Nigeria nightmare?

Africa | Intimidation, corruption, and religious divisions challenge hopes for peaceful change

Issue: "Don't fence me out," April 21, 2007

Lagos, Nigeria's old capital and an important port city, is bustling, crowded, and messy. Running water and electricity supplies are erratic, and many rely on their own generators. Traffic clogs streets. Such problems have plagued residents for years, and as the country's April 21 presidential election approached, Nigerians wondered why so little has improved decades after independence.

If Nigeria is able to move smoothly from one elected civilian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, to another, it will be a first-time achievement for the West African giant. But that is a stray hope in a nation inured to military rule by palace coup.

With 130 million people, Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation and one of the continent's most powerful. The country derives 90 percent of its export earnings from coveted oil drilled in the south's Niger River Delta, where local militants vie to control the wealth. Nigeria is the United States' fifth-largest oil supplier.

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Election preparations are off to a rocky start. Last year Obasanjo tried to alter Nigeria's constitution to run for a third term; he failed. Since he is a professed Christian from southern Nigeria, the tacit understanding among the military and political elites is that a Muslim northerner should follow him. Fractures are visible between the Muslim north and Christian south and several ethnic groups, and the candidates in both local and national elections are known to employ violent militias to intimidate voters.

Obasanjo's anointed successor is Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, a state governor and younger brother of a trusted deputy during his stint of military rule in the 1970s. Yar'Adua is little-known and sickly: He needed an emergency evacuation to Germany last month, reportedly for lingering kidney problems.

Obasanjo's influence over the supposedly independent electoral commission has led to the disqualification of his vice president turned bitter rival, Atiku Abubaker, on corruption charges. The other opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, is another former military ruler trying to make a comeback. In all, says American University economics professor George Ayittey, "They're just recycling past failed leaders."

Massive political corruption also weakens Nigeria. Westerners glimpse it through email scams, but Ayittey says Nigeria's leaders have stolen a staggering $412 billion from their people over four decades. That figure, he says, is six times the amount of Marshall Plan aid sent to Germany after World War II. A financial crimes commission set up by Obasanjo has serious corruption cases against 31 of Nigeria's 36 governors. Bayelsa State's former governor, for example, was arrested in London for money laundering but escaped to Nigeria, dressed as a woman, and then was recaptured.

Violence has also spiked in the Niger Delta, where oil drilling has polluted lands and water, and residents demand a greater share of the industry's revenues. The problem now is that some are kidnapping foreign oil workers for ransom, rattling investors and disrupting supplies.

Meanwhile, some Muslims in Nigeria's 12 northern, Shariah-ruled states are mistreating Christians. Compass News during the past month reported that a Muslim mob beat and clubbed to death a Christian schoolteacher in Gombe State, then burned her corpse. Her crime, according to one student: touching-and so desecrating-a Quran. Two days later in the same town, Muslims burned down an evangelical church. Nigeria's constitution does not allow imposition of Shariah law, Ayittey notes, but when Obasanjo ran for president a second time, rather than ceding to a Muslim, some Muslim-majority states decided to disregard the law.

Nigeria's long-time tumors of corruption and religious violence will take honest leadership to cure, but the first problem is simply getting past the election. Some poll violence on April 21 is almost guaranteed, given the bumpy preparations, but the election success will also hinge on whether Nigerians hear about rigging and other irregularities.

"The Nigerian people have to feel [the elections] were free and fair," Ayittey says. "If that perception does not hold, a lot of things could happen, and some of it will not be pleasant."


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