On April 21, up to 61-million Nigerians will go to the polls to choose a new president in what is touted as the country’s first democratic hand-over of power, from one civilian ruler to another. But despite this historic moment, the prevailing mood a week ahead of the polls is one of confusion, anger and disillusionment.
Critics argue that, although out-going President Olusegun Obasanjo may have presided over a record eight years of continuous civilian rule, his scorecard is poor and these elections, like previous ones, are not about policies or delivering services to the people, but about access to Nigeria’s wealth for a select few.
On the traffic-clogged streets of Lagos, wealth and poverty sit side by side. Massive slums sprawl beneath the shadows cast by shiny skyscrapers built with oil money. One young student, Ifiyene Sonaike, was scathing about Obasanjo’s record: “I would give him 20% for what he has done for Nigeria.”
In the early days of his rule, Obasanjo made all the right noises. His inauguration in 1999 marked the end of 16 years of repressive military dictatorship, and audience members, including former South African president Nelson Mandela, nodded approvingly as Obasanjo declared an end to “business as usual” for the country’s corrupt leaders.
On a continental level, Obasanjo was instrumental in setting up the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, has mediated in some of the continent’s conflicts and provided peacekeepers for many more. In Nigeria, he won approval for $30-billion in debt write-offs and established an anti-graft body, the Economic and Financial Crimes Committee (EFCC).
The EFCC has a vigorous chairman, Nuhu Ribadu, who has fearlessly hounded some of the country’s many corrupt politicians. Since 2005, the EFCC has prosecuted 82 people and recovered $5-billion in stolen cash.
The expected benefits of democratic governance and civilian rule, however, have not reached most Nigerians — for many, life has actually worsened. According to Nnamdi Obusa, senior analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, there have been neither social nor economic improvements. This has led to “a deep sense of discontent … and a disenchantment with the current government at all levels”, he said.
In 2003, Nigeria was ranked 152 out of 175 countries in the Human Development Index, but by 2006 it had fallen to 159 out of 177. Life expectancy in the country is 47 years and close to one in every 100 children will die before their first birthday.
Religious and ethnic tensions continue to divide Nigeria. Sharia law has been adopted in the northern third of the country, appeasing many of the Muslims who make up half of Nigeria’s population of 130-million.