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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

Leader President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Economy GNP per capita $310 (Ghana $390, Britain $22,640). This compares with $420 when the NI first profiled Nigeria in 1980.
Monetary unit Naira.
Main exports Petroleum and its derivatives, around 40% of which goes to the US. Despite oil’s dominance of the economy, agriculture is still the main area of employment, accounting for 47% of the workforce.
People The official UN figure is 109 million. People per square kilometre: 118 (Britain 238).
Health Infant mortality 112 per 1,000 live births (Ghana 63, Britain 6).
Environment The main issue is pollution by the oil industry in the Niger Delta region.
Culture There are around 250 ethnic groups. The four main groupings, however, are the Hausa and Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast.
Religion Predominantly Muslim in the north, mainly Christian in the southeast, with a mixture in the southwest.
Language English is the official language but each region’s main language depends on its dominant ethnic group.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny élite that made its money through contracts provided under the aegis of the previous military rulers. For the majority, it is a struggle to survive.
Literacy Currently 57%, although this belies the fact that well-educated Nigerians hold senior positions in many countries around the world. For example, 30,000 Nigerian doctors practise in the US.
Life expectancy 50 years (Ghana 61, Britain 78).
Freedom Since the end of military rule in 1999, Nigerians have been free to air their views without fear.
Position of women As in other West African countries, women play an important role in family life, which has given them the opportunity to branch out into the professions and business.
Self-reliance Nigerians are enterprising enough to provide for themselves. But the Government needs to establish the economic base upon which to build self-reliance.
Previously reviewed 1991
New Internationalist assessment The politicians are beginning to get into their stride. This augurs well for democracy in a country that has spent so many years under the yoke of military rule. President Obasanjo, uncertain at first, appears to be getting to grips with his job. This means that he may stand for a second term in 2003 rather than step down for a Northerner. Southerners believe the presidency should be theirs for some time to come now that the Northern hold over the position has been removed.

New Internationalist issue 337 magazine cover This article is from the August 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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