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5 March 1999

Can Nigeria make the transition?

Everyone knows the elections weren't fair, but Christina Lambfinds the people philosophical

By Christina Lamb

Of all the hazards of a visit to Lagos, having people try to flog me Kenny Rogers CDs was not one I’d imagined. But in the endless gridlock of this city where the formal economy has completely collapsed, car passengers are captive customers for a procession of enterprising Nigerians trying to palm off anything from apples-on-strings to garishly coloured anatomical maps of the human body.

In some ways the traffic jams are surprising. The world’s sixth largest oil producer is suffering dire fuel shortages since the generals who have run Nigeria for the past 15 years sucked it dry to buy polo ponies and houses in Mayfair. Queues at petrol stations are so long that people wait two or three days in line, sleeping in their cars at night, unless they can afford to pay five times the price on the black market.

Given the mess the generals have created, spiriting an estimated $20 billion out of Treasury coffers, it might seem rather odd that people have just elected one as civilian president. General Olusegun Obasanjo, winner of last weekend’s elections by a huge margin, was military ruler from 1975-79, albeit the only one ever to hand back power voluntarily to civilians.

Critics claim that the 61-year- old general is a stooge for a north-dominated military, unwilling to let civilians run the show. They point to his vocal support from other previous military dictators such as General Ibrahim Babangida, and the mystery £1 million donation to his campaign, which many believe was for promising not to investigate the past. “The generals have no intention of seeing their dirty laundry aired in public,” says Ishola Williams, a retired general who runs a consultancy on conflict management. Obasanjo’s failure to turn up for a televised debate with his rival, Olu Falae, was seen as military arrogance.

But supporters argue that Obasanjo is a man of the people, who grew up poor and joined the army as the only way to obtain an education. He was a hero in the Biafran war, and became president, not in a coup as most generals, but after the then military leader, Murtala Mohammed, was assassinated. He spent three years in jail on apparently trumped-up charges of plotting a coup under the regime of General Sani Abacha, whose Viagra-enhanced death last June paved the way for last week’s elections. He is even on the board of Transparency International, which is dedicated to tracking corruption worldwide.

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Either way, most Nigerians accept that having a man who used to wear uniform as president might be a necessary evil. “The military is a very strong constituency,” explains Bilikisu Yusuf, one of Nigeria’s first female editors. “Having one of them as president is the best way of keeping them in line, and he will have a parliament to answer to.”

No one believes the elections were fair. Accompanying one of the 1,000 international observers, I saw one ballot box where every vote bore the same thumb-print. Yet though the Carter Foundation, as well as the Nigerian Transition Monitoring Group, reported widespread irregularities, the cheating was as much in favour of Falae as of Obasanjo. “It was as though electoral agents thought they had to rig the poll but didn’t know which way to rig it, so gave extra votes on both sides,” said one monitor.

This kind of mentality will present the biggest test to Obasanjo. Corruption is so ingrained in Nigerian society that it is impossible to carry out the simplest transaction without slipping someone a few naira. Airport officials blatantly demand bribes under signs warning “Beware of Fraudsters”. Between stepping off the plane and entering my hotel room I was asked for money 13 times, the most original for supplying a light-bulb for my room.

Obasanjo has pledged to stamp out corruption, but it is hard to see how he can do this without going after the generals lurking in the background. As a first step, the dual exchange rate, which allowed generals to obtain dollars at a quarter of the market rate, has been scrapped .

Moreover, salary levels are so low – the wage for government workers was recently reduced from £35 a month to £23 – that the average family cannot afford to live without some nefarious activity on the side. It will be hard for the new government to boost wages with the economy predicted to contract this year because of the fall in oil prices. Sometimes it seems as if nothing works. Planes and buses are cancelled because of lack of fuel and there are constant power cuts. As much electricity is provided by emergency generators as the national grid.

The situation is particularly sensitive on the Niger delta, where 90 per cent of the oil is produced yet seven million inhabitants live in abject poverty without water or electricity. Following the example of the Ogoni people, whose leader Ken Saro-Wiwa brought their cause to international attention, militant youth from the dominant Ijaw tribe have begun to fight for their rights, tattooing the god of war on their backs and conducting a low-level war from the mangrove swamps and jungle creeks of the delta. Already the Anglo-Dutch giant Shell has had its production slashed from 450,000 barrels per day to 250,000. If the peoples’ needs are not met quickly, the conflict could explode, giving an excuse for military intervention.

Against such a backdrop it is hardly surprising that many Nigerians turn to God. Evangelical churches are mushrooming with exotic names such as the Divine Chapel of Cherubim and Seraphim and the Temple of Surprising. Every evening Miracle Services are packed. “The transition is a good first step,” said an editorial in Tell magazine last week, “but we are far from the Promised Land.”

Christina Lamb writes for the “Sunday Telegraph”

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