Need and greed in Nigeria

Published: 01-MAR-03

How should the world judge General Olusegun Obasanjo, the man who is likely to win a second term as Nigeria's president this April? In 1999 Obasanjo enjoyed a sweeping victory in the polls by promising Nigerians "a new dawn".

As he hugged the colourfully draped podium in Abuja to take the oath of office he declared: "I am not a miracle worker...but the results of your sacrifices will be clear and manifest for all to see". Instead, the effect of his governance in the last four years has given birth to more alarm and less hope for Nigerians.

If you take what he says at face value, Obasanjo has no doubt scored some achievements. He has halted but not reversed the rapid decline towards economic obscurity of the military era. On the economic front, he can boast of his telecoms reforms and reduction of fuel shortages. He has, by comparison to the military generals, upheld the rule of law. In the process of consolidating these minor gains he has over-exercised his executive powers.

The clever manipulation of presidential powers has often changed the political wind in his favour, leaving a wake of bitterness among his opponents.

But these achievements pale into insignificance when measured against what he failed to do. Obasanjo has failed to acknowledge his part in making Nigeria a living hell for most ordinary citizens. At least 80 percent of Nigerians now live below the poverty line.

Poverty alleviation programmes have been popular not for the reasons they were designed, but in their ability to move massive amounts of cash from the treasury into the pockets of party supporters. Many of the people who seem to have his ear are discredited politicians and grubby military generals. In times of crisis, Obasanjo has sometimes used vastly disproportion- ate force against the same people he is elected to protect.

Corruption is alive

As for the corruption, Obasanjo has set up machinery to tackle this cankerworm. But it remains a machinery only on paper. Not much has been achieved in practice. The recovery of the billions of dollars looted by the late General Abaeha and his family has been ineffective. Most Nigerians are still at a loss as to the status of the funds so far recovered. Indeed, it is probable that a deeper investigation into Abacha's loot might reveal unsavoury links between the dictator's dealings and other highly placed Nigerians.

Nigeria is still burdened by a military history. Civilian administrations have tended to allow a clique of retired generals and a cluster of greedy businessmen 1o enrich themselves in return for political loyalty. Obasanjo's administration is no different. Another problem has been the slow and ineffective unbundling of state control of the economy. State monopolies still control the electricity and massive chunks of other domestic enterprises.

And yet not everything about Obasanjo is discouraging. President Obasanjo's desire to make Nigeria strong again could in fact bring change if he surrounds himself with more honest advisers.

During the ongoing election campaign, Obasanjo has been studiously vague about policy. As a result he has done very little to prepare the public for a harsher climate in the short term.

Urgently, Mr Obasanjo

If and when he is declared winner of the elections, Obasanjo will be wise to make a quick start on reform. The relatively high oil prices since 1999 and during the current Iraqi crisis have been a windfall for Nigeria. These have not been properly utilised to fix or replace decaying infrastructure. As oil minister and chief revenue officer, Obasanjo must change this situation.

Although democracy has its weaknesses, it is the least bad political system in vogue today. Obasanjo must create and support institutions that will move Nigeria in the direction of full democracy. Ballot boxes on display every fourth year are not in themselves sufficient evidence of democracy. Free speech, free press, an independent judiciary and freedom from disabling hunger are part of the package.

An increasing tendency is for developing countries to undertake 'cosmetic democracy'. Cosmetic democracy is an electoral deception designed to gain favour with foreign investors and to boost public sector support from the World Bank. Obasanjo plays this card quite well. He is the great democrat when involved in foreign affairs endeavours such as West African peacekeeping, Zimbabwe's crisis and other international matters. The script changes and things become less defined when he is handling crisis and policy at home.

Change comes slowly in Nigeria, the country with Africa's largest population and economic potential. Obasanjo, (hopefully with a less corrupt team) must work relentlessly to hasten the pace of positive development in the country.

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