Democracy and economy buzzing in Nigeria

By Jonathan Power

Lagos – March 6th 2012

Politically Nigeria has been extraordinarily lucky in its political leadership the last thirteen years. Under dictator Sani Abacha opposition was routed and its leaders imprisoned, tortured and murdered, the press was neutered and the treasury looted for personal gain. It only ended when Abacha suffered a heart attack in bed in the company of three prostitutes.

Then one of his most vociferous opponents, Olusegun Obasanjo, who had spent three years in a primitive prison, won the first post-Abacha election. It was a rather chaotic election with quite a dose of ballot of stuffing and intimidation but few doubted that the result reflected the will of the majority.

Obasanjo was an extraordinary far seeing, well organized and tough leader. He has a rare ability to drive forward in a clear direction whatever he has embarked upon. He is a successful big time farmer with around 20 large farms. Before taking office he had built a large girls’ high school and a technical university, a good part out of his own funds, and when I stayed with him recently I could see the construction of a new large campus for African leadership training. At the same time he is philosophically and theologically profound and wrote three long, thoughtful and well written books on Christian belief. He was also the jail’s unofficial chaplain staying up all night with prisoners who were condemned to die the next day.

Under his leadership with his first class cabinet Nigeria began to prosper. The country’s big debt was written off, inflation brought down and economic growth took off. The banks were reformed, the airport shaken up, the telecommunications sector moved from a growth rate in single digits to 35% a year, the airlines made safer and the port re-organised. The prosecution of corrupt senior officials was initiated. Much was not done. Reforms to the power sector were slow to bear fruit. Many accused him of disobeying court orders and running elections that were less than transparent.

His successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, from the Muslim north who died in office after three years was also a religious man who thought a lot. In conversation I found him both ambitious and modest. His great achievement was to bring peace to the Niger delta, the centre of Nigeria’s oil production, which for years had been racked by an insurgency led by young men who captured oil company workers, demanded high ransoms and stole large quantities of oil. On the other side of the coin it was said that he tolerated corruption and ballot fiddling.

Now in power is his vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, an ex zoology university teacher, whose recent election was regarded by outside monitors as unusually clean.

He has brought back Obasanjo’s first finance minister, a vice president of the World Bank, Ngozi Iweala, and her dynamism is again driving the country forward faster than any other part of Africa. He has re-invigorated the country’s anti-corruption agency and appointed as chairman of a commission overseeing the oil industry the man Obasanjo made his highly successful anti-corruption tsar and who Yar’Adua fired, Nihu Ribadu. The corrupt who for decades siphoned off billions of dollars from the oil industry “are now shaking in their boots”, to quote Obasanjo’s second finance minister, Nedadi Usman, herself a vigorous opponent of corruption.

At last big reforms are underway in the power sector. This should result in a big boost in the economy. If one strips out agriculture and oil, says the IMF, Nigeria is in terms of growth in the world’s top five. Many say a 10% annual growth rate is within its grasp.

For those who say the oil wealth has not trickled down they should visit the Calabar, a city of one million people. I have never seen anything like it in Africa. It is well run, the streets are clean, no potholes, with trees and flowers all along. It has well controlled traffic, hardly any slums, health clinics and schools for all and a low crime rate. Along the river is a beautiful esplanade.

Jonathan says that “to make a state or city rich does not require that much money. I don’t think the issue is corruption per se, it is commitment. But now you see this in many states. You see this in Port Harcourt, capital of the oil region, in Abuja, the federal capital and even in Lagos.” In Lagos I have see a transformation. Crime is down, there are more health facilities, the roads are now longer backed up for two hours, the city is cleaner and there are trees along the main roads and thousands of new apartments being built.

Agriculture is on the up, a trend started by Obasanjo. Farmers’ loans and fertilizer are to be subsidized and there’s a vigorous policy to substitute home grown cassava for foreign rice and wheat.

Nigeria is on the move in a big way. Democracy has more than proved itself.

© Jonathan Power 2012

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Subscribe to
TFF PressInfo
and Newsletter