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Evaluating Democracy in Nigeria

Aired February 19, 2002 - 15:30:00   ET



JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Nearly three years ago, democracy returned to Africa's most populous nation. President Olusegun Obasanjo and the nearly 120 million people of Nigeria have struggled to overcome a legacy of military rule, corruption and neglect; a struggle complicated by political, ethnic and religious strife.

Nigeria's vast oil wealth, siphoned off by corrupt rulers in the past, is now unable to payoff foreign debts and rebuild the country. The democracy that has come to Nigeria has been flawed, according to some. The promise of new economic opportunities, few and far between for most of its people.

Balancing the achievements and the challenges: a report card on democracy in Nigeria, on this edition of Q&A.


(on camera): Hello, and welcome to Q&A. I'm Jim Clancy.

Tonight, we're looking at the challenges that face the government in Nigeria. There has been progress in the last three years, to be sure, toward building a multiparty, multiethnic democracy, where most people could only remember dictatorships.

But those plans have been repeatedly disrupted by political, ethnic and religious strife.

12 of Nigeria's predominantly Muslim states have declared Sharia law, alienating Christians and drawing international criticism.

Many things for us to discuss tonight. And with us, I'm glad to say, Dr. Jerry Gana, Nigeria's information minister. He is with us from London.

In Washington, Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action.

Dr. Gana, if you were to begin and just, by saying, how do you think this government has performed over the past three years?

JERRY GANA, INFORMATION MINISTER, NIGERIA: Well, thank you, very much, Jim.

I must confess that in the last three years the democratic government in Nigeria under the leadership of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, has performed very well in the sense that, first of all, there was a very definite restoration of Nigeria's image abroad. Because by the time we came in, Nigeria was certainly in a very difficult international situation.

The leadership of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo gave Nigeria a new lease of international recognition.

Then, the rehabilitation of a number of infrastructures, particularly roads, power stations, rehabilitation of hospitals, rehabilitation of school, rehabilitation of basic facilities in the country.

Also, we've had tremendous progress in the area of insuring that the economy, the decay of the past has been arrested, so that now there will be a movement towards growth.

In the vital area of resource allocation to states and local governments, the new administration was able to harness the resources of the nation in such a way that by the time we came in, what went to state and local governments was about 95 billion naira. By the year 2000, it went up to about over 300 billion naira. By last year, by last year, over 500 billion naira.

This is the result of transparency, accountability, restoration of excellent accounting at the federal level. And therefore, the good leadership in Nigeria has certainly set the nation on the course of development, particularly people oriented in projects that would uplift the lives of the ordinary people of Nigeria.

CLANCY: Well, Dr. Jerry Gana, the information minister, very positive there.

Salih Booker, a lot of people, though, inside Nigeria, not altogether happy with the progress thus far.

SALIH BOOKER, AFRICA ACTION: That's right, and I think while it's very important to emphasize the positive, the transition from years of military dictatorship to civilian rule, the process of building democratic institutions, all of that has been tremendously important over the past three years.

But at the bottom, you have the impoverishment of this enormous country, this important country, with 120 million people, and probably more. And that impoverishment is undermining the very process of building the democratic institutions necessary to manage the country's future.

Nigerians, unfortunately, are getting poorer with each year. 66 percent of the population is estimated at living below the poverty line today, where as 15 years ago, even under military rule, that figure only stood at 43 percent.

CLANCY: Let's bring in another voice here. Chido Nwangwu, the founder and publisher of USAFRICAONLINE.COM is with us. He's down in Houston, Texas.

Give us a sense of perhaps the public mood inside Nigeria, how people are viewing all of this. Did they expect more progress to be made?


Nigerians expected a lot more than what they are getting.

We have had quite significant progress under the administration of Ret. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo. But regardless, there are many areas challenging his overall operational confidence.

For instance, the issue of the National Electric Power Authority, NEPA. It has been an area that literally everything in Nigeria is dependent upon.

I wrote an article where I said it is the domestic infrastructure, stupid. If Nigeria is unable to have a regular and steady supply of electric supply, industrialization will be a problem.

The issue of also operational security in the country will also remain. The issue of attracting international investments will be there, as another problem.

Also, you look into the area of interethnic relationships. We have had more conflicts. We have had more Nigerians kill other Nigerians since May 1999, almost in excess, conservatively, 10,000 Nigerians. Some of these clashes, issues have arisen where people believe that they have not been made part of the integral structure of the federal system of Nigeria.

And also there is the issue of employment. There are a number of Nigerians who are unemployed under the present dispensation. There is also having an attitudinal shift, you know, from a quasi-militaristic transition to a true democratic Nigeria. And somehow the temperament of democratization in Nigeria is still a little too impatient, to put it politely.

CLANCY: Jerry Gana, the government can't be in charge of everybody's attitude, to be sure. When you hear about these disappointments, and I want to share with you a letter that we got here, a question that came in from Nigeria.

And there's disappointment here, because President Obasanjo, and he told me personally, this was one of his priorities. Dona (ph) in Nigeria, asking: "The president promised to end power failures by December 2001. Why has the National Electric Power Authority just increased its prices, but we still have power failures"?

NWANGWU: Is this for me or Jerry Gana?

CLANCY: It's for Jerry.

GANA: I must confess that, yes, Jim, I want to -- in the area of power generation, I must confess that the government, under Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, have made a tremendous effort in the sense that when we came in, the whole nation was generating about 1,600 megawatts, and by the end of December of last year, he promised the nation and indeed did deliver, to raise that capacity to about 4,000 megawatts. And we were in fact able to achieve that target.

What has been the problem, of course, is that the issue of transmission and distribution will also have to be tackled, in the sense that power generated is not available until it is transmitted and distributed.

Apart from that, the overall demand is certainly more than 4,000 megawatts, and therefore, in addition to the rehabilitation of the power stations, we need to add on this year substantial generating capacity in addition to what is existing.

But honestly, the promise that Mr. President made to Nigerians, in terms of generating more power by the end of last year, was certainly achieved. And we are moving on this year to additional capacity. And I believe that Nigerians ought to realize that even if we did in such a short period, we could arrest the decay in the power sector, rehabilitate all the power stations, some of which have not been rehabilitated for years, and they're now in a position now to add new capacity, and we've demonstrated that can be done by opening a new power station in Affum (ph) within six months.

And this year, the plan is to really add more power stations, not only by government, but by opening up the power generating sector to the private sector as well. So that independent power producers and others can come into this network, because the generation of electricity, distribution of electricity, is certainly very basic to the revival of the Nigerian economy.

It is vital. It is critical. And this administration under Chief Olusegun Obasanjo recognizes that energizing the economy is the way of reviving the economy.

CLANCY: All right.

NWANGWU: Yeah, but, Jim, if the revival of the economy, as the honorable minister rightly pointed to, is less dependent on power generation -- staying that there is 4,000 megawatts produced and the problem is distribution is like saying that the bacon is in the kitchen, but it will not be served on the dinner table.

It's a little disconcerting for Nigerians.

CLANCY: All right. I want to get off of the topic, because power generation is important. It cuts across all of the religious and ethnic lines and goes to the fundamentals of the economy, but there are other issues we want to get in here.

One of them has been the impression that many people have that the government is still corrupt. On that note, President Obasanjo being taken to court by members of the House of Representatives, who have been paying themselves out of a slush fund or out of a fund, completely in secret, and he ordered a half to that.

Salih Booker, I mean, is part of the lingering image of the corrupt Nigerian leader still being borne out by not only, you know, are you talking about the government itself, but by the whole political system at the federal and the state level?

BOOKER: That's right. It's a question of, has the culture of the political class really changed with this transition from military to civilian rule, or do you still have a political class that is still practicing the trades of the past, where corruption was really the route to personal enrichment at the great cost to the country.

I think the government coming in recognized it had a huge problem in tackling corruption, and it has not made nearly the progress, I think that it would like to have made. And you have elections now coming up in 2003, and there is all the more reason to be concerned that corruption could escalate during this period as there is an effort to essentially win the support of key constituencies for policies, essentially, that have not run their support.

CLANCY: All right. Out of Houston, Texas, I want to ask our guest there just about the perception that Nigerians have.

Has this government really made a run at corruption? That was one of the priorities three years ago.

NWANGWU: General Olusegun Obasanjo has pronounced in so many ways a determination to fight corruption.

As you'll recall, Jim, one of the issues Nigerians abroad and locally have pondered very seriously is that some of the billions of naira awarded for a national stadium and Abuja, and as you know, most of the weekends in Abuja, most of the ministers and the government officials are attached to their various states for other activities. The money allocated for the poverty alleviation program is relatively a minuscule amount in comparison to the amount for the stadium.

And this stadium has attracted interest, because some people believe that it is a project that, to put it politely, is not a priority of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. And that it is also a mechanism of compensating the supporters and political operators of the president's party.

And the other issue is in the area of the judicious management of the resources of the country, in terms of just the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the frequent flyer presidency that we have in Nigeria, you know, where the president travels just before you finish saying Nigeria.

For some persons, that is a major issue bordering on questions about the use of the limited foreign exchange resources of the change.

CLANCY: All right. And of course...

NWANGWU: And you have all the violence going on in Nigeria...

CLANCY: Yeah. We're going to get to that in a minute.

We're going to take a short break here. We want to get to the issue of the religious, the ethnic violence, the problems there.

Also, questions about just how the future, Nigeria's future, is being shaped on the world stage. The position it holds today.

Stay with us.



CLANCY: We're returning now to Q&A.

Tonight, a report card on democracy in Nigeria.

With us, Dr. Jerry Gana, Nigeria's information minister. He's joining us from London. From Houston, Texas, Chido Nwangwu. He's the founder and publisher of USAFRICAONLINE.COM. While in Washington, Salih booker, executive director of Africa Action.

Salih Booker, one of the things that has disturbed people about what has happened in Nigeria have been the scenes of ethnic clashes, of religious violence, on the streets of major cities, Kaduna, Kano, Joste (ph), so many others, in which thousands of people have lost their lives.

The question everybody asks, who is responsible for that?

BOOKER: That's right. Nigeria has been beset by a horrible series of violent conflicts, claiming some 10,000 or more lives since the return of civilian rule in 1999.

Very often, the blame is placed on religious differences or ethnic identities, and certainly that's a part of the mix. Some of this violence does result from religious differences.

Very often, the communal violence between ethnic groups has much more to do with who is seen as being an indigent to a particular area and who is seen as a more recent settler, when competition increases over scarce resources.

And so these differences -- the importance of these differences is not always so much religion or culture, but in fact these are economic differences in times where people are increasingly having to compete for scarce resources, whether that's farmland. Whether that's access to political power or access to water or electricity, in an urban setting.

And that's why I earlier stated that I think the poverty in Nigeria is the greatest threat to its return to democracy and to its ultimate development. It is an enormously rich country, but as you pointed out in the beginning, if it is forced to pay back its debts as well as try to finance this democratic rebirth, the question is does it have enough money? Does it have enough time?

CLANCY: Dr. Jerry Gana, I have talked with top level officials in the country, President Obasanjo and others. Some of those will look at you when you ask who is responsible and they will say it is pure politics. Yes, they are exploiting the poverty that Salih Booker talked about, but that underlying a lot of the religious and ethnic strife is politics.

GANA: Yes, Jim, there is a sense in which the very unfortunately erosion of some of these areas of conflict or violence. Certainly, we are most unhappy about it, but one would also have to put politics in context in the sense that in most societies where people have been under dictatorship for a long time, and one can quote examples all over the world, after the restoration of democracy and freedom, when people have freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of association, there is sometimes a number of people who misunderstand that and go beyond the basic freedoms.

I think this is one of the major causes of some of this conflict, that people -- the new freedom under democracy, the freedom to express themselves, the freedom to associate, have been somewhat misinterpreted.

Of course, there is the political angle in the sense that there are those who perhaps have lost out in the power game, and they want to and are doing so, as it were, go back to the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) appeal to ethnic and religious sentiment.

But the important point here, really, is that the democratic process in Nigeria is moving on. It is deeply rooted, and the president is giving very, very firm leadership, so that we are not swayed by these clashes. And this is the most critical thing. That we are moving on, moving on in reviving the economy, because it is important to generate jobs, to generate income, to get the economy moving again, so the issue of poverty, which has been addressed by one of the speakers earlier on, can really be transformed, so that people now can be creating wealth, doing so much good, that they don't have time for conflict.

CLANCY: Chido Nwangwu...

GANA: In addition to that, there is also the issue of, I believe...

CLANCY: I want to ask Chido a question, specifically, about Sharia law. Some have argued that it is actually the work of politicians, past politicians and dictators, and their friends and associations, who are afraid of the corruption investigations.

NWANGWU: In part, Professor Gana is right. There are some Nigerians who continue playing politics by other means, that that is one side of the picture.

The other part of the picture is that, if you recall, Jim, when the first formal introduction of Sharia law came into place and there was an abridgement of the fundamental right of a Nigerian, where he had to face amputation.

Our president, Ret. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, on the BBC, during an interview with them, said that it was an individual question. That if he felt aggrieved, he needed to go to court and seek redress.

Now here we are. There are too many cases of social violations of their fundamental human rights, and what has happened is that there is a transmutation of the secular imperatives of Nigeria as a federal republic into theocratic units of governance in the northern region of Nigeria.

It's either we're running a federal system of government, or we're not.

The third level of the issue is that I also agree in part with Professor Gana, where he talks about persons conjuring politics. But you ask yourself a question: When the governor of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) state and the president of the Senate of Nigeria engage in political conflicts that lead to the death of individuals, it has nothing to do with poverty, it has nothing to do with any retired army general. It has everything to do with attitudinal preference.

The fourth point that is also important is that the relativism that Nigeria is translating into a democracy, and then so the Nigerians have freedom and they can do whatever they want to do, that is at the heart of the problem. This is the point which Professor Salih Booker rightly points to.

CLANCY: All right -- Chido, if you had to give Olusegun Obasanjo's government a grade, just in one word, in one letter, what would you give it for its efforts.

NWANGWU: In terms of...

CLANCY: Just a letter grade. That's all I've got time for.

NWANGWU: I'll say B minus.

CLANCY: B minus. Salih Booker, same question.

BOOKER: C for grade, unsatisfactory for effort.

CLANCY: Jerry Gana?

GANA: Of course, A. I mean, he's done very, very well and the country is going to do even much better in the years ahead.

CLANCY: All right. It is a difficult question to answer and we thank all of our guests for being here.

Certainly, some of the views are subjective when you look at it. When you look at the past of Nigeria, you also have to look at the present and see how far that nation, the world's most populous black nation, has come.

That's Q&A for this day. I'm Jim Clancy. We're glad you could join us. The news continues on CNN.





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