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All Change in Nigeria and South Africa



May 26, 1999

LAGOS- Finally, at the end of this week, Nigeria will step out of the shadows cast by the single-mindedness of oppressive military rule into the uncertain daylight of democratic government. And a few days later South Africa is to re-confirm its short-lived democracy with a general election--though with mixed feelings, as President Nelson Mandela steps down in favour of Thabo Mbeki.

This is the new Africa, one that pessimists have always maintained could never happen.

They could still be right. Post-Mandela, South Africa may degenerate into the self-serving ways of a one party state as a triumphant African National Congress, wielding a two-thirds majority in parliament, amends the constitution to suit itself, tramples on any opposition, black as well as white, and rides the gravy train for its own benefit, alienating both foreign investors and home-bred capitalists.

In Nigeria, a country where the state has already been looted dry, the president-elect, Olusegun Obasanjo, may find that the government machinery, so deeply embedded are Nigeria's corrupting ways, will not respond to the levers he pulls. Corruption, more than endemic, has become a way of life for this oil-rich giant. Obasanjo says he is "not just going to crack the whip, I am going to use it." But at the same time, as he told me in a recent conversation, he knows there could all too easily be another coup and that his life is in perpetual danger.

But if the pessimists are wrong these two events could mean that the continent is about to turn a major corner, with its two most powerful nations giving the lead in the construction of a more dynamic and confident political and economic future.

Already, despite civil war in a number of countries, there are many signs of forward momentum. Ten years of often painful economic reforms have put a majority of African countries back on the road to economic growth, ahead of the rate of population increase. 40 out of 47 countries are now showing increases in their annual per caput incomes. South Africa and Nigeria, with their immense resource of scarce raw materials, have no excuse for not becoming African dynamos. Both have the potential to become the Malaysias of Africa. The economic knowledge that would enable them to grow at rates of 7 to 8% per annum is available. It is up to them to provide the political framework to ensure such progress. One thing is already clear in Africa, as Botswana has amply demonstrated with many years of growth of over 10%--there is nothing wrong with the aptitudes of the work force.

Part of the trick is to integrate the new with the old. In one way Africa is lucky. Because it has access to new technology it can leap-frog years of hard-won industrial and technological progress. The danger is that one small segment of society races ahead, whilst the majority is left in primitive economic conditions. This, as Obasanjo told me, "is not politically sustainable. It is morally wrong and socially dangerous".

He told me the story of the priest who visited a village, not far from Nigeria's modern capital, Abuja, where once you leave the town you are quickly in the countryside of thatched mud houses without electricity and good drinking water. "The priest had to leave his car and walk across a stream that didn't have a bridge. The village head came and saw him wading through the water. The priest said to the headman 'there must be something wrong with our country. In Abuja we have bridges where there are no rivers and in your village where there are rivers you have no bridges.'" 

"I think we got it wrong initially," concludes Obasanjo, "to see development as whatever we can import and graft on to our big cities, not what we can do for ourselves. But what we can do for ourselves IS development." 

Beyond economics is the complex issue of tribal divisions. Yet, as Obasanjo argues, contrary to what is often implied in the West, his country's tribal and religious divisions are not as deep-rooted as ex-Yugoslavia's. They are not so ancient, nor so uncompromising. Obasanjo plans to move quickly to deal with the very valid resentments of the Ogoni and Ijaw peoples who inhabit the oil-rich Niger delta but have seen almost nothing of the country's wealth invested in their region. "A real, terrible injustice", Obasanjo calls it. He also has to find a way to win back the trust of his own mainly Christian Yoruba people who by and large did not vote for him because they regard him as a stooge of the strong northern Muslim elites. 

For Thabo Mbeki the issue is how to placate the educated whites who are leaving the country in droves. The big talking point is crime and it probably cannot be cracked until there is some effort to apply the positive eliments of New York's lessons in "zero tolerance". "Being tough on the causes of crime as well as being tough on crime" is all very well but the latter has to be given priority. South Africa simply cannot afford to wait for black unemployment to be reduced or for the social deprivation that breeds crime to be repaired overnight. Still, there is much more that could be done with UNICEF-type basic needs programs, that don't cost very much but make an immediate impact on family well-being.

We will soon know whether the pessimists or optimists are right. By the turn of the millennium much will be clear in both countries. And they will decide whether the African giant finally finds its footing. 


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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