Democracy’s Chance: Nigeria

Nigeria 2007

By Rebecca Roberts

June 10, 2009

Appeared in Lincoln Journal Star

LAGOS, Nigeria — We step gingerly out of the speedboats onto the white sand beach of Tomaro, taking care not to dip even a toe into the green lagoon that snakes between this village and the booming megacity of Lagos. Not because we’re too prissy to get wet, but because the contaminated water is an invitation to any variety of disease and parasites — or worse.

“I’m not sure how long it would take a body to dissolve in this water — but it wouldn’t take long,” one of the boatmen says.

Industrial and human waste has rendered the lagoon unsafe for drinking and reduced the availability of fish, the main source of food and income for the few thousand residents of this isolated village. The sandy, palm-lined beach is imbedded with garbage. Some children have the distended bellies of the malnourished. Drinking water is brought over from the mainland by dugout canoe, sometimes powered with a gas motor.

The villagers have no health care, no schools for their children. They need clean water. They need a reason to hope.

“Our government does not want us,” said one villager.

The lagoon villages of Lagos are some 300 miles from the Niger Delta, home to Nigeria’s vast oil reserves. Nigeria reaped $52 billion last year as one of the world’s largest oil producers, but virtually none of it gets to Tomaro, or to any of the country’s other 140 million inhabitants, most of whom live on an estimated $1 a day.

Nigeria’s widespread poverty can be directly traced to the failure of oil profits to trickle down, political experts say, and they have little hope presidential elections slated for this month will change the status quo.

* * *

Presidential elections set for April 21 loom as a pivot point in Nigeria’s fledgling democracy. If they occur, they will mark the nation’s first successful transfer from one civilian government to another.

The sitting president, Olesegun Obasanjo, has declared repeatedly that he has no plans to quash the vote. That assurance, however, comes after his failed attempt to change the country’s constitution and give himself a third term in office.

And rumors refer to an obscure law that would allow him to announce a state of emergency and cancel the vote. The death of a minor presidential candidate, a 76-year-old man with diabetes, further fuels concerns that elections may be delayed.

Voter outrage associated with those concerns could cause an already fragile government to topple under an angry electorate. Already, fighting among opposing political factions has led to several deaths in the past week.

“Citizens have no respect for the law,” says Festus Okoye, an expert in constitutional law and executive director of Human Rights Monitor, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Nigerians, he fears, may take out their overall bitterness on election day: “I cannot rule out the possibility of violence.”

Presidential candidate Pat Utomi shares those concerns.

“We could be in for some pretty dangerous times,” Utomi says in an interview. Important players in the elections, he adds, “have daggers drawn.”

* * *

Just 10 years ago, this west African nation was still under military rule. Elections in 1999 and 2003 brought civilian governance but were widely acknowledged as fraudulent.

Nigeria declared independence in 1960 after decades as a British colony. But a series of military coups followed, most notably the civil war that began with the brief secession of the Republic of Biafra and ended with some 2 million dead.

In 1999, after nearly 40 years of strife, Obasanjo, a former military dictator, became Nigeria’s first democratically elected leader, promising to crack down on corruption and spread the nation’s billions in oil wealth more equitably.

He was hailed for spearheading the return to civilian rule, as well as for significant reforms in human rights abuses and government corruption. But his 2003 re-election was widely considered fraudulent, and now his detractors cite the lack of progress as evidence of the need for change.

Then there’s the widespread impression that Obasanjo continues to rule with the hand of a dictator.

“We have a president who thinks he’s a messiah,” says Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development and a democracy scholar and activist.

Indeed, in a session with American journalists, Obasanjo likened himself to Jesus Christ in a reference to a “corrupt disciple” in his midst — an obvious jab at Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a former close ally with whom he is locked in a bitter dispute over who is more corrupt.

* * *

Corruption is the hallmark of Nigerian politics. Federal funds distributed to the states — intended for improvement of roads or water, for economic development, for upgrading a woefully inadequate power grid — tend to disappear into politicians’ pockets.

Even by his critics, Obasanjo is widely praised for launching the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to prosecute embezzlement and fraud in business and politics.

“I give him credit for that,” Ibrahim says, calling the agency’s creation “a very clear victory in the struggle against corruption.”

But many of those facing charges by the commission are opponents of the president or his People’s Democratic Party, raising questions over whether the agency is doing his dirty work.

“It’s obviously being used against (Obasanjo’s) political enemies,” Ibrahim says.

Chief among those is his own vice president, popularly known by his first name, Atiku. Indicted last fall over the alleged embezzlement of $145 million in oil money, he is fighting — down to the wire — legal efforts to disqualify him from the presidential elections.

Atiku claims the charges were trumped up to knock him out of the competition and says Obasanjo plans to continue to lead the country from behind the scenes.

“The (ruling party’s) candidate will essentially be a puppet,” he says.

Obasanjo says the charges have nothing to do with the elections. Atiku represents “pure criminality that has to be stamped out,” he says. “That is more than political.”

Many accuse the president himself of taking federal funds, although he faces no charges from his Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

“He has really done worse than I’ve done,” Atiku says of Obasanjo. “He’s not governed by the rule of law.”

* * *

“Welcome to the jungle, it gets worse here every day

You learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play …”

“Yes, welcome to the jungle,” Dagga Tolar smiles with irony at the mention of the Guns N’ Roses anthem as American journalists step off an air-conditioned tour bus into a west Lagos neighborhood teeming with pressing heat and thumping music, with odors and decay, with the life of an estimated 3 million residents.

Tolar is our guide to Ajegunle — also known as “The Jungle,” the largest slum in Africa, perhaps the world.

“I was born in this neighborhood,” Tolar, 38, says, ambling past market stalls selling yams and secondhand underwear and dubbed CDs, under signs advertising soft drinks and pentecostal services. A Rastafarian poet and reggae musician, Tolar teaches history and literature to high school students.

“Ajegunle has a lot of potential,” he says.

Youths wearing castoffs emblazoned with familiar brands — Nike, DKNY, Coca-Cola, Sean John — walk alongside buses and motorbikes, treading food wrappers, shards of metal, rubber scraps and bits of broken glass deeper into the rutted, red dirt road.

“Oyinbo! Oyinbo!” they call out, slang for a pack of unfamiliar white faces.

Behind the falling-down shacks that line the main road is a pile of garbage and sewage, playground to countless children and the occasional dog, backyard to millions. Wooden planks make bridges over brown creeks of runoff and human waste.

Here squats a series of long, low bunkerlike buildings, each comprised of 20 empty rooms about 10 by 10 feet that house entire families — mother, father, several children, usually extended relatives as well.

Tolar points out a foot-deep gap between the ground and each threshold. In the rainy season, floodwaters send muddy sewage flowing into the rooms; as the flooding recedes, it takes the earth with it, making these homes ever less stable.

Those who live here are too busy watching their homes being swept out from under them to pay much attention to the presidential race. They’ve learned not to expect anything from the government.

“The masses are entirely disenchanted; they are not in any way bothered as to who wins or loses the election,” Tolar says.

“A lot of the people expect only a miracle to solve their problems.”

* * *

Maro, a 29-year-old guitarist in Ajegunle who goes by one name, doesn’t expect any miracles — especially not from the government. He’s registered to vote, but only because it’s required to receive government assistance.

“Work? I don’t work,” he says when asked whether he makes enough to live on playing in a reggae band. He’s trained as a leather weaver, but nobody’s hiring.

Sometimes he spends a few nights in his parents’ overcrowded flat. When there’s no room for him there, and there usually isn’t, he spends his nights the way he spends his days — on the streets.

“The streets are the final stop” for most who live here, Maro says.

Those streets, full of refuse and potholes, are one hardship he would point out to potential candidates, if they visited his desolate neighborhood.

Maro doesn’t plan to vote. For one thing, he has no confidence any politician can make a difference in his day-to-day life.

“It’s not going to make an impact,” he says. “Nobody’s fitting.”

* * *

Like Maro, most Nigerians seem resigned to the fact that these elections, like those before them, will be rife with fraud.

“The average Nigerian is very apathetic, because he believes his vote doesn’t count,” presidential candidate Pat Utomi says.

It’s an attitude fostered by decades of unanswered government pledges, he says.

“They’ve been promised a lot by governments through the years, and the government has not followed through on its promises.”

The question voters face, Utomi says, is whether their lives have improved over the past eight years.

“I am sure more than 85 to 90 percent would say no.”

Mary Amenin does plan to vote, as she did in 1999 and in 2003. But she has yet to see an elected official make good on a campaign pledge to clean up Ajegunle.

“I have not seen any improvement in this area, no,” the 42-year-old laundress says.

Godwin Ovili, 32, agrees. A lifelong resident of a village on the Lagos lagoon, he commutes to the mainland to work as a pharmaceutical salesman.

“The politicians are all using us,” Ovili says. “After the election, they will go away and we won’t see them again.”

During campaign season, candidates and officials promise electricity, medical care, teachers and schools and a bridge to Lagos, the source of all drinking water and commercial goods, but his village never sees results, Ovili says.

“We find it difficult to trust anyone.”

* * *

The source of that mistrust can be summed up in two words: Oil money.

Half a century after rich crude resources were discovered in its southern Niger River delta, Nigeria has come to rely almost exclusively on revenue from the oil industry. The federal government distributes oil profits to each state.

And state and federal officials’ bank accounts get larger, while the people they serve face daily blackouts thanks to an overextended electricity grid. They spend hours waiting in gas lines. They travel miles each day on rut-filled roads to collect water, which has yet to be piped into many homes.

President Obasanjo notes that the head of a federal republic is limited in his power over state officials. Imagine President Bush telling Gov. Dave Heineman how to manage Nebraska’s coffers.

“What happens from there,” Obasanjo says, “is up to the state.”

Such words ring hollow to Judith Asuni, who has spent 15 years working on political conflicts in Nigeria, primarily in the oil delta.

“Nigeria,” she likes to say, “is the only country in the world where everyone is marginalized.”

The failure of oil wealth to trickle down to the communities that are its source has given rise to an insurgent movement in the delta. Armed tribal militants kidnap oil workers — more than 150 over the past year, and nearly half of those in just the past three months — calling attention to their cause and profiting from ransom money.

As executive director of Academic Associates PeaceWorks, Asuni’s relationships with those guerrillas have earned her, she says, the affectionate nickname of “Mama Militant.”

She calls the kidnappings and violence in the delta counterproductive, but she also decries the lack of government controls on the oil industry and what she sees as a lack of corporate responsibility in improving the local infrastructure or providing local jobs.

Now, with elections looming, Asuni says, politicians have begun hiring militants as security — “thugs,” in her words — to scare away voters, whether by waving guns or by hijacking ballot boxes. Several prominent politicians were killed last fall as they campaigned for the primaries, she noted.

“I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before the elections,” she says.

Manager Seigha represents a group of anonymous militants. He says the view of most delta residents is that they’d be better off had their oil reserves never been discovered.

Seigha, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing the oil companies “pack up and go back where they came from,” because while transglobal corporations and government officials reap the benefits of the region’s vast natural resources, he says, “We get nothing.”

* * *

With so much corruption, how can Nigerians expect progress under a new government?

“We have hope,” Ajegunle laundress Mary Amenin says simply. “We have to.”

Dagga Tolar isn’t so optimistic.

“If the nation continues to drift in this manner, sectarian violence could erupt” beyond the oil delta, the teacher says. “A coup in Nigeria can therefore not be ruled out.”

The situation won’t change, Tolar adds, until politicians seek election as a means of benefiting the country rather than lining their own pockets.

“A government must see its essence as that of the masses rather than that of the big business. Only then can hope be restored.”

Political activist Judy Asuni is too concerned about the here and now to worry much about Nigeria’s future. Whether candidates use force to intimidate voters or citizens are enraged by ballot fraud, the situation is ripe for an outbreak, she says.

Whether Atiku Abubakar is allowed on the ballot is another potential flash point, she adds.

“Depending on what happens with the issue of whether or not Atiku can run for president,” Asuni says, “we may have violence just before and at the time of the election.”

Human rights watchdog Festus Okoye counsels patience in the face of such concerns. He is optimistic the democratic process will work, although he acknowledges it’s not a fast or easy process.

“It will take time.”

And he urges his countrymen to vote, to watch the outcome carefully and to speak out if they feel they aren’t being represented. That, he says, is the only hope.

“You can’t have democracy without democrats."