Is Nigeria a beacon of hope, or still mired in corruption and violence? As Africa's most populous country votes for a new president in April, what is the verdict on the two terms of my friend Olusegun Obasanjo?by Jonathan Power / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
The air is hot here in the busy market town of Awka in the far backyard of Nigeria. So is the talk, as happens at election time. Olusegun Obasanjo, the retiring president, and his chosen, would-be successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, are on a podium, surrounded by banner-waving enthusiasts. The crowd has been bussed in by the local churches, even though Yar’Adua is a devout Muslim from one of the ruling families of the north. Indeed, he is younger brother of the late Shehu Yar’Adua, a northern power-broker and deputy to Obasanjo when the latter was briefly military ruler in the late 1970s.
We are in the heartland of old Biafra, the province of the mainly Christian Igbo people, who in the 1960s tried to break away. The Nigerian general who secured the Biafran capitulation after a bloody defeat was Obasanjo. That was before his days as an earnest Christian, which began in 1995 when the military dictator, Sani Abacha, imprisoned him. (In 1998, Abacha died of a heart attack while in bed with three prostitutes, thus giving Obasanjo his liberty and the country the chance to return to democracy.) Now, given what he has learned about life—and after two four-year terms as elected president from 1999-2007—Obasanjo says that he would have tried to end the Biafra secession without violence, just as last year he accepted a ruling of the International Court of Justice on the disputed oil-rich peninsula of Bakassi, giving it to Cameroon rather than fighting for it, as popular opinion and his defence minister wanted him to.
Biafra today seems quite prosperous, although Awka is richer and less violent than other cities in the region, like Onitsha or Enugu, and the southeast still has the reputation for being the roughest and most corrupt corner of the country. Driving into Awka, we pass the rather grand Deeper Life Bible Church, the German language centre, dozens of cybercafés and the local synagogue—testament to the open nature of Nigeria’s current development. We also pass row upon row of well-built two-storey houses. Electric pylons dot the landscape and petrol stations without queues are on every corner. Nigeria seems to have shaken off the economic malaise of the 1980s and 1990s—a time of recession, declining incomes and rapid inflation—as well as at least some of its maladministration and corruption, and is moving forward with growth of 7 per cent a year (8 per cent…