Thursday, April 13, 2006

Third term for Obasanjo: recipe for a failed state?

Nigeria has been controversially described by some as the world's largest failed state. While it hasn't descended into total anarchy yet, if Nigeria were to collapse completely, it would be far worse than Somalia. And, it has been argued, worse than Iraq.

While the country's artificial construct, arbitrarily pieced together by British colonialists, hasn't helped, Nigeria's downfall since independence has varied from the merely inept and corrupt to the brutal and hugely corrupt.

This article in The Atlantic described the myriad of woes facing one of Africa's most economically and politically important countries.

Chief among the country's current woes is corruption. During the last twenty-five years, Nigeria earned more than $300 billion in oil revenues—but annual per capita income plummeted from $1,000 to $390. More than two-thirds of the population lives beneath the poverty line, subsisting on less than a dollar a day. The country's elites bear most of the blame. Since Nigeria gained independence, in 1960, its rulers—military and civilian alike—have systematically squandered or stolen some $400 billion in government money. According to a 2004 World Bank report, 80 percent of the country's oil wealth accrues to 1 percent of the population. As the journalist Karl Maier, whose This House Has Fallen stands as the authoritative work on modern Nigeria, has put it, Nigeria is a "criminally mismanaged corporation where the bosses are armed and have barricaded themselves inside the company safe." Nigeria's similarities to Saudi Arabia are manifold: corruption, oil wealth, a burgeoning Muslim population, and value to the United States as an energy supplier. Osama bin Laden has called Nigeria "ripe for liberation."

In 1999, Olesegun Obasanjo was elected president of the federal republic. Though he was a former military ruler from the late 1970s (when he handed off to a democratically-elected civilian regime), he was viewed as a great democrat. He had been imprisoned for criticizing the nightmarish tyranny of Gen. Sani Abacha. He had even been a serious candidate to be the UN's secretary-general. As someone with democratic credentials AND ties to the military, he was seen as the ideal candidate to occupy the poisoned chalice that is the Nigerian presidency (he is already the country's longest serving democratically-elected leader).

Hoping to move on from the singular horror that was Abacha's rule, Obasanjo's inauguration was greeted by widespread national and international acclaim. He was re-elected in 2003.

Next month, Obasanjo will begin the final year of what should have been his final term in office. The constitution limits the president to two mandates.

However, there has been a fairly transparent campaign by Obasanjo's sycophants to remove this two-term limit and make him president-for-life.

(It's worth noting that the proposed constitutional change would also scrap the two-term limit for state governors)

Pres. Obasanjo has categorically refused to say he won't under any circumstances run for a third term. He's maintained the charade of saying he'll do whatever 'the people' (ie: his sycophants) want but no one believes this. He could easily have extinguished this dangerous course by saying he will retire in 2007 no matter what. But he didn't.

Olesegun Obasanjo will have served eight years as president of Nigeria. If he has done such a great job, he doesn't need four more years. If he has done a poor job, then he doesn't deserve four more years.

And frankly, his first two terms have been underwhelming. As the Atlantic article pointed out:

Nigeria appears to be de-developing, its hastily erected facade of modernity disintegrating and leaving city dwellers in particular struggling to survive in near-apocalyptic desolation. A drive across Lagos—the country's commercial capital and, with 13 million people, Africa's largest metropolis—reveals unmitigated chaos. The government has left roads to decay indefinitely. Thugs clear away the broken asphalt and then extract payments from drivers, using chunks of rubble to enforce their demands. Residents dig up the pavement to lay cables that tap illegally into state power lines. Armed robbers emerge from the slums to pillage cars stuck in gridlocks (aptly named "hold-ups" in regional slang) so impenetrable that the fourteen-mile trip from the airport to the city center can take four hours. Electricity blackouts of six to twelve hours a day are common. "Area boys" in loosely affiliated gangs dominate most of the city, extorting money from drivers and shop owners. Those who fail to pay up may be beaten or given a knife jab in the shoulder.

And while the hell that is Lagos is hardly representative of the country as a whole, urban jungles usually aren't, its dysfunction is very symbolic. As I learned when I lived in West Africa myself, infrastructure that's un- or under-maintained is far, far worse than no infrastructure at all. (This is why people in the countryside are generally much more self-sufficient than those in the cities)

And essentially, this is the worst thing about the third-term nonsense. Nigeria has many serious problems. Every minute wasted on arguing whether Obansajo should be crowned an emperor is a minute not spent on figuring out how to combat corruption, fight crime or pacify the folks in the Niger Delta. It's a huge distraction which isn't merely benign, but potentially ruinous.

The worst despotisms arise not from more mild dictatorships but from failed democratic experiments. Hitler's Third Reich did not arise immediately from the ashes of the Kaiser but from the weak Weimar experiment; Franco's from the undermined Spanish Republic. Côte d'Ivoire is a ways down that same path.

Authoritarian regimes, for their many faults, are often able to keep a lid on ethnic, nationalist and/or religious tension by sheer brutality. Democracies are generally less reliant on force. So if the political system is weak and politicians venal, democracies can exacerbate divisions rather than unite a country. Yugoslavs found that out in the early 90s; Iraqis are finding that out today.

Nigeria is a very fragile democracy and, critically, has weak institutions. At least civilian ones. The worst thing for developing strong institutions is to build a cult of personality around the singular Leader. If Obasanjo is allowed to become president-for-life, this is exactly what will happen. I've always said that the best thing Nelson Mandela did for South African democracy was to NOT allow himself to become president-for-life, to eschew the cult of personality trap that is building up around Obasanjo.

The situation in neighboring Republic of Benin is much different. That country's leader, Gen. Mathieu Kérékou, had ruled the country for 30 of the last 34 years. He was barred by the constitution to run in this year's election both because of term limits and because of an age limit. Yet rather than manipulating the constitution to ensure him staying in power until death, he did a funny thing: he announced his retirement. He could've forced through constitutional changes (or told or allowed his sycophants to do the same). But he didn't.

Instead, the well-qualified Dr. Yayi Boni was decisively elected as the new president of Benin and was sworn in last week to succeed Kérékou.

It wasn't the first time Kérékou had decided to put the best interests of the nation first. In the late 80s, after having been military ruler for a decade and a half, he appointed a national conference, made it sovereign and saw it strip him of many of his powers. When the ensuing presidential elections were held in 1991, he could've rigged them to ensure victory, but he lost and peacefully handed over to his bitter rival. (In 1996, he beat that same rival who also handed over without rancor after choosing not to rig the results)

Many of his countrymen think Pres. Obasanjo could learn a lot from Nigeria's tiny neighbor. Not coincidentally, no fears Benin will become the next failed state.

Update: One only needs to look at the increasing chaos in another of Nigeria's neighbors, Chad, to see the dangers of creating a life presidency.


At 8:57 PM, Blogger Chippla Vandu said...


I consider this a great post on the current situation in Nigeria.

Just a few points. You wrote that Obasanjo was “imprisoned for criticizing the nightmarish tyranny of Gen. Sani Abacha.” That’s quite true, but Obssanjo was implicated in a coup plot against General Abacha. At least, that was the official reason for his being behind bars. As people later got to find out, there never was a coup plot. Abacha had a neat way of getting rid of or silencing his opponents.

I read Karl Maier’s book “This House Has Fallen” about a year and a half ago. I found it very thorough though sometimes patronizing (you know, the classical Westerner coming to Africa, and only ever getting to see things from his/her point of view). Notwithstanding, Mr. Maier raised critical issues on the foundation of the Nigerian nation state. Describing the Abacah administration as a “criminally managed corporation” is absolutely right in my opinion.

Even by Nigerian standards, Lagos is a nightmare. It is simply beyond control. The rich and affluent spend their time on the more developed island (which encompasses Lagos, Victoria Island, Ikoyi and places like Lekki) while the masses sturggle on the mainland. The epileptic electricity supply experienced in most parts of Nigeria (with the exception of the capital city, Abuja) means that Nigeria is actually underdeveloping. Productivity is low and indstrial output woeful.

I really do not see Mr. Obasanjo sreving a third term and having an easy ride. If he gets to manipulate the constitution to achieve this evil feat, we might just as well expect no more real governance in Nigeria till the day he finally leaves office or dies. For the next one year, nothing serious can go on in Nigeria, economy wise. Everyting now centers on politics, with rival camps fighting it out as to what direction the country should take. A few prominent people will be assasinated soon, as is customary with election periods in Nigeria. And people wonder why Nigeria remains the way it is! By manipulating the constitution, Mr. Obasanjo is playing with fire.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home