Jean Herskovits. Foreign Affairs. Volume 86, Issue 4. July/August 2007.
The official results of Nigeria’s elections last April showed overwhelming victories for the ruling party. The presidential winner, Umaru Yar’Adua, received 70 percent of the vote; his nearest opponent had 20 percent—a margin of victory exceeding that in 1983, when discontent over extensive rigging led to a coup ousting the just-elected civilian president.
According to international and domestic observers alike, the process was deeply flawed. It was unclear until just days before each election—for state offices on April 14 and for the presidency and the National Assembly on April 21—who the final candidates would be. On election day, the names of some contenders who had been reinstated by the courts were not on the ballots. The elections themselves were disastrous, with even more rigging and violence than during the previous presidential election, in 2003, when stolen ballot boxes and bogus vote counts marred the polling. All told, there were some 700 violent election-related incidents between November and March, among them the assassinations of two gubernatorial front-runners.
None of this was supposed to happen. Nigeria’s April elections were billed as a landmark: the first time since the country’s independence, in 1960, that political leadership would change hands from one civilian to another. Africa’s most populous country would thus join the small list of entrenched African democracies and boost its clout as a regional player. Instead, when President Olusegun Obasanjo steps down, he will be leaving behind an unsettled polity with still-weak political institutions and a successor struggling for legitimacy.
Since coming to power in 1999, Obasanjo has achieved some progress, although not enough, mostly on macroeconomic issues. Even as the Nigerian economy grows at five percent a year, poverty cripples most of the country’s 140 million people. Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest oil producer and one of its top oil exporters, but it imports all the refined oil products it consumes. Despite eight years of record oil revenues, its infrastructure is crumbling, and most Nigerians lack access to basic medical treatment and education. Each mangled election brings disillusionment, not with democracy but with how Nigeria’s leaders impose their will. Nigerians talk of “the power of incumbency”: ample money, control of the security forces, and, this year especially, a compliant electoral commission.
None of this bodes well for U.S. interests. The United States gets some ten percent of its crude oil from Nigeria and hopes to get more in the future, partly as an attempt, as Washington sees it, to wean itself off Middle Eastern suppliers. Believing that Obasanjo is central to these U.S. interests, Washington has supported him, despite human rights abuses and the flawed 2003 elections. But now, with Nigerians increasingly clamoring for accountability, the price of that support could be more unrest—and pose a risk not only to oil supplies coming out of Nigeria but also to the region’s stability.
No Nigerian head of state had ever come into office with as much goodwill, at home and abroad, as did Obasanjo in 1999. He was elected soon after being released from jail, having served time for allegedly participating in a coup attempt against General Sani Abacha in 1995. He was a known entity: after running the country’s then military government in the 1970s, he had handed it over to elected civilians in 1979. In the late 1990s, both Nigerians and Washington believed that despite his military background, Obasanjo was a committed democrat who would reform the country’s economy and lay the basis for political liberalization.
As president, Obasanjo has presided over a few notable and well-publicized economic successes. In 2003, he entrusted economic policymaking to a team of energetic young technocrats he referred to as his “apostles.” Several were recruited from overseas, most notably former Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who had previously served as a vice president at the World Bank. Okonjo-Iweala and her colleagues set out to implement an ambitious reform program that would strive for transparency in financial matters and “due process” in the awarding of government contracts. In 2006, Okonjo-Iweala, helped by the U.S. Treasury Department, persuaded the Paris Club to forgive some $18 billion of Nigeria’s foreign debt.
Another positive development was the creation in 2003 of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to investigate corruption. Nigerians have applauded the EFCC for prosecuting corrupt officials, notably former Inspector General of Police Tafa Balogun (he was later convicted of laundering some $98 million, much of it, he said, used to fund election victories in 2003). The EFCC’s mere existence signaled that for the first time government officials would be held accountable for their financial wrongdoings. Although so far the commission has caught mostly small fish, it has probably restrained the activities of some of the larger ones.
Nevertheless, more has been wrong than right with Nigeria’s economy under Obasanjo’s stewardship. The domestic debt, estimated at over $11 billion and left untouched, is hampering growth. Since 1999, the federal government has implemented less than 60 percent of the recurrent budgets and only 75 percent of the capital budgets. According to the Nigerian economist Sam Aluko, this budget crisis is the result of the government’s “policy of privatisation, downsizing and retrenchment of civil and public servants, non-payment of pensions, gratuities and domestic debts which continue to accumulate.” Nigerians complain that the privatization of government assets, which Obasanjo undertook at the World Bank’s direction, has lacked transparency and that well-connected Nigerians have grabbed the country’s crown jewels at sale prices. Obasanjo has also shrunk the federal civil service, “monetized” perks, especially at senior levels, and implemented new pay scales for government employees. But these measures have increased unemployment in the largely stagnant economy, with only mixed benefits for the remaining civil servants.
Asked in 2004 when macroeconomic reforms would have a positive impact on most Nigerians’ lives, Okonjo-Iweala said that it would take “at least five years.” On a recent visit to the Nigerian capital, Abuja—a city booming with construction projects, unlike any other in Nigeria—one World Bank official said that he saw signs of a “burgeoning middle class.” But for anyone who knew Nigeria in the 1970s, the comment was absurd. Professionals, civil servants, and many businesspeople who once were part of that middle class can scarcely pay their children’s school fees today. Of course, there is a burgeoning wealthy class in Nigeria, but it is small, and its members thrive largely thanks to political connections and connivances.
For the vast majority of Nigerians, making a living is difficult. Agriculture, which should employ the large rural population, has declined for lack of support from the government, and important industries, such as textiles, are moribund. The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria reports that over 1,800 firms have closed down since 1999, contributing, along with insecurity and the unreliable electric power supply, to the departure of some multinationals (although not oil companies). High levels of unemployment among young males—some 60 percent of northern college graduates are reportedly jobless—have led to rampaging crime. The country’s commercial capital, Lagos, is now best known abroad for its sprawling slums and roaming gangs of armed robbers.
Basic living conditions have also worsened. Electricity is scarce, and clean water is rare. Despite vast sums supposedly spent on federal roads, those roads have continued to deteriorate. Some 70 percent of Nigerians must get by on $1 a day. The UN Development Program’s 2006 Human Development Report ranked Nigeria 159th out of 177 countries studied. In 2004, mortality rates for children under the age of five averaged 217 deaths per 1,000 births—higher than anywhere in coastal West Africa, apart from war-torn Liberia and Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, absurdly, the government built a new stadium in Abuja for more than the combined budgets for health and education for 2001 and 2002. Health facilities in Nigeria have been so neglected that in the midst of campaigning for the April elections, two leading presidential candidates flew to Europe to get treatment for minor ailments.
And all of this has happened even as Nigeria’s oil revenues have soared: in the course of Obasanjo’s eight-year tenure, Nigeria earned $223 billion, two and a half times the amount earned over the previous eight years. But thanks to kleptocracy and rampant graft, much of the money has not gone where it should have. Of course, oil revenues had been misused in Nigeria long before Obasanjo’s administration: the EFCC estimates that the country has wasted $400 billion since 1960. But it was the record of this president and his governors that angered Nigerians as they approached the elections and made them wonder why, despite the country’s riches, so many of their lives continued to be be so wretched.
Politics as Usual
The answer, of course, is governance and politics. In 1999, as Nigeria emerged suddenly from 15 years of military rule, the largest political parties were ad hoc coalitions, with no continuity or unifying programs. The previous military governments had reinforced centralization and the power of the executive in Abuja and in the states. By the late 1980s, party politics had all but disappeared. In 1999, a military government approved a new version of the 1979 constitution, which was American in form but with added Nigerian complications. Experienced civilians, meanwhile, had been banned from politics in the late 1980s, and a new breed of opportunistic leaders had arisen, entrenching a tradition of patronage, cronyism, and financial mismanagement.
Obasanjo has never favored a multiparty system for African countries. Twenty years ago, he pointed out that in his native tongue, Yoruba, the word for “opposition” also means “enemy” and advocated single-party systems for African countries. During his tenure as president, distinctions between party and government disappeared; looking forward to one-party rule, he, and many other politicians, flouted the constitution.
But even as Obasanjo was tightening his grip on power, Nigerians throughout the country were insisting on a return to democracy. During the elections in 2003, an opposition party won the governorship of the northern state of Kano thanks partly to the people’s insistence that they oversee the balloting themselves. And then, on May 16, 2006, the country witnessed a remarkable new development: ordinary Nigerians demanded accountability from those who claimed to represent them—and they got it. That was the day the Senate was asked to vote on a package of 107 constitutional amendments, including some that would have allowed Obasanjo to run for office for one—or two or three—more four-year terms. (By some accounts, a single vote could fetch $750,000.) Nigerians all over the country, and especially in the north, had given their representatives an ultimatum: take bribes and allow Obasanjo to run for a third term, and you will not be welcome back home. The message got through: the Senate voted against the amendments. Obasanjo’s hopes for a third term were dead.
Still, he continued to try to consolidate his power. Last December, at a convention of the People’s Democratic Party, Obasanjo engineered a change in the party’s constitution to make himself its life chair with the authority to control party finances and call to account any elected PDP official, including a future president. He thus found a way to continue to exercise presidential powers even if his term in office was formally to end. Nigerians called this Obasanjo’s Plan B.
Plan A—also dubbed “the Mugabe option”—was for Obasanjo to remain in office by any means, perhaps by hampering preparations for the elections so as to trigger popular unrest and then declare a state of emergency. Preparations for the 2007 elections were, indeed, deliberately delayed until late 2006. The Independent National Electoral Commission—whose chair, a professor of herbal medicine, was appointed by the president—complicated voter registration. Although INEC was starved of funds and Nigeria lacked a reliable electric power supply, its chair decided in late 2006 that registration and the voting itself would be carried out electronically. Not enough of the special machines arrived in Nigeria, and those that finally came often did not work. The National Assembly eventually barred their use. The deadline for voter registration had to be extended twice, yet many Nigerians were still unable to get their names on the rosters. Meanwhile, INEC allowed 50 political parties to sign up, including some organized by the PDP and the security services. That was a record number, and many suspected that the flurry of party registrations was meant to undermine the major opposition groups and confuse voters on election day.
By the time registration finally did close, in early February, there were three main contenders for the presidency. Obasanjo had handpicked from among many PDP aspirants the little-known governor of the northern state of Katsina, Yar’Adua, who had not sought the nomination. People were baffled: Why should an obscure governor be the PDP’s candidate? And why did only the president, rather than all the party’s members, get to choose him? Nigerians, who talked about the upcoming elections as “selections,” were already saying that Yar’Adua had been “anointed.”
The two leading opposition parties, the All Nigeria People’s Party and the Action Congress also held stage-managed primaries. The All Nigeria People’s Party nominated its 2003 candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. As the country’s military leader for 20 months in the mid-1980s, Buhari had jailed corrupt politicians without trial, clamped down on the press, and launched what he called a “war against indiscipline.” Today, Nigerians remain concerned about his military credentials, but they admire him for having served as petroleum minister, state governor, and head of state without ever having appropriated public monies. He is also respected for having sustained a two-year-long court challenge to Obasanjo’s 2003 victory.
The Action Congress, recently formed by disaffected founders of the PDP, unanimously nominated the vice president, Atiku Abubakar. Atiku (as he is widely known), a former customs officer grown wealthy “through wise investments,” he explains, was very active as a civilian businessman in the politics of the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1999, he had just been elected governor of Adamawa State on the PDP ticket when Obasanjo unexpectedly picked him as his running mate. Atiku, who was seen as the principal architect of the election rigging in 2003, was never a popular figure—at least not until last year, when Obasanjo’s personal vendetta against him became public. By December, Atiku had defected to the Action Congress. He had been victimized and thwarted in the PDP, he claimed, because he had opposed Obasanjo’s efforts to serve an additional term. Obasanjo challenged him immediately: How could the vice president remain in office if he left the PDP after being elected on its ticket? It was no small matter: executive office in Nigeria comes with immunity from civil or criminal prosecution, and several investigations that could have implicated Atiku were under way.
For one thing, a Senate committee was investigating financial mismanagement by the parastatal Petroleum Technology Development Fund. In the course of the inquiry, the president’s staff and the vice president exchanged detailed accusations of corruption. In early February, the EFCC—by then believed to be going after only the president’s enemies—released a list of 135 politicians it deemed too corrupt to run for office; Atiku was at the top. One journalist called for “mutually assured impeachment.” The idea, which had been gaining popularity, was to remove both Obasanjo and Atiku from office and thus trigger a provision of the constitution that would have put the president of the Senate in charge of organizing elections within three months. But the inquiries and the accusations continued. And the more Atiku fought Obasanjo’s efforts to prevent him from running, the more he grew in stature and popularity as an unlikely defender of democracy. Just days before the election, and after multiple lawsuits and appeals, the Supreme Court held that Atiku could run.
The elections themselves proved to be, as Nigerian observers put it, “a charade.” They were not just flawed; they followed the downward trajectory of Nigeria’s sad electoral history, in which millions of people who want democracy are betrayed by their leaders. It is a tribute to the commitment of Nigerians that they keep trying and sometimes succeed in imposing their will, as they did in Kano in 2003, in the Senate in 2006, and in a few states, such as Bauchi (where voters overcame vote rigging by the PDP and elected a governor from the All Nigeria People’s Party), in 2007. That, along with a courageous press and an independent-minded judiciary, is the most promising sign of Nigeria’s difficult liberalization.
The Long Road Ahead
The new government faces formidable challenges. Yar’Adua and his team will have to tackle the issues of legitimacy and credibility. A newly independent EFCC could pursue prosecutions of well-connected high-level figures. Rapid progress toward ameliorating some aspects of Nigerians’ daily lives would be a dramatic start. Using the country’s oil proceeds transparently and productively would be revolutionary.
Nowhere have government failures been more evident than in the Niger Delta. The region generates most of Nigeria’s crude oil, 95 percent of its foreign exchange earnings, and 80 percent of its GDP. Yet it is among the poorest and most miserable in the country. That is partly because under a provision first inserted in the constitution by Obasanjo’s military government in 1979, state governors possess title to the land, depriving people who live on it of its benefits. The law is particularly resented in the Niger Delta, where people could profit immensely from the oil reserves beneath their land. A second problem is a constitutional provision that requires the monthly disbursement of federal funds to state governments but does not hold governors accountable for how they manage, or mismanage, the funds.
The real obstacle to progress is not a lack of resources; it is who controls them and how they are used. Oil-producing states demand that the complicated allocation formula under which the country’s revenues are distributed be changed so that they receive more than 13 percent of the country’s oil revenues and far more than non-oil-producing states. But they already get a phenomenal amount of money. According to Human Rights Watch, Rivers State’s 2006 budget was $1.3 billion, plenty to transform the lives of its 5.1 million residents. Yet little development occurred there, even though the state’s PDP governor maintained a private jet and enjoyed the benefits of substantial real estate investments in South Africa. He was hardly alone: in 2006, the EFCC investigated 31 of Nigeria’s 36 governors for corruption.
Still, all Obasanjo did during his tenure to alleviate problems in the oil-producing states was to create the Niger-Delta Development Commission and send the military to fight local militias. Neither approach worked. The people of the Delta never had confidence in the NDDC, not least because the agency was under the control of rapacious state governors. It received over $280 million from 2001 to 2004 and had little to show for the money. Nonetheless, it was entrusted to administer a proposed new 15-year, $50 billion development plan.
Government attempts to crack down on the militias have also failed. The militias, first organized by politicians to ensure election results, now attack oil installations with sophisticated weapons. They steal oil and trade it on the black market and kidnap oil workers for ransom. Sometimes, they make political demands; sometimes, they act only to make money; sometimes, it is a bit of both. Their members include unemployed young male university graduates, who operate in collusion with military personnel and politicians.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, the best known of these groups, has outgunned, outmanned, and outmaneuvered the military in the Delta’s mangrove swamps and creeks. MEND demands, among other things, that the government free two of its prisoners: the leader of a sympathetic resistance group, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who has been in detention for nearly two years, and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a former governor of Bayelsa State who has been charged with money laundering. Mend argues that even if Alamieyeseigha is a thief, so are many other governors who are free. The PDP’s vice presidential candidate, Goodluck Jonathan, succeeded Alamieyeseigha as governor of Bayelsa after Alamieyeseigha was impeached and imprisoned in December 2005. The choice of Jonathan as the PDP’s vice presidential candidate was designed to calm the Delta, but it has not. As of May, there had already been more kidnappings in 2007 than in all of 2006.
Whatever one thinks of their logic and their tactics, the militants have managed to get a central point across. There are dozens of ethnicities in the Niger Delta—the Ijaw people, in whose name MEND speaks, are the most numerous—and there are long histories of antagonism between them. But all agree that more of the region’s oil revenues must be invested in infrastructure, development, and jobs.
Unrest in the Niger Delta is a reminder of the region’s ethnic and religious strife—a limited source of tension during the election period but one that is always near the surface in Nigeria and could easily burst into the open. Some 400 distinct languages are spoken in Nigeria: three or four of them are understood by tens of millions of people, the rest by many fewer. The country is half Muslim and half Christian. The Nigerian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and except during the 1967-70 civil war and the early years of this century, Muslims and Christians have coexisted mostly peacefully. Still, religion remains a possible fault line: by one estimate, there have been 15,000 deaths from ethnic and religious clashes since 1999. Virtually all these clashes, however, started because of political and economic tensions, not religious ones.
One thorny issue was the introduction in 2000 of sharia criminal law to apply to Muslims in the far northern states, including Katsina, Yar’Adua’s home state. (Muslims in northern Nigeria have always been subject to sharia civil law, even under British colonial rule.) The move was largely intended to demonstrate opposition to Obasanjo and others in the PDP. (In fact, Obasanjo called it “political sharia.”) But it was also meant to restore order and morality. Since then, concern over the law’s introduction has faded, largely because the most draconian punishments it calls for have generally not been carried out.
The sharia issue, and that of religion more generally, receded even further as the April elections approached: the three leading presidential candidates were all Muslims from the north running with Christian vice presidential candidates from the south. Even more important, religious tensions dissolved in the face of the people’s determination to see Obasanjo’s departure from government. But if economic deprivation and political dissatisfaction endure, religion and ethnicity could become contentious matters again.
Much will depend on Yar’Adua’s ability to gain the confidence of all Nigerians. Many believe that Obasanjo, having chosen Yar’Adua as his pawn, will continue to be the de facto president. Others insist that after a short time Yar’Adua will show that it is he who presides. But the optimists have been discouraged by early statements from Yar’Adua that he intends to ensure the continuity of policy and personnel from the outgoing regime.
Friends with Benefits
The United States, recognizing Nigeria’s potential and importance on the African continent, has long cultivated largely cordial relations with the Nigerian government. Since its independence in 1960, Nigeria has participated in virtually every one of the United Nations’ peacekeeping missions. Even in the days of its worst relations with the United States, when General Abacha was head of state, in the 1990s, Nigeria was taking on regional problems, thus allowing the U.S. government to sidestep what many saw as its historic responsibility to help.
Under Obasanjo, Nigeria continued to play that role. The president intervened to reverse military takeovers in tiny states such as Guinea-Bissau and So Tome and Prncipe. He made efforts, although he achieved little headway, with Zimbabwe and Sudan. He provided a refuge for Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, buying time for war-weary Liberia to prepare for elections and staving off a new conflict that might have required U.S. intervention. He played a key role in helping to transform the ineffectual Organization of African Unity into the more promising African Union.
Because of Washington’s ongoing praise for these efforts and for Obasanjo’s macroeconomic reforms, Nigerians once believed that Washington could influence Obasanjo in ways they could not. But when they looked for signs that Washington would try to affect Obasanjo’s political agenda, they saw only unquestioning approval. In 2003, the Bush administration ignored reports from the European Union, Human Rights Watch, the International Republican Institute, and Nigerian civil-society groups that said the elections fell well below international standards. President George W. Bush’s visit to Abuja just weeks after Obasanjo’s inauguration reinforced Nigerians’ view that their president had unwavering U.S. support—and that when it comes to African elections, Washington applies a double standard. In the lead-up to the elections this year, the U.S. embassy in Abuja issued a few warnings against election fraud, but the White House and the State Department were mostly silent. It was only after the voting that they issued critical statements.
In the past, Washington has promoted democracy in Nigeria only as far as doing so has served its immediate purposes. Nigeria’s stability has mattered to the United States partly because the country is the key to stability in West Africa but mostly because multiplying political uncertainties in the Middle East make Nigeria’s oil increasingly important to Washington. The most obvious nonhuman casualty of Nigeria’s electoral crisis could be crude oil supplies. Production declined by over 20 percent last year because of violence in the Niger Delta. And as the flurry of postelection kidnappings suggests, there is no reason to think that the militants will stop their attacks, especially not if they see more of the same coming from a new government with questionable legitimacy.
If only to protect its own interests, the U.S. government needs to state more clearly that what transpired during the April elections violated democratic standards, and it should publicly place blame where it belongs. Washington must make clear that it does not approve of strong-arm practices such as crackdowns on protesters by security agencies. If Washington wants to see real democracy in Nigeria, it must urge the creation of strong, alternative parties. Yar’Adua’s initial statements about bringing opponents into a government of national unity sounded like an offer to draw them into PDP’s one-party rule. U.S. officials should instead press for laws that create electoral commissions independent of the executive branch and simplify voter registration. And assuming that a Yar’Adua government settles in, the United States must resist the temptation to use Obasanjo as a conduit for negotiations and deal directly with the new president. Given Yar’Adua’s lack of international experience and Obasanjo’s clear intention to continue to control policy, this problem will surely arise.
For its part, the new Nigerian government will have to move quickly and creatively to prevent violence in the Niger Delta from escalating further. Washington should press for it to develop a program that can quickly and effectively distribute resources at the local level, where they are needed the most. The U.S. government is hoping that Nigeria’s oil production will increase beyond current capacity (the United States now gets 1.1 million barrels from Nigeria every day). Yet Washington must make clear that it opposes the use of military action to ensure that flow. A military solution has not worked in the Niger Delta in the past, and there is no reason to think it would work in the future.
Washington is now preoccupied by global terrorism. And Nigeria, with a Muslim population in the tens of millions, many of them poor, is sometimes seen as a potential base for Islamic extremists. No evidence of organized terrorist activity has surfaced, and no one is more eager to prevent radicalism than Nigeria’s own Muslim leaders. Thus, rather than turn to military solutions—Nigeria has already signed on to the U.S.-driven Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative—Washington should encourage the new Nigerian government to formulate policies that use the country’s sizable resources to alleviate Nigerians’ suffering, taking special care of the north, some parts of which are even poorer than the Niger Delta. In this area especially, Washington needs to listen to its knowledgeable foreign service and intelligence professionals; it has often not done so in the past.
Many Nigerians say that in the wake of the discredited elections, nothing is off the table. Although coups are said to be out of fashion in much of Africa, in Nigeria they have repeatedly been used against a misbehaving political class. Such military intervention would not, of course, be the preference of most Nigerians—or of the U.S. government. But the flagrantly rigged elections were not either, and in the event of a coup carried out by leaders committed to returning the country to democracy within months, Western governments should pause before imposing sanctions. The notion that a coup could lead to democracy may seem counterintuitive, but if nothing is done to redress the 2007 electoral travesty, many Nigerians would welcome a short-lived military regime whose goal was to arrange legitimate elections. Nigerians have again shown their commitment to democracy, and nothing should be done by people far away to further dim their prospects for eventually achieving it, however they can.
Clearly, the best hope for the country’s future lies with Nigerians themselves. Millions waited patiently at polling stations in April, despite danger and previous disillusionment, to try to exercise their democratic rights. If Yar’Adua proves to be a “servant-leader,” not a ruler, as he claims he wants to be, Nigerians can finally begin the transition to a stable and just democracy that should have started eight years ago. And Nigeria will then stand a chance of becoming the model for Africa that it should be.