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Nigeria: A change in need of belief

Amidst a protracted government crisis, Nigerians hope their politicians may learn some of the lessons of Barack Obama’s presidential victory in the US


As Nigerians celebrated the victory of Barack Obama in the US presidential elections of 4 November, President Umaru Yar’Adua interpreted the event for his fellow politicians: “I believe for us here in Nigeria, we have lessons to draw from this historic event – and the prejudices arising from various differences in tribe, zone, and regions. We should examine ourselves in the light of this experience and conduct ourselves purely as Nigerians to serve Nigeria and serve humanity.”?


Warming to his theme, Yar’Adua fulminated against those Nigerians in power who make decisions according to where they come from or according to the ethnic group to which they belong: “That is the old world; this is the old era. Its coffin has been nailed throughout the world and we have entered a new era.”?


Rotating rivalries?


That should be music to the ears of Nigerians, whose politics has been dominated for three decades by damaging internecine party warfare and a complex system of ethnic balancing or ‘federal character’, which divides the country into zones and reserves the top jobs for representatives of different zones. Given the febrile political atmosphere in Abuja around the presidency with plots and counter-plots developing, it’s unsurprising that Yar’Adua wants a new era. The question is whether he will be able to shuffle off the country’s difficult political past.?


In theory, the top political jobs are rotated among the zones to ensure that every part of the country has a chance to provide a president or a vice-president. In a country with a population nudging 150m and with more than 300 ethno-linguistic groups, balancing and representing those disparate interests challenges even the most skilled Nigerian political fixers.?


In principle, many Nigerians supported this system as a way to heal the fissures after the civil war of the 1960s when the Igbo people and some local allies broke away from the federation to form their own oil-rich republic. For many outsiders, Nigeria made an exemplary recovery from that devastating war in which over a million died: the first post-war government loudly proclaimed: “No victor, no vanquished!”. The reality has been more difficult. The federal character of the system is cumbersome but has, many claim, kept the more extreme proponents of ethnic exclusivity in check. No one region can dominate political, economic and military organisations without having to recruit senior officials from other parts of the country.?


Spreading the wealth


?If a Nigerian establishes a bank or a big new company, the directors must be drawn from across the country. Similarly, the mid-ranking and top civil service posts are divided on a geographic basis. In the middle of Kenya’s post-election crisis and ethnic mayhem in early 2008, the Commonwealth Secretariat sent its special advisor, Professor Ade Adefuye from Nigeria, to help mediation: and some of Nigeria’s principles of federal character found their way into Kenya’s power-sharing agreement that resulted in its current grand coalition.?


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Proud as some Nigerians may be about such political exports, many are profoundly disturbed at the state of national politics. The obsession with regional and ethnic balancing, requiring each senior politican to deliver for his or her ethnic constituency, has held back civilian politics, because it most resembles a marketplace.?


Some see the country’s federal character as benefiting the politicians – especially those of the biggest ethnic groups of Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba – more than the people. According to former President Olusegun Obasanjo: “The ordinary Nigerians are no problem. They are wonderful in hospitality, forbearance, tolerance and in the love of their fellow human beings. But the elite... it is when the elite want something and cannot get it that they remember that you are Igbo or he is Yoruba... or he is Hausa and you are Igbo.”?


President Yar’Adua’s administration promised change. After two terms of President Obasanjo’s rumbustious political style, replete with allegations of nepotism and vindictiveness, there were hopes that the quietly-spoken and thoughtful Yar’Adua would offer a more effective, if less flamboyant style of government.?


Obasanjo’s long shadow?


After 18 months of power, Yar’Adua has been unable to break away from the legacy of his predecessor. Although some of his aides speak vitriolically about Obasanjo and the business dealings of his relatives and associates, there is plenty of unfinished business from that era in the in-tray, such as the billions of dollars of contracts in the power sector awarded to such little effect under Obasanjo. Most of all there was the messy presidential election in 2007 which has been the subject of a high court action by the losing candidates – Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar. The legal dispute over the presidential election has been a dead weight on the Yar’Adua govermment, delaying decisions on project funding and a vital cabinet reshuffle.?


The political clans have been gathering and plotting in Abuja. Their schemes encompass the art of Nigerian high-table politics: to his face all the players pledge loyalty to Yar’Adua, but behind his back they brief the press on how the government is falling apart and how Yar’Adua’s health problems have rendered him incapable.?


Something has to break, say the presidential watchers in Abuja. The legal decision which will either confirm Yar’Adua in office beyond dispute or re-commend fresh election will be a turning point. If it confirms Yar’Adua, his aides say that he will accelerate the pace of government and prove the doubters wrong. If the courts rule against his election, then Nigeria is due for a protracted period of political uncertainty. And for an increasingly impatient country, that will mean even more tendentious politics in 2009.

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