When the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as president on May 29, 1999, brought to an end 16 years of military rule, Nigerians were understandably relieved. And when the new president promised to strengthen democracy in the country, and to eradicate the culture of public corruption that Nigeria is notorious for, their relief grew into optimism. Now, however, Nigerians are deeply pessimistic about whether he can keep his promises. This year’s unusually subdued commemoration of Democracy Day (which marks the end of military rule in 1999), and a new report that is strongly critical of government mismanagement of public funds, are the latest signs of this pessimism.
The change of mood centres on public nervousness about next year’s presidential elections, which many Nigerians believe will be manipulated by politicians such as former military rulers Ibrahim Babangida and Muhammadu Bukhari, who will probably be candidates. Babangida retains massive political influence.
Obasanjo himself acknowledges this “pervasive pessimism”. “What worries me as we approach the coming election is the pervasive pessimism in the land,” he said in a speech in May. “There seems to be a general feeling that we... are incapable of holding elections that can be judged...to have been free, fair and successful.”
Nigerians have good reason to be pessimistic, not only because former military dictators such as Babangida (who, incidentally, annulled an election in 1993) are allowed to stand, but because Obasanjo himself has been locked in dispute with legislators about the extent of parliament’s control over presidential powers. When, for instance, the national assembly voted earlier this year to add N250 billion to the budget, the president immediately attacked it on the grounds that it was exceeding its powers at the expense of his own mandate.
Another dispute,which also illustrates Nigerian politicians’ failure to act responsibly, rose in late May between the federal government and local councils. The financially powerful local councils tried to overturn a supreme court ruling that their term of office had expired, despite the fact that elections are not due until August. The dispute is typical of the costly confrontations between the centre and politicians in Nigeria’s 36 states. Tafa Balogun, the country’s most senior police officer, soon weighed into the dispute, vowing that he would approve the use of force against local politicians who failed to vacate their seats.
But even more serious is the report of the public accounts committee that has scrutinised Nigeria’s budgeting and public spending since Obasanjo’s election. The report (which the senate voted to debate in secret on June 18) alleges that government spending was in breach of constitutional rules and contributed to a “virtual slide into financial anarchy”. One of the examples cited by the report as contravening the constitution is the grant in 1999 of $10 million to the government of Niger. The $13-million interest-free loan made to Ghana’s police force last April is cited as a “glaring example of mismanagement”, particularly because it was made when the Nigerian police were about to go on strike over unpaid entitlements. The report also reveals discrepancies between sums of money known to have been received as revenue and those shown in the budget as such.
One such discrepancy relates to the moneys so far officially recovered from the family of the late General Abacha. The amount officially accepted to have been recovered is N40.7 billion (£230 million), while only N29 billion are recorded in the budget as revenue. Earlier this year the government announced that it had reached an agreement with the Abacha family that bound them to return $1 billion of the disputed funds, while retaining $100 million.
The government’s reaction to the report is to dismiss it as “grandstanding” by political opponents. The task of deriding the report fell to Oby Ezekwesili, the president’s special advisor on budget matters. According to her, there can have been no mismanagement of public funds because of Obasanjo’s commitment to an “anti-corruption drive”, which has led to the establishment of a panel that vets all public expenditure. She insisted that Obasanjo’s “unflinching commitment” to the administration’s anti-graft reform is certain to make it a success. The president’s supporters also cite the fact that he is a founder member of Transparency International, an international anti-corruption organisation, as proof of his determination to end public corruption in the country.
That commitment is certainly missing from his acceptance of graft and police brutality in the Niger River Delta, whose oil production generates 80 percent of Nigeria’s hard currency, while its seven million residents are among the poorest Nigerians of all. With very little of the revenue from oil being spent on the Delta, and the oil companies causing severe environmental damage and pollution, the people of the Delta are understandably angry with both the federal government and the oil companies. The government’s response is to crack down by the police or army, as happened when soldiers destroyed the town of Odi after gangs had killed 12 police officers. No action has been taken against any of the soldiers. The oil companies try to protect themselves against the public’s anger by paying large sums of money to local chiefs, instead of contributing to development schemes that might benefit the people whose oil wealth they steal.
But buying the allegiance of public figures is not confined to the Niger Delta; nor are the oil companies the only culprits. Unfortunately corruption is still endemic in Nigeria, as autocratic rule is, and Obasanjo, a former military ruler, is definitely not the best man to pioneer change.