World News

From bloom to gloom in the ‘great black hope’

March 5 1979
World News

From bloom to gloom in the ‘great black hope’

March 5 1979

From bloom to gloom in the ‘great black hope’


As the White House last week pondered its next moves to extract oil from its not-too-willing neighbor, Mexico, U.S. energy managers, seismographs at the ready, were anxiously looking for Iranian-type tremors among the country's other oil suppliers. One of those was Nigeria, second-largest source after Saudi Arabia, where the heirs to the Biafran civil war are preparing for the first democratic elections in 13 years. With oil reserves which will last well into the next century, Nigeria should be booming. But some observers claim to detect a strong current of potential un rest stemming from the classic Iranian mix: a substantial (1+7-per-cent) Moslem population, poverty, urban unemployment, the breakdown of traditional life and failure to satisfy rising expectations. Maclean’s Africa Bureau Chief Dan Turner reports:

J1 bove the doorway to truck driver ¿r\\ Emory Bassey’s sparse, muggy flat in Ibadan hangs a dusty cardboard homily from the pen of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Not gold, but only strong men and women, can make a nation great and strong.” “You see,” says Bassey glumly, “oil has been Nigeria’s gold, but has failed to make us great and strong. Now we are trying to find the solution through elections. But instead

of strong men and women they give us the old brigade.”

After waiting 13 years for a return to civilian government, Emory Bassey says he will not vote when the elections are finally called. His country’s estimated 100 million citizens are better off under military rule, he says.

Nigeria’s supreme military government, under the leadership of Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo, has won widespread acclaim for scrupulously following up its commitment to turn over power to a civilian government before October. Arrangements for the elections—which will include balloting for a national president, a twohouse federal legislature, governors of each of Nigeria’s 19 states and their legislatures—are virtually in place. There is little to do but designate a date or series of dates on which the country’s 47 million registered electors can vote.

A new constitution has been painstakingly drafted by a 223-member constitutional assembly. It combines many of the best features of the American model with safeguards designed to ensure enough representation from all the regions to avoid the resurgence of tribal politics that shattered parliamentary democracy in 1966 and led to the devastating civil war between 1967 and 1970.

And yet the electoral breeze, which

will make Nigeria the world’s fourth largest democracy and has been billed as perhaps the most important in Africa’s history, has stirred apprehension and disappointment rather than elation. The once defiant optimism of Obasanjo—“If our limited resources are judiciously harnessed and utilized . . . Nigeria is bound in time to become a country of which every black man can be proud,” he said two years ago—now seems more and more misplaced.

Long before the oil boom, Nigeria was the great black hope. What emerged after independence in 1960 was a truly emancipated country and even after the tribal bitterness of the civil war, Nigeria astounded the cynical by eschewing genocide in favor of reconciliation. Which is all to be remembered when driving through Ibadan today. A decade ago, Ibadan had a regular supply of electricity, running water, telephones, gasoline and paved roads. Now, the recurring absence of these basic services has turned the second largest city in black Africa back into an endless, squalid village.

Ibadan is the hub of Western Nigeria—the section of the country regarded as having gobbled up the lion’s share of tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues during the 1970s. So its decline is both staggering and embarrassing. Where did all that sweet crude lucre that was to marry this country’s frenetic energy to endless opportunity ever get to?

Some of it, it is generally agreed, was just badly spent, primarily by the military government of General Yakubu Gowon. He was deposed in 1975, but not before, as one American embassy official puts it, he had “bought up every white elephant he could find.” There were sports stadiums, parade grounds,

schools (for which there were no teachers), a worldwide black arts festival run with the spendthrift mentality of the Montreal Olympics, and more.

There were massive civil-service salary increases that helped drive the inflation rate over 35 per cent. And there was the retention of a 200,000-man army that swallowed 40 per cent of the federal government’s recurring expenditures (the feeling was that enough soldiers were already involved in robbery without taking them off the payroll wagon).

Meanwhile ranking government officials set up their own companies at home and abroad, and the more money the government spent the more they stashed away. “With us Nigerians,” lamented noted law professor Ben 0. Nwabueze in a recent speech, “the state is treated as an object of plunder to satisfy the interests of the rulers and their friends and relatives.” In contrast, says a confidential World Bank report, it was doubtful whether the average Nigerian had benefited at all.

This combination of oil wealth and traditional petty trading has produced all the swashbuckling ugliness of 19thcentury North American capitalism without the essential ingredient: production. Of every dollar a Nigerian spends, 70 cents goes on imports. Nigeria’s balance of trade was plus $12.1 billion dollars on the oil account in 1977, minus $10 billion dollars everywhere else. The country’s once proud agriculture industry—based on exports of peanuts, cocoa and palm products—has all but collapsed as rural youth rushes to the city to get in on the booty. In

addition to a lack of producers there is a dearth of technicians: the archaic school system offers little but secondrate academic training.

That is the situation which a new Nigerian civil government will have to confront sometime this year, if all goes according to plan. But the list of five approved political parties the Federal Electoral Commission has selected from more than 35 aspirants mostly contains names from the country’s turbulent and ethnically divided past. The three leading presidential contenders are:

Chief Obafemi (Awo) Awolowo, now 70, from Western Nigeria, leader of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). Awolowo, a former opposition leader, is concerned enough about his past image to have issued one booklet certifying that he does not hate the Ibo tribe (he called starvation a legitimate weapon of war during the Biafran crisis) and another saying it is unfair of people to call him dictatorial, vindictive and unforgiving.

Then there is Nnamdi (Zik) Azikiwe, now 74, an Ibo, leader of the Nigeria People’s Party (NPP), Awo’s old political nemesis and Nigeria’s first president.

The third man is Alhaji Shehu Shagari, 53, former parliamentary secretary to the late Hausa tribal leader, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who was killed in the 1966 coup. Shagari leads the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) which claims to be much more than an ethnically based party of the Moslem north, but which somehow designed its leadership selection process so southerners could not qualify.

The two other candidates, both northerners, are also veterans: Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim, 59, leader of the Great Nigeria People’s Party (GNPP), a former haberdasher who amassed a large fortune selling guns during the civil war; and

Alhaji Aminu Kano, a radical populist who could give either Awolowo or Azikiwe a major boost if he joined them in opposition to Shagari’s group, which is given an edge.

The big question is whether the various parties and their supporters will restrain themselves enough to keep the electoral process going until polling day. After only a few weeks of campaigning there have been knife fights and stone-throwing incidents aplenty. Charges of vote buying and convention rigging abound.

The aggressiveness at the hustings, however, merely reflects that in the marketplace. Most newcomers to the country find the level of belligerence in everyday social situations astonishing. Soldiers brutalize civilians, villagers set neighboring villages ablaze over land claims, people smash their way into and out of elevators, pickpockets are bathed in kerosene and burned in the city square.

Whether the frustrations and hostilities of the ordinary Nigerian will someday translate into a revolt against the establishment that runs the country is an open question. Alfred Opubor, head of the department of mass communications at the University of Lagos, thinks not. “If the average person were given a chance at the top they wouldn’t try to run things any differently,” he says. “Everybody knows of somebody who’s got rich quick on some government contract and everybody’s looking for the same opening.”

There are also doubts about the Moslem-Christian divisions within the country. At one point last year it appeared there would be no new constitution when a large contingent of northern Moslems walked out of the talks because the southern Christians were refusing to incorporate Islamic law into the proposed high-court system. But a compromise was reached which appeared to augur well for religious as well as tribal harmony.

What emerges, however, is a country on the make that isn’t making it, a factor which may have led Obasanjo to warn his countrymen against accepting at face value the promises the politicians are making them. “It is entirely up to you,” he said, “to be able to discern what is possible from what is impossible.”

Significantly, however, Obasanjo reserved his most earnest warnings for the “old politicians.” They had better show some remorse and change their style, he said, or the army would be forced to take over again. Paradoxically, in election year, the prospect is a very real one; and while Emory Bassey might welcome it, everyone agrees it would end the democratic experiment in Nigeria for a long, long time.>