He is not a new face; he is not a civilian: he is General Olusegun Obasanjo who ruled Nigeria from 1976-79. Obasanjo was declared winner of Nigeria’s February 27 elections with 63 percent of the vote, well ahead of Olu Falae, the only other candidate. The real winners, however, were the military and the west, who were assured a say in matters whoever won. Falae served as finance minister in the 1980s under general Ibrahim Babangida, a leading member of the gang of super-rich retired generals financing Obasanjo’s election campaign. The two men are also Christian and Yoruba, and they are acceptable to the west, the IMF and the World Bank, all of which have been deeply involved in the plunder of Nigeria’s oil-wealth.
Obasanjo was declared the winner on March 1 amid accusations of poll-rigging and cheating from his rivals and international monitors, including former US president Jimmy Carter, who said that there were widespread irregularities. But the European Union team of monitors said that supporters of both candidates were at fault and the irregularities did not effect the result. The 62-year-old president-elect famously derided another military leader, General Yakubu Gowon, for seeking nomination in the ill-fated 1993 elections. “What did you forget to take from State House that you have to go back?” he asked him. Reminded of this criticism, Obasanjo simply replied that he had not forgotten anything and wanted to serve the Nigerian people. But the Nigerian people know that his election has been engineered by the military and the west, and that serving their interests will not be high on his agenda. Few of his own Yoruba people, believing that he is a tool of the Hausa and Fulani northerners who dominate the army, voted for him.
Obasanjo’s supporters argue that his military background will be an advantage because it will help him keep the military in their barracks. This is a sad admission that the military will continue to be a dominant force in Nigerian politics for the foreseeable future. Obasanjo’s supporters also make much of his handing over of power to a civilian government in 1979, and of the fact that he was jailed by the late Sani Abacha in 1995 for criticising the top brass. They also gloss over the excesses of his own rule.
An editorial in the Times of London on February 2 described Obasanjo’s victory as ‘a rare cause for celebration in a country that has known little democracy, almost no good government and is seen as one of the most corrupt in the world’. Playing down his autocratic ways, the editorial declared him to be ‘up to the Herculean task’ awaiting him because of his ‘reputation for decency’. There was no reference to the incident in 1977 when his forces attacked Fela Kuti, a musician known for his criticism of the military. They fractured his skull, threw his 82-year-old mother out of the window to her death, and torched the communal compound he had founded.
There was also no mention in the western media over the deep involvement of western political and economic interests in the corruption and misrule for which Nigeria has become famous since its independence from Britain in 1960. Any analysis of the country’s dire situation (Nigeria is the sixth largest oil-producer in the world yet imports petrol) is deficient if it fails to mention that involvement, as would be any programme of reforms that ignored it. Confirmation of this came when the Washington-based Human Rights Watch published a report only days before Obasanjo’s election, accusing western oil- companies of complicity in the killing and repression of civilians, and in the destruction of the environment. The 200-page report, The Price of Oil, alleges that the US firm, Chevron - as well as Anglo-Dutch Shell, Agip, the Italian oil company, Elf-Aquataine from France, and Mobil - damaged the Niger delta’s environment, failed to clean up slicks that destroyed fishing areas, and connived with the army in killings and detentions.
These companies, and the army of western businessmen and politicians embroiled in the country’s corruption, will not encourage investigation into their activities. In fact they are so confident that their interests will not be adversely affected under Obasanjo and his successors that Shell has announced an $8.5 billion investment programme in the oil and gas sectors - the largest foreign investment ever in sub-Saharan Africa.
Western interests are also preparing for new plans for privatisation, which will result in the government’s share of the country’s oil and vast communication-networks being sold to foreign companies and super-rich Nigerian generals. The present ruler, Abdulsalami Abubaker, who took power after Abacha’s death last June, has already opened negotiations with the IMF and western donor countries. In return for having the country’s $29 billion debt re-scheduled, the IMF wants the government to accept a new structural programme which will make the planned plunder possible.
When Abubaker returns to the barracks on May 29, the military and the west will be grateful to him for managing, quickly and smoothly, the transfer of power to a ‘civilian’ president after 15 years of military rule. The Nigerian people, for their part, know what to expect. All they can realistically hope is that Obasanjo will be at least slightly less dictatorial and repressive than his predecessors.
Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1999