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An African 'Renaissance' Gone Awry

Nigeria is riven by corruption, religious strife and economic malaise. Many blame the president, who they say has been ineffectual.

November 28, 2002|Davan Maharaj | Times Staff Writer

LAGOS, Nigeria — After ending 15 years of unbroken military rule in 1999, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo pledged to lead a "genuine renaissance" to stamp out violence, despair and rampant corruption in a country that prides itself in being called the giant of Africa. Today Nigeria is, by most accounts, still the continent's most corrupt nation. Its 129 million people -- who make up the largest black population in the world -- are as bereft of hope as ever.

And the religious, ethnic and communal violence that has claimed more than 10,000 lives during Obasanjo's tenure was spotlighted last week when Miss World organizers abandoned Abuja, the Nigerian capital, as the site of their December beauty pageant. Three days of Muslim-Christian clashes left more than 200 people dead and part of the northern city of Kaduna in ruins.

Under Obasanjo, whom many Nigerians describe as an arrogant leader who is largely out of touch with his people, the divisions between the country's Muslim north and Christian south have deepened. A dozen northern states have embraced Sharia, or Islamic law, setting up bloody clashes between Muslims and Christian minorities there.

Northern leaders have used Sharia's popularity to improve their standing with their constituents and to mount an opposition to Obasanjo. But critics say Obasanjo is also to blame for the crisis because he has allowed conflicts arising from Sharia to fester. The Nigerian leader has said little about the controversy -- only that he would weep if a death sentence was carried out against Amina Lawal, a single woman who has been sentenced to stoning for having sex out of wedlock.

Critics say Obasanjo's handling of the Sharia issue is reflective of his presidency. Since assuming power, Obasanjo's administration has failed to institute reforms, prosecute corrupt military leaders or recover any significant amount of the billions of dollars looted from the country's treasury.

For the last few months, lawmakers have been lining up to impeach him, colleagues in his own party have been mounting challenges to his campaign to be reelected in March, and Nigerians have been growing increasingly frustrated with his leadership.

Obasanjo has cited as an achievement the fact that Nigeria -- a country with more than 250 ethnic groups and languages -- has survived.

Karl Maier, author of the acclaimed "This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria," conceded that, yes, Nigeria has not fallen apart under Obasanjo. "But it is certainly in worse health than when he took office," he said. "Nigeria is in danger of going critical."

Obasanjo's election was supposed to mean a new beginning for Nigeria. It was his second chance at running the country.

In 1979, Obasanjo, then an army general, became the first African military leader to hand over power to a civilian government. Twenty years later, the favor was returned to him -- thanks to backing from the military's top brass and mainly northern Muslims who voted for him en masse.

"Nigeria is wonderfully endowed by the Almighty with human and other resources," Obasanjo said at his inauguration ceremony, attended by then-South African President Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Prince Charles and more than a dozen African heads of state. "It does no credit to us or the entire black race if we fail in managing our resources for quick improvement in the quality of the lives of our people."

Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil producers. Its lucrative oil shipments make it the largest African trading partner of the United States. After his election, Obasanjo set about repairing Nigeria's image to attract foreign investment and win much-needed debt relief.

But critics said Obasanjo began to fancy himself as a world leader, ignoring the massive problems at home.

In his first 3 1/2 years in office, Obasanjo has made more than 100 foreign trips, racking up more frequent flier miles than President Bush. He has been dubbed "the absentee president" by human rights activist Gani Fawehinmi, who recently released a pamphlet declaring that the Nigerian leader had spent 340 days abroad between March 1999 and June 10 this year.

"As the Nation Bleeds, Our President Goes to Jamaica Again," screamed a headline over a front-page editorial in a Lagos daily about Obasanjo's junket in August to Jamaica, Barbados and Senegal. "At a time when dark clouds are gathering all over Nigeria, this trip is a flight in irresponsibility."

Members of Nigeria's House of Representatives -- led by top lawmakers of his own party -- recently cited Obasanjo's globe trotting and his failure to control mounting violence among grounds for his impeachment.

Obasanjo ridiculed the move as "a joke taken too far," but when the Senate threw its weight behind the impeachment, Obasanjo had to rely on mediation by two former heads of state to halt the proceedings. Now an independent panel is investigating whether several lawmakers accepted bribes to drop their support for impeachment.

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