We thought 1999 would be a good place to re-visit... to jog our memories, before we go on to introduce the pro-"Baba"/more patriotic articles that we intend to put up from tomorrow. The article below (written in 2000) doesn't tell us anything we don't already know, but it does remind us of the expectation and hope prevalent at the time, in a beaten-down and weary Nigeria.
In light of the perspective it offers therefore, and in light of what you remember feeling in 1999, is anyone willing to revise their comments from the past two days?
The Economist - 13th January 2000
Nigeria’s new president has made a promising start on repairing the damage done by his predecessors. But he has a mountainous task ahead of him, reports Robert Guest
The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.
SO WROTE Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian novelist, in 1983. Between then and now, his gloomy book, “The Trouble with Nigeria”, has been perhaps the best short account available of how his native country worked—or rather, how it did not work. Ruled by soldiers for all but six years since 1966, Nigeria has suffered one civil war, six violent changes of government, and the continual theft and squandering of public funds by its leaders. Blessed with fertile soil, floods of oil, and a huge, energetic, talented population, Nigeria should be Africa’s giant. That it is instead one of the poorest countries in the world is largely the fault of a succession of awful military dictators. But the sudden death of the most recent and perhaps worst of them, Sani Abacha, has given Nigeria a chance to recover.
General Abacha, who seized power in 1993, died of a heart attack in June 1998. An interim government led by General Abdulsalami Abubakar promised to restore democracy in stages, with elections first for local governments, then for state governments, then for a national assembly and for the presidency itself. To many people’s surprise, he kept his word. The elections were marred by bribery—of which all parties were guilty—but the result is widely agreed to reflect the will of the Nigerian people. On May 29th 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, a 62-year-old chicken farmer, was sworn in as Nigeria’s first democratically elected president since the toppling of Shehu Shagari in 1983.
The challenge facing Mr Obasanjo is daunting. His country is poor, indebted and riven by ethnic violence (which left 100 people dead in Lagos at the end of November). The roads are pitted with potholes and clogged with rubbish. Telephone and power lines work intermittently at best, and often not at all. Factories are idle. So, resentfully, are millions of urban youths. After a long spell of crude despotism, Nigeria has no tradition of democracy, nor of effective governance. For as long as most Nigerians can remember, the rewards for honesty and industry have been miserable, whereas corruption has paid magnificently. Nigeria had become “the open sore of a continent”, in the words of Wole Soyinka, the country’s 1986 Nobel laureate for literature.
Wanted: True Leadership
Seven months after assuming power, Mr Obasanjo is hard at work applying ointment to that sore. He has some useful qualifications. First, although he was once Nigeria’s military ruler, he was not personally corrupt, and had landed the top job more by chance than by design. In 1976, after the assassination of the then ruler, Murtala Mohammed, Mr Obasanjo, as his deputy, took over. He stayed in office long enough to organise elections, and in 1979 handed over power to an elected civilian. It was not Mr Obasanjo’s fault that this civilian regime was corrupt, and was soon swept away in a coup.
This time he has a mandate to keep Nigeria democratic. To this end, he has subdued the military. More than 100 officers with links to the old regime have been retired, and non-political soldiers have been put in charge of the army. Some of those close to Abacha, including his son, are being prosecuted for an array of alleged crimes, including murder. Efforts to recover some of the money that the late dictator and his cronies stole have produced a haul of over $700m. There may be more to come.
Ordinary Nigerians, fed up with being robbed and bullied by their leaders, would probably like to see harsh punishments for the old regime, but Mr Obasanjo, a former political prisoner himself (he served three years of a 15-year sentence for allegedly plotting a coup against Abacha before the tyrant’s death set him free), is inclined to be gentle. Indeed, Nigeria today is a far less fearful place than it was a couple of years ago. General Abubakar began the good work by releasing political prisoners and stopping the security forces from harassing dissidents. Mr Obasanjo has continued in that vein (although his use of the army to crack down on terrorism in the Niger delta has recently caused concern). Journalists at Nigeria’s dozens of lively, opinionated newspapers, who once risked being roughed up or worse by the security forces, now work unmolested.
On the economy, too, Mr Obasanjo has made a reasonable start. He claims to have abandoned the statist philosophy he espoused in the 1970s, and to have embraced the market. He has relaxed exchange controls and promised to privatise, deregulate and fight corruption. For the first time in decades, there is a feeling of optimism in the air. Now that the country is no longer a pariah, America and Europe have pledged more aid. There is talk of debt relief in the future, and perhaps even a bit of foreign investment. For the Nigerian in the street, the most visible change is the easy availability of petrol. Under Abacha, pumps ran dry and the president’s friends made fortunes cornering supplies at the low official price and selling them at the much higher black-market rate. Day-long queues formed outside petrol stations. For the citizens of one of the world’s largest oil-producing countries, not being able to buy fuel was perhaps the worst humiliation. Mr Obasanjo all but ended it with a few honest appointments.
Mr Obasanjo comes closer than any of Nigeria’s recent presidents to providing the “true leadership” Mr Achebe called for. But his predecessors left Nigeria so horribly broken that it will take a lot of time and skill to mend it.
Below is a documentary by The Nigerian Patriots. At 50 minutes plus, watching the entire thing would understandably be difficult. The documentary itself doesn't actually fit in with the theme of this post, however the first 2 minutes does - Watch that!