As former head of a military government in the 1970s and a retired general since, Nigeria’s new president, Olusegun Obasanjo, knows better than most people what ails his country. But he also knows equally well that the men in uniform, universally held responsible for the mess Nigeria’s troubles, will continue to rule behind the scenes despite their ostentatious ‘return to barracks’ and the general euphoria about the restoration of ‘civilian rule’ after 15 years of military dictatorship. His energetically-declared policy of punishing those responsible for the corruption and mismanagement of the country’s affairs is, therefore, being dismissed by many Nigerians as a ploy to secure credibility by someone who needs it because of his past associations with power.
Elected last February in a tainted poll and sworn in as president on May 29, Obasanjo moved quickly to reassure his people that he was determined to take the necessary measures to restore Africa’s most populous, and oil-rich, country to good health. On June 1, only three days after taking office, he suspended all contracts made by his military predecessors since the beginning of the year. A statement by his administration said that a panel would be set up to review “contracts, licences, awards, approvals and appointments to determine their propriety and relevance.” During the last six months of the military regime of general Abdul Salamai Abubakar, numerous contracts were awarded, many of them to companies linked to supporters of the administration and on financially unfavourable terms. The raid on the country’s treasury was so outrageous that it reduced foreign reserves from $7.1 billion to $3.4 billion.
The new president also announced on June 6 the establishment of a panel to investigate human rights violations committed during the last five years of military rule. The panel, led by a retired supreme court judge, Chukwudifu Oputa, is expected to identify those responsible for killings and other abuses. Under particular scrutiny will be the period up to June last year, when Sani Abacha, the country’s most hated military dictator, died.
Two days earlier Obasanjo told the newly inaugurated national assembly that he would take ‘decisive steps’ to deal with the country’s financial collapse. “All Nigerians are expecting democracy to yield dividends”, he added. Acknowledging that many Nigerians had become cynical as a result of unkept promises by political leaders, he said he was “determined to make significant changes within a year.”
Obasanjo’s apparent optimism that he has a year’s honeymoon has been dashed by the outbreak of ethnic violence in the Delta State, where Nigeria’s oil-wealth is produced. The clashes between Ijaw and Itsckiri ethnic groups, which broke out on the day after Obasanjo’s inauguration, have resulted in the death of more than 200 people. By June 7, the situation appeared to be out of control.
The violence has not only distracted the administration from the issues Obasanjo had been concentrating on but has also dented his credibility as an effective ruler. Critics are already saying that a military government would not have allowed the situation to get out of control so quickly and for so long, while others express publicly their fear that he will give in to his ‘military instinct’ and order a bloody crackdown.
The violence, mainly by the Ijaw, who believe they have been deprived of their share in the oil-wealth extracted from their land, was previously directed mostly against western oil-companies such as Shell. But with a civilian government in control and their fear of the military gone, ethnic groups in the area have joined a new battle for control of local government, believing that whoever is in charge will have a monopoly of resources. And because the new fighting is all about land, it is more dangerous and intractable than previous clashes.
But even without the distractions and threat posed by the new outbreak of ethnic unrest, many Nigerians believe that Obasanjo is unequal to the task of reviving the country’s fortunes. They argue that the military chiefs - who sacrificed Abacha to save their necks and protect the army’s reputation - will restrict his investigative panels to enquiries into corruption and human rights violations during Abacha’s rule.
There are those who even believe that the outgoing military government raided the state’s coffers to leave Obasanjo without the funds necessary to solve the country’s pressing economic problems, thereby discrediting him and laying the foundations for early military intervention.
Abubakar told members of his regime on May 26 that they should be the last military rulers, reminding them that “military intervention in government is no longer fashionable.” But this is seen by sceptics as being for public consumption only. The mere fact that he had to make such an appeal, reinforces fears that the threat of a coup continues to be a grim reality of Nigerian politics. The fears are reinforced by the worsening security situation in the Delta region, which is the classical excuse for a military coup.
Another worrying development are reports that Obasanjo’s senior officials are not averse to maintaining the tradition of kickbacks and corruption. The British government - asked by Obasanjo to persuade the west to reschedule Nigeria’s crushing foreign debt - is using such reports to lay down unacceptable conditions for its help. Britain’s finance minister, Gordon Brown, wants western officials to work not only in Nigeria’s Central Bank, but also in the ministry of finance, to oversee their transactions and approve their decisions. If Obasanjo accepts these conditions, he will be discredited in the eyes of many Nigerians, making his task even more difficult.
Muslimedia: June 16-30, 1999