Nigerian president half dead
Associate since 1991
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January 19, 2010
Who knows? For all we do know Nigerian president UmaruYar’Adua may be half dead. He has been ailing from a kidney illness for the last two months in a Saudi Arabian hospital.
Now, at home, the chorus of those who believe he should step down has reached a crescendo. His vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, stands prepared in the wings. Meanwhile at home all major decisions are held up and his most crucial achievement – the winning of a truce with the Niger delta militants who have have knocked 25% off Nigeria’s oil income – hangs in the balance. The militants are becoming impatient for the truce to be firmed up and its promises delivered. The world cannot afford to ignore the happenings in the country that holds one third of the world’s black population.
Nigeria gets a bad press. Despite its immense steps forward from the time of the end of the brutal dictatorship that had reduced the country to penury it is widely seen as one of Africa’s failures. Lagos is a “black hole”, crime is rampant, and money is wasted on prestige projects or is simply pocketed by the elite.
The truth is that Western journalists rarely venture into the heartland of Nigeria unless there are serious Muslim-Christian clashes, violence in the delta or ballot stuffing in elections. Even then they rely on pre-programmed stringers. At the last elections the New York Times reported from the Cote d’Ivoire and the British and European papers, apart from the Financial Times, didn’t turn up.
The truth is so much has changed since Nigeria got rid of its generals and Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian (and an earnest one), was elected as president. Under his stewardship the country was turned round 180 degrees. Some people expected miracles but as U.S. President Barack Obama once said, turning the country round is like turning round a large oil tanker on the high seas - it is extraordinarily slow and takes many miles.
The enormous deficit was reduced significantly, inflation conquered, the mountain of debt paid off, the banks re-organized and the corruption set upon. The economy began to grow at a stupendous rate - 8% a year before the great economic crash. Agriculture, usually the Cinderella of developing countries, was given priority and turned in an even faster growth rate, far ahead of any other African country barring Uganda.
Yes, there were some so-called prestige projects, like the state-of-the-art football stadium in Abuja, the capital. But this was a popular move. Football in Nigeria is a craze. Nigeria stands poised to do well in the coming World Cup. To be part of the world of football it had to have this stadium.
On the human rights front all media became instantly free and all political prisoners were released. Obasanjo’s appointment of Nuhu Ribadu as head of the anti-corruption watch dog led to enormous progress. Corruption was attacked. State governors, members of parliament, the country’s police chief and businessmen were arrested tried and sentenced to long terms in prison.
After two terms Obasanjo stood down. His personal candidate, UmaruYar’Adua, a moderate Muslim governor from a northern state became the candidate of the ruling party and handsomely won the election. Opposition candidates, themselves seriously corrupt, challenged the election. The ruling party was accused of widespread ballot stuffing. Indeed, there was a lot in some states and since then some of them have been ordered by a now very independent judiciary to re-run their elections. In Lagos, Nigeria’s large and teeming city, there were few incidents of ballot stuffing. Likewise in most of the interior. The Supreme Court found that the result would have been the same even if the election had been clean.
When Yar’Adua came to power, the economic and banking reforms continued, but not very fast. He was tagged as “Mr Go Slow”. He certainly didn’t have the frantic pace of his predecessor. But he did pull the olive branch of peace out of the fire of the delta. In this he was much helped by Jonathan who had been governor of the delta oil producing state of Bayelsa. He had purged many of his corrupt officials. He is a friend of Ribadu and helped him nail the two most powerful and corrupt governors of the delta. Obasanjo had never had the political strength to move against him.
Jonathan, in an interview with me in Ribadu’s office, told me Ribadu’s work should be the government’s priority. But Yar ‘Adua fired him.
Despite this, in many respects Yar’Adua has been a thoughtful, careful president. He is uncorrupt and comes across in private conversation as a very intelligent, highly sensitive human being. He should know that now what is best for Nigeria is to pass the baton to Jonathan.
Copyright © 2010 Jonathan
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