably the least economically integrated in a world increasingly trading as blocs.

Remarkably, when in Cancun, Mexico last month, the US and European Union's massive subsidies to their rich cotton farmers broke up world trade negotiations, thanks to a record purposeful campaign by cotton growing West African countries, Nigeria, a founding WTO member, was barely heard.

Smaller Mali, Benin, Chad and Burkina Faso wore the mantle. Yet, though noted in recent years for oil, Nigeria has millions of farmers eking out a living from cotton in competition with US and EU farmers respectively subsidised with US$3 billion and US$1 billion in 2002.

As it marks yet another sombre independence anniversary, the one thing Nigeria needs is a purposeful leadership,

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