Obasanjo's legacy

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?
April 28, 2007

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 in the non-oil sector). There is, according to the International Monetary Fund, a chance of achieving an "Asian miracle" growth rate of 10 per cent within five years, so long as there is no severe disruption to oil production in the Niger delta.

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Yar'Adua steps forward to address the crowd in the manner of the university lecturer that he once was (in chemistry). "By 2020 I want to see Nigeria as the world's 20th industrialised state. With the foundations we have dug over the last eight years, there's no reason we can't do it," he says.

Yar'Adua is 56, governor of the northern state Katsina, and despite recent health scares (he was flown to hospital in Germany in early March) insists that he is well enough to stand on 21st April. He won Obasanjo's attention and respect because he is one of the few governors relatively untarnished by corruption. Unlike Obasanjo, who likes to dress up in sweeping robes, Yar'Adua wears a simple blue smock and sandals. He lacks the charisma and worldliness of his mentor, but he is thoughtful and straightforward in what he says. "All religions are corrupted," he tells me later in his modest hotel room during a long, relaxed interview, "but all religions are about love, kindness, justice and tolerance. These virtues are difficult for government to put into practice. And this is what I have tried to do in my state."

When Obasanjo became president in 1999, many of the state governors in Nigeria's Muslim north tried to embarrass him by imposing Sharia law. Yar'Adua resisted this, at least in its strictest form, and is known as a conciliator. When I ask him how he plans to deal with the violence in the oil-producing Niger delta—one of the country's running sores—he replies, "By patient negotiation," adding, with a laugh, "You know, Obasanjo, with his military manner, is not very good at patience."

Yar'Adua and his People's Democratic party are up against at least one formidable opponent—despite the advantage they have in funds, patronage and party membership. This is Muhammed Buhari, military dictator from 1983 to 1985, who in the last two elections has tried, with some success, to prove he has reformed and is now a democrat. The other is Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who in 2006 broke with Obasanjo and formed his own party, the Action Congress. In September 2006, however, Atiku was indicted by Nigeria's economic and financial crimes commission for corruption. Having defeated in court the government's claim that since he switched parties he should not continue as vice president, he is currently fighting to be included as a candidate in the election, which can only happen if the increasingly independent courts disallow the indictment.

Nuhu Ribadu, the lawyer who leads the financial crimes commission, told me he now believes he is within reach of decapitating the hydra that has so corrupted Nigeria. The implication is that Abubakar is a central figure in the mafia's grip on the country. Critics, though, say the anti-corruption drive has been aimed almost exclusively at Obasanjo's enemies, leaving corrupt figures close to the retiring president untouched.

The last two presidential elections—that saw Obasanjo elected and then returned to office—were surrounded by accusations of fraud and malpractice. So a lot hangs on this election. If all goes well—if it is reasonably free and the result accepted without widespread violence—Nigeria could be launched as one of the 21st-century's rising democratic powers.

But the popular mood in Africa's most populous nation is sour. Obasanjo tried and failed to change the constitution to allow himself to run a third time, but if he had succeeded he would have lost—as his northern protégé may still do, despite being frontrunner. If you are poor in Nigeria, it is hard to appreciate the progress that impresses the businessmen and the IMF. The man or woman in the street sees the unemployment (officially 6 per cent, but almost certainly higher), rising fuel prices and crime, erratic electricity supplies, deteriorating roads and schools and declining facilities in village healthcare clinics. The government recently decided to increase fuel prices yet again in an attempt to further reduce the budget deficit, alienating the great mass of car, bus and motorbike drivers who clog every street in every town. Military misrule between 1984 and 1999 left a degradation of economic and political life that has been hard to turn around in Obasanjo's eight years of power. Certainly both Buhari and Abubakar have plenty of support, and would have been even more formidable opponents if they didn't distrust each other so much. Both are from the north, which since colonial times has been the centre of political power, while in the south the Yoruba dominate Nigerian business and the Igbo the oil. Obasanjo is a southern Christian Yoruba, so has always needed a northerner to balance his ticket. In 2003, this was Abubakar.

It is on the macro level that Obasanjo has scored highest, especially in his second term, when he has been able to bring in more of his own people—such as the two women finance ministers, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Nenadi Usman. The IMF's latest report says: "GDP growth and increases in per capita income have doubled in the last five years compared with the previous two decades." Inflation is down to single digits. Reserves have risen to $41bn. The country's credit rating is good enough to issue bonds on the global market. Companies such as Mittal are beginning to invest, not just in steel but in energy too. The Chinese are planning to resuscitate one decaying railway line and the South Koreans another. Five years ago, 41 per cent of Nigeria's drugs were fake; now it is 17 per cent, according to the World Health Organisation.

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Some of this improvement is the result of the high oil price, and the cancellation of some debt has helped—but there have also been significant institutional reforms. Nigeria is now far safer for investors, the docks and airports are unrecognisable from eight years ago, the spread of mobile phones is one of the world's fastest, and money can be moved easily by Nigeria's e-commerce system. It could only be a matter of time before Lagos becomes another Calcutta, or even an African Shanghai. After a few days spent in the chaos of Lagos, a city sprawl of 20m, one senses a desperate urge for success.

Obasanjo's domestic support may have been ebbing, but he is toasted abroad. And not only by the money men; diplomats in Nigeria need little prompting to underline the contribution Obasanjo has made to solving Africa's myriad political problems. In Liberia he was responsible for negotiating the exit of Africa's most vicious warlord, Charles Taylor, and persuading George W Bush to send in the marines to back up a peacemaking force first manned by disciplined Nigerian and Ghanaian contingents. This not only ended the terror of the "blood diamond" war in Taylor's fiefdom of Sierra Leone and Liberia—it also brought elections. I will never forget Obasanjo telling the assembled high and mighty of Monrovia (including many ex-warlords) in September 2003 that "you need to forgive one another—the only thing that can bring peace is love." Things almost went badly wrong last year when Taylor escaped from the house Obasanjo had given him in Nigeria (the quid pro quo for Taylor leaving Liberia), but then, after some prevarication, he had Taylor arrested and sent to the Hague for trial before the UN's war crimes court for Sierra Leone. Obasanjo has worked to bring peace to Sudan, and backed the UN's efforts in the Congo. Nigerian troops have been deployed all over the place as peacekeepers.

Obasanjo has also responded to the urgings of the international community by creating one of Africa's most successful campaigns against HIV/Aids. And he had himself publicly tested.

Obasanjo is a man of the world; Yar'Adua is not. He tells me that he has only been abroad twice: both times to make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. How can he hope to keep Nigeria on the map, contribute to crucial decisions on Somalia and Sudan and make sure that America, worried that soon 25 per cent of its oil imports will come from west Africa, doesn't exert too much pressure? (The US is building military bases in Gabon and Senegal.) Obasanjo's answer to this is that, "I will be available to him 24 hours a day." After the election, the ex-president plans to spend two days a week in Abuja (and the rest of the time in his home in Abeokuta and his nearby farm in Ota). Some of Obasanjo's critics do not like the sound of this. And it is true that the temptation to try to steer decisions, especially on foreign policy, will be great. Moreover, Obasanjo has changed the People's Democratic party constitution to fix his election as chairman. This will not only give him a budget and a plane, but will allow him to exert huge political influence over Yar'Adua.

In mid-1999, only three weeks into his first term of office, Obasanjo had to send the army into Warri, a big oil town in the Niger delta, to deal with inter-tribal feuding. In those days the army shot first and asked questions later: around 200 people were killed. Obasanjo flew into Warri and started negotiations between the fighting groups. Eight years later, there is peace of a kind between the three tribes who fought each other the most: the Ijaws, the Urhobo and the Itsekiri. And the Ogoni people of the delta, incensed by General Abacha's execution of their leader, the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, in 1995, are negotiating with the government and Shell over distribution of oil revenues.

But sporadic violence has continued through the Obasanjo era. Periodically, articles appear in both the local and international press quoting the oil companies—Shell, Chevron, Agip, Total—as fearing for the lives of their employees and threatening to shut down their land-based oil wells. (Their new, highly productive offshore wells are far away from human habitation.) And in recent months, the freelance militias have increased their kidnappings and ransoms and, with the profits made from stealing oil, have bought themselves sophisticated arms and speedboats.

When I ask Obasanjo if there has been a shift in perspective, he replies, "My government has increased the amount going to the oil-producing states fourfold. But it's true that the degree of corruption makes it more difficult than it should be to get it down to the people. As for the oil companies, they are trying harder to help the local people, but they started too late. They want to get away with as little as possible."

Down in the delta, I found contradictions wherever I turned. Most political and human rights activists here pursue their causes non-violently. But the militias are still strong. One of the problems is that over the years, the oil companies have attempted to buy off the most ferocious militants, who simply pocket what is offered and demand more.

In the mangrove swamps, you can see rich oil wells beside fishermen's villages made of reeds and grass, so frail they look as if the next big wind will blow them down. Yet in Port Harcourt, the oil capital and one of the most miserable towns in Nigeria, building work is booming, primary and secondary school enrolment is increasing and drinking water supplies are spreading. The governor of Rivers state, Peter Odili, boasts about new roads and new small businesses, even as he proudly shows me round the Saddam Hussein-type palace that he has built for himself, and brushes aside the evidence that he and his cronies have lined their pockets with millions.

Back in the capital Abuja, I ask Obasanjo if it was God or the devil who gave Nigeria oil. "God," he replies, "But the devil is manipulating it!" He goes on to explain that although he feels that nowadays the oil money is being used more productively, Nigeria would have developed more harmoniously without it. "Our non-oil sector, our agriculture in particular, is growing at 8 per cent a year. If we'd had no oil we'd be going just as fast, without all the trouble oil brings." One astonishing example of this diversity is the fact that "Nollywood," the country's burgeoning film industry, has now overtaken both Hollywood and Bollywood in the number of films produced each year, and employs 1m people, making it the country's second largest source of jobs after agriculture.

The World Values Survey has found that Nigerians are the happiest people in the world. Why Nigeria? I visited an up-country village, near the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers, to seek an answer. Everyone I passed in this village of 5,000 people said hello to me, often with a smile, and yet I knew many of them had barely enough to eat. I was given lunch by the headmaster of the local technical school, Peter Ikani, cooked by his 28-year-old daughter, Eli. It was a simple but delicious spicy goat stew served with yams. Peter apologised for receiving me in his "hovel" (which it was) and explained that teachers are badly paid and often paid late. Peter reads books, and is thoughtful and religious. Eli is able and articulate but, unable to afford university, has a low-level job in Abuja, a five-hour bus journey away. Yes, they both say earnestly, Nigerians are happy people. It is nothing to do with the politicians, good or bad. Peter puts it down to God and music: "We have great religious faith. Whether Christians like us or Muslims in the north, we all believe ardently that God is looking after us." Eli adds, perhaps with greater realism: "I can take you to people in the village who are hungry, who are not happy, and God is just in their lives as solace. One reason why many of us are happy is that we don't ask too much."

A few days earlier I had dined in Abuja with Princess Gloria, the daughter of an Igbo king and appointments secretary to the president. She explained it this way: "We feel full of music and love of God. And it's the amount of love we get when we are children. We are smothered in love from parents, aunts, cousins and grandparents." An engineer who was dining with us said: "It was in our old tribal traditions, and religion built on it. Have you ever seen such a religious people? Look at all the new mosques and churches. Of course, it can go too far and we become too fatalistic."

At a newspaper editors' forum where I had been invited to speak, the previous speaker, a freedom of information advocate, said, "I read about the survey. I was surprised and not surprised. If you look at our problems, it is unimaginable to say we are happy. But then Nigerians appear to have very thick skins. Fela Kuti, the legendary singer of the 1970s, had a song, 'Shuffering and shmiling.'"

On my last Sunday, I attended church with Obasanjo. He has a chapel in the presidential grounds and loves to lead the singing and give one of the sermons. Behind his gruff exterior and his sharp temper is a man of great personal compassion. In his three years behind bars, he became an unofficial chaplain to the tortured and condemned. "I'm happy," he told the congregation, "but the only time I had real joy in my life [this is a man who has had nine wives and 20 children] was when I was in prison. Then there was just God and me and my fellow prisoners, whom I had to help."

I have known Obasanjo for 27 years and call him a friend. So I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and see the last eight years as at least laying the foundations for a big advance. And Nigeria matters. If it works, all of Africa will be lifted many notches higher. If it fails, the entire continent will feel the effects.