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.
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.
Languages: English is the official language but each region’s main language depends on its dominant ethnic group.
Religion: Predominantly Muslim in the north, mainly Christian in the southeast, with a mixture in the southwest.
Sources: World Guide 2001/2002; State of the World’s Children 2001; Africa Review 2000.
Last profiled January 1991