Nigeria had a public holiday on 29 May 2001. It marked the second anniversary of the country’s return to civilian rule, after 15 years under the military. President Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a former military ruler but now a civilian, is in charge of Africa’s most populous nation.

Nigerians must think they are dreaming. After two years, the soldiers are still staying put in their barracks, and not interfering in the political life of the nation, as they have so often done in the four decades that Nigeria has been independent from Britain. In 1983, for example, the army removed the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari only three months after he had been re-elected to serve a second four-year term.

In all, the soldiers have held the reins of power for 29 of the 41 years of Nigerian independence. But invariably civilians, who have been in control for just 12 years, carry the can for Nigeria’s ills.

Civilians are blamed for corruption. Civilians are blamed for mismanaging the economy. The soldiers always managed to present themselves as the saviours of this vast nation – a nation of at least 100 million. The reason for the estimate is that Nigerians have never been able to agree on a proper census figure – a couple of censuses in the past 25 years have proved inconclusive. Census figures are hotly contested because, given the ethnically polarized state of Nigerian society, the various regions have always tried to massage population figures to ensure that they have a greater say in how political and economic largess is dispensed.

Corruption is another huge bone of contention. Nigerians are forever debating which is more corrupt: the army or democratic politicians. But the latest evidence indicates that soldiers are streets ahead of civilians in the corruption stakes. Witness the current attempt by the Nigerian Government to recover billions of pounds salted away by the most venal of all military rulers, General Sani Abacha, who died in mysterious circumstances in June 1998.

The Swiss and British Governments are being lobbied strongly by the Obasanjo administration for the return of the money. Some progress is being made but the process is painfully slow. Nigeria, despite its oil wealth, is cash-strapped. It needs the money to satisfy a restive population that has not really seen any material change to its standard of living since 1999.

Nigeria is also debt-ridden and the Government wants some of the debt rescheduled so it can undertake social programmes. It’s a complicated business. For example, Nigeria owes the Paris Club of creditor nations $25 billion, but 85 per cent of this is interest on a $5 billion loan that was taken out in 1985, a debt which the military government failed to service.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Nigeria’s external reserves have rocketed from $3.7 billion in May 1999 to almost $10 billion by the end of 2000. This will help encourage foreign investors that Nigeria is on the right track economically – and the country needs foreign investment to get the economy going again.

Oil, though, will not be Nigeria’s saving grace. It will have to move away from being a mono-product economy, dependent solely on oil exports for its sustenance. More attention will have to be paid to non-oil exports if any growth in the economy is to be sustainable.

But such growth and foreign investment will be dependent on political stability. On that front things are looking up. President Obasanjo is looking more secure and confident by the month. What is more, the controversy over the imposition of Islamic Sharia law in the Muslim-dominated northern states – which had threatened to split the country into two – appears for the moment at least to have died down.

Fact file

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Human Development Index
Last profiled January 1991

At a glance

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