Living Dangerously

These are trying times for Nigeria’s president and the country he leads

21.02.2006

Living DangerouslyNigeria’s volatile but oil-rich Niger Delta region has quaked again. For the second time in less than a month, militant youths kidnapped international oil workers and threatened to blow up oil pipelines and installations. Multinational oil giant, Shell, shut down twenty percent of their operations in the country and international oil prices went up by US$1. With tensions in the Middle East over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the global economy will no doubt feel the rupture of a deteriorating situation in this tiny region of Africa’s most populous state. Nigeria is the world’s eleventh largest producer of crude oil. These are indeed trying times for the country’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo. Previous attempts by his government to reduce tensions in the region have failed to quell youth restiveness caused by years of neglect and environmental degradation. Mr. Obasanjo has now deployed military troops to prevent a descent to anarchy and civil unrest because he knows that the West African sub-region can ill-afford a collapse of the Nigerian state. In the past two years, he has successfully secured frozen peace in Liberia, Togo, Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone but he desperately needs such deft skills to restore order at home and resume oil flows because Nigeria heavily depends on oil exports to pay local and international bills.
President Obasanjo’s efforts to increase revenue from non-oil sources like tourism and agriculture have also suffered serious setbacks. Two air disasters in as many months have kept tourists and passengers away from Nigeria’s skies. An ongoing reform of the aviation sector is underway but it will take more than mere talk to restore confidence and bring back dollars from tourists. A recent outbreak of the H5N1 flu in Northern parts of the country is taking its toll on poultry production. A chicken farmer himself, the President introduced a number of policies to encourage poultry owners and they have smiled to the banks. Then the Avian flu struck. For a country with weak health and disease-control infrastructure, the government is investing money, time and energy to minimise the extent of the spread.

The president is also engaged in a ‘cold war’ with his deputy, Atiku Abubakar. Sometime last year, both men engaged in headline verbal altercations and the president accused Vice President Abubakar of disloyalty. With the ruling Peoples Democratic Party in the firm control of the president, the VP’s ambition to succeed his boss is anything but certain. It is believed that the Vice President’s political allies are behind opposition movements that have now transformed into three newly registered political parties to give him a platform to run for the presidency. The word on the streets is that Vice President Abubakar has helped himself to the nation’s resources as vice president through lucrative oil and construction contracts and by acquiring privatized state enterprises using his cronies. His deep pockets ensure that he wards off any resistance from President Obasanjo in 2007. In a replication of the Obasanjo-Abubakar feud, regional political ‘warlords’ from the North and South have also returned to their cocoons to threaten the country’s fragile unity in their preemptive demand for the ‘presidential pie’ in 2007. Nigeria was created by an amalgamation of Northern and Southern protectorates in 1914 and just like President Obasanjo and his deputy, both are now living together with mutual suspicion. Obasanjo comes from the South and Abubakar from the North.

But the clear and present danger comes from a seemingly unpopular move to amend the country’s constitution to accommodate another term in office for Obasanjo. The National Assembly is scheduled to approve a new constitution by the end of March and about 100 amendments are proposed including the controversial third term provision. The president’s men including the country’s richest business executives that have benefited from presidential policies and patronage believe he has achieved a lot in office and deserves more time to complete the work. They point at President Obasanjo’s far-reaching reforms in opening up the economy and fighting corruption as evidence that the country is finally beginning to turn the corner. True. Nigeria is enjoying unprecedented longer periods of macroeconomic stability, telecommunications is vastly expanding, a substantial amount of the country’s foreign debts were cancelled by the Paris Club of creditors, more foreign direct investment is flowing into the country, state enterprises are being privatised, agricultural production is growing and the banking sector is stronger. Global rating agencies like Fitch and Standard & Poor’s have recently released favourable credit ratings for the country. Obasanjo’s opponents are unimpressed and they insist he must leave office in 2007. The president has constantly averred that he will respect the constitution but he fails to answer the nagging question from the media: Which constitution? Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka is leading the opposition and two popular Catholic Archbishops have added their voices from the pulpit. A group of national legislators recently addressed a press conference restating their opposition to the proposed amendment. Washington, London and other western capitals remain mute in their reaction but during a briefing of the United States’ Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte warned of impending doom if President Obasanjo goes ahead to force a third term on the people of Nigeria.

Nigeria has walked down this road in the past. Previous administrations failed to transfer power at moments of transition with only two ironical exceptions. In 1979, then General Obasanjo relinquished power as military Head of State to an elected civilian president and in 1999 history was inverted when he took over from a military Head of State as an elected civilian president after spending four years in the gulags of the despotic Gen. Sani Abacha. At different times, Nigerians have been adjudged to be the most religious, happiest and most optimistic people on earth. Now despite the optimism of these happy people, they still know that there only source of hope in these trying times is to pray more.

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