Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ed Kashi at HOST Gallery

Continuing until April 3, an excellent exhibition of Ed Kashi's photographs from the Niger Delta is currently on at the HOST Gallery in Shoreditch.

The exhibition, titled "Curse of the Black Gold", accompanies the release of Kashi's book of the same name. Kashi skillfully captures the hardship of life in the Niger Delta. Pictures of displaced villagers, their fishing-based livelihoods ruined, are juxtaposed alongside others of glistening rigs that pump up the oil that has caused so much devastation. Even more dramatic are Kashi's photos of Port Harcourt's Trans Amadi Slaughterhouse, the billowing smoke from burning tyres on which thousands of animal carcasses are roasted each day forming a harrowing vision of Hell.

A series of events last week coincided with the launch of the exhibition, including a symposium at the LSE on Thursday where a number of experts working in the Niger Delta discussed the militancy, corruption and whether acting President Goodluck Jonathan could build on the current amnesty or whether the situation there was likely to regress to more fighting.

Photo: Shell Umbrella Girl, Okrika, Nigeria 2006 (Ed Kashi).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Changes to this blog

Sharp-eyed readers of this blog may have noticed some changes afoot here. Such as the inclusion of photographs. And the addition of new posts. Okay, it has been over a year now since I added the photos, so this change can hardly be described as recent. And though the difference between a dead blog and a live one is a big one, I've not exactly been prolific in my posting.

The point is I'm gradually beginning to tackle the task of transforming this blog from a repository for some stuff that I have written into one that tracks current events and will hopefully be resource for people interested in the region. Extractive industry is what I'm interested in, and that's what I'll mostly focus on. In the years since my trip to Africa I've largely written about infrastructure finance, and I hope to put that to good effect here.

That's the plan anyway, it does rather create the problem that a blog called "Marcus Bensasson in West Africa" might flounder if Marcus Bensasson is actually in London. That's why I stopped updating it in the first place.

Well, I hope to go back to west Africa for another trip soon, though right now it is still just an aspiration. I may eventually fold this blog into a new one with a different title, and looser geographical remit. But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Transparency alone can't curb corruption

Chatham House hosted two talks last week dealing with corruption in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Corruption has blighted both these countries, occurring on a colossal scale in Nigeria and directly helping to cause Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s.

Abdul Tejan-Cole, Sierra Leone’s anti-corruption commissioner, spoke first, on Tuesday. Then on Friday a discussion marked the launch of a Chatham House report on Nigeria’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI). While the former struck a positive note, the report on NEITI, which initially was hailed a success, shows just how hard it is to combat entrenched political interests.

Tejan-Cole, a charismatic speaker, covered a lot of ground during his short talk with the confidence of a man on top of his brief. Transparency International figures show an improvement for Sierra Leone during Tejan-Cole’s two-year tenure, albeit from an extremely low base. The country rose 12 rankings in TI’s corruption perception index from 158 in the world in 2008 to 146 in 2009.

Appointed in 2007 by President Ernest Bai Koroma to shake up the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC), an increase in prosecutions seems to have restored some of the credibility the institution previously lacked. A law passed in 2008 has given the ACC more teeth, allowing it to prosecute cases bypassing the attorney general, a political office-holder. But Tejan-Cole emphasises that prosecution is just one of three prongs in Sierra Leone’s anti-corruption struggle, alongside education and prevention.

“There is a perception in Sierra Leone that the fight against corruption is only the job of the ACC,” he said at the Chatham House talk. “The fight against corruption has to be everybody’s business. All of us need to be engaged fully in the fight against corruption; the ACC can only provide the leadership that is required to fight corruption.”

Under Tejan Cole the ACC has focussed on the commission’s internal procedures, creating codes of conduct and other mechanisms for increasing transparency. It has worked with other government bodies to do this for them too, for instance cutting down the number of bank accounts associated with the Ministry of Health from 77 to a more manageable seven, and having them report to the Treasury.

But transparency on its own cannot dent corruption. That is a conclusion that may be drawn from reading “Nigeria’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative: Just a Glorious Audit?”, Nicholas Shaxson’s report for Chatham House on the initiative that aimed to foster better governance by providing a comprehensive audit of the Nigerian oil industry’s financial flows. NEITI succeeded in the latter objective – its 1999-2004 audits were a “shining success” that led it to become a flagship programme in the global Extractive Industries Transparancy Initiative – but this success did not lead to governance reforms, nor did the results of the audit permeate civil society groups at large, Shaxson concludes.

Shaxson argues that NEITI did not drive of reform but rather was part of a broader reform movement led by a cabal of people close to, and supported by, then President Olusegun Obasanjo – a complex character who wanted a place in history as a reformer, yet was a venal ruler himself. Obasanjo’s unsuccessful bid to change the constitution so he could stand for a third term, and the political manoeuvres necessary to gain support, eventually subsumed his patronage of the reformers.

Tejan-Cole describes politics in Sierra Leone as his biggest obstacle, and there is an echo of this in the cautionary tale of one of Nigeria’s reformers, the former anti-corruption commissioner Nuhu Ribadu. At the launch of the FIX Nigeria Initiative in October 2006 – a campaign to involve civil society in the country’s anti-corruption battle – Ribadu spoke with zeal similar to Tejan-Cole’s, touching the same themes of education and prevention. Earlier that month he rocked Nigeria’s political establishment by revealing he was investigating 31 of the country’s 36 governors for corruption. But Ribadu lost his job after Umaru Yar’Adua succeeded Obasanjo in 2007, backed by some of the governors Ribadu had pursued. Ironically, the reputation for probity that helped Yar’Adua secure the ruling party’s presidential nomination was partly down to him being one of the five governors that Ribadu wasn’t investigating.

Ribadu eventually left Nigeria for a position at St Anthony’s College, Oxford, after assassination attempts against him back home. NEITI faded into obscurity as the old president’s focus switched elsewhere. The new president prioritised a different approach focussing on the Oil Industry Reform Bill, yet progress remains elusive in Nigeria’s fight against corruption. Sierra Leoneans should hope their country follows the example of Liberia, perceived to have taken giant strides under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – and where the EITI initiative has received wide praise. However, few will have any delusions about the magnitude of the task facing Abdul Tejan-Cole.

Photo: Nuhu Ribado, Nigeria's then anti-corruption commissioner, speaking in Abuja at the launch of the "Fix Nigeria" anti-corruption initiative, in October 2006. (Marcus Bensasson)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Combustible mix

There were hopes this time last year that at least one Nigerian LNG liquefaction project would reach financial close in 2007. This has not happened, and the prospects of a deal closing in 2008 are also dim.

The main reason for the delay has been ascribed to a change of administration after presidential elections in April. As often happens with incoming governments, the new man in charge, President Umaru Yar 'Adua, who replaces Olusegun Obasanjo, wants to affirm his political identity with a change of direction. Consequently, project progress has stalled until the government's economic policies acquire greater definition.

Nigeria is in a similar situation over its gas supplies to that of Egypt – it has to strike the right balance between monetising its reserves through LNG exports and ensuring an adequate supply for domestic use. The government is also planning reforms of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), which given its status as a joint venture partner in the LNG projects will mean more delays before the projects are ready to launch in the debt market.

A further obstacle is the dire security situation in the Niger Delta, which despite a lull after the elections shows no signs of getting better. While violence has not stopped projects moving ahead in the past, and does not present an insurmountable obstacle to getting deals financed in the future, militants have proved themselves adept at disrupting oil production. The risk to investments in the region is still very real.

Despite these problems, however, the LNG deals will get done, eventually, for two simple reasons: in a world of $100 per barrel oil prices, international demand for gas is desperately high, and Nigeria has the proven reserves to meet it – around 180 trillion cubic feet comprising mainly associated gases that are currently wasted.

As things stand, most of Nigeria's gas is still flared – akin to burning money, and also a contributor to the environmental problems that have driven militants to take up arms. One way or another, developing the capacity to either monetise the gas or use it in domestic power stations is crucial for political as well as economic progress in Nigeria.

“An element of slow-down is inevitable while the new administrations beds in,” says a banker involved in one LNG project. “What is clear is that Nigeria needs to monetise its gas reserves in a way that makes sense for the country, as Qatar has done.”

There are two LNG liquefaction projects – the $7 billion Olokola LNG, also known as OK, and the $3 billion Brass LNG – already at the joint venture stage, with the Bonny Island LNG project also planned for further up the pipeline. Both Brass and OK are joint ventures that see NNPC teaming up with ChevronTexaco, BG Group and Royal Dutch/Shell Group on OK LNG; ConocoPhillips, Eni and Total on Brass. BG is an offtaker for both projects.

Flaring, Niger Delta

An optimistic view of Nigeria's future might focus on the fact that April's elections heralded the country's first ever transition from one civilian government to another, having for most of its post-colonial history been dominated by corrupt military dictatorships, punctuated by occasional democratic interludes. This view glosses over the fact that election monitors – both Nigerian and international – condemned the elections as lacking in credibility.

The challenge for Yar 'Adua now is to establish the legitimacy that the polls failed to confer on him through reforms that lift the country up from its regular placing near the bottom of international corruption tables and revive the country's productive base.

Reform of the country's energy sector is one of the key ways in which Yar 'Adua intends to pursue these goals, and to that end he appointed Rilwan Luxman in September as a special advisor at the head of a committee given a six-month deadline to come up with ways of reforming the country's oil, gas and power sectors.

However, beyond the rhetoric, achieving these reforms will not be easy. A chronic problem with NNPC is that its revenues go straight into government coffers with an insufficient amount finding its way back for new investment. Many personally benefit from the current system and oppose efforts to reform it. In December it was reported in the Nigerian press that members of Luxman's committee were considering fleeing the country after receiving death threats, a measure of how high the stakes are.

Meanwhile, some oil and gas operators are complaining that Luxman's committee is proceeding too slowly, and Luxman himself was quoted in November as saying that he would need a year or longer to complete his work. But Yar 'Adua, who regardless of the controversial nature of his election, before ascending to the presidency had a reputation for being one of the country's few non-corrupt governors, reiterated his determination to fight vested interests linked to the NNPC during a visit to Washington DC in December.

“In Nigeria, [the NNPC] is one of the most difficult agencies of government to tackle because of the vested interest of very powerful people,” he said. “But we are determined, knowing that when you break that up, it will help bring other agencies and ministries in line. NNPC will operate like any other company in the private sector and source funds for its joint venture operations from the capital market.”

The tension between political rhetoric and reality is greatest in the Niger Delta. Though attacks on oil installations is down from the heights of early and late 2006, little progress has been made in bringing lasting stability to the region, according to an International Crisis Group report released in December.

A key demand of militants fighting in the Delta was met in the summer with the release from prison of one of their leaders, Mujahid Asari-Dokubo – though shrewd observers had long anticipated his release, and his subsequent marginalisation. Soon afterwards another of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta's (MEND) leaders, Henry Okah, was arrested in Angola, prompting members of his MEND faction to threaten a resumption of attacks on oil and gas installations.

The highly factionalised militant groupings in the Niger Delta have long been split between those taking up arms to pursue genuinely political ends and those that are essentially heavily armed gangsters. Ominously, the aftermath of elections in the Niger Delta are times of increased volatility as politicians lay off the gangs that worked for them, who then seek other uses for their newly acquired weapons. In recent months, there has been an increase in hostage taking, which has now spread beyond the targeting of oil company employees to members of their family.

In the summer the government set up a peace and conflict resolution committee headed by senator Devid Brigidi, but the Delta has been here countless times before, with reports issued and recommendations made. Until recommendations are implemented there is little chance of progress, and militant factions have already shown hostility towards Brigidi's committee. The danger is that once a sense of drift sets in, the opportunity to make headway under the new administration will be lost.

Insofar as Nigerian oil and gas projects are affected, some are a great deal more so than others, with offshore installations the safest despite some spectacular attacks in early 2006. OK LNG is not actually located in the Niger Delta – it is situated near Lagos – so security is a relatively small concern compared to Brass LNG in Bayelsa state. Attacks at the end of 2006 on installations next to Brass’s location highlight the greater security concern for that project.

Generally, however, there is consensus among bankers that whatever security concerns there are, though they pose obstacles they are not sufficient to prevent the projects being bankable. The feeling is that though the militants have made threats to completely shut down the country's oil and gas production, they have neither the organisational capacity to do so, nor is it in their interests.

Nevertheless, the militants should not be underestimated given that the 500,000 barrels per day reduction in oil production caused by their attacks of early 2006 has still not been reversed.

Yet despite these problems, investment is flowing into the oil and gas sector. Shell's upstream Gbaran/Ubie integrated oil and gas project will begin producing output in 2008, while Addax earlier this year tapped the syndications market for a $1.5 billion five-year reserve based loan, arranged by BNP Paribas, Natixis and Standard Chartered.

The concern is whether the investment is enough, as Nigeria's economic development plan under Yar 'Adua means soaring demand for domestic gas use. By 2011 domestic demand is projected to have risen from 1.2 billion cubic feet per day in 2007 to 6.2 billion cfd as 14,700MW of gas generated power is added to Nigeria's grid, while new methanol facilities add further demand.

Such a large increase puts a huge strain on the country's gas supply. Currently Nigeria exports 3 billion cfd through its NLNG facility, burns off 2.5 billion cfd that it is unable to use and keeps 0.5 billion cfd for the domestic market, which has enough capacity to consume over twice that amount.

As things stand, the country is not able to extract and keep the gas at anywhere near the rate required to balance supply and demand. This mismatch underlines the crucial importance of stamping out corruption from the NNPC so it can raise the capital required to finance its share in joint venture partnerships.

“The problem with investment is always that the government restricts how much funding it provides the NNPC for projects,” says one banker. “The company is expected to raise capital revenues itself, but for that to happen there needs to be reform of the NNPC.”

In November officials of the NNPC warned the national legislature that unless funding to the company significantly increased, it would not be able to meet its funding requirements for joint ventures in 2008, potentially resulting in the cancellation of ongoing oil and gas projects and the loss of billions of dollars in revenue.

Given this landscape, financial close for either OK or Brass in 2008 seems highly unlikely. However, the need to monetise a part of the country's gas reserves and the high enormous international demand for LNG means the projects’ long-term futures are not seriously in doubt. “At the end of the day, the country needs both a steady domestic supply and to monetise more of its gas,” says one banker. “But it will happen – if only because there's enough of it there to meet all these needs.”

This article first appeared in the December 2007/January 2008 issue of Project Finance magazine.

Photo: Gas being flared at a flow station in the Niger Delta. Nigeria burns off almost 2.5 billion cubic feet per day of gas, despite a massive shortfall in domestic supply. (Marcus Bensasson)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Niger Delta's industry of violence

Chief Onitsha Josiah Jonah, a schoolteacher in Joinkarama, is angry that people from his community only find jobs in the Niger Delta’s oil industry when another spill needs cleaning up.

Behind him there are around 15 men in boxer shorts and rubber gloves wading through the swamp the community depends on for its drinking water. The men are paid 1,500 naira (£6) a day to gather the crude oil that flowed here in July after a Shell-owned pipeline burst a little over a mile away.

“There are 46 oil wells and one giant flow station near here, and the Egdeberi clan has not benefited one naira from them,” Chief Jonah says. “We often suffer from spills, which kill our fish and make our children cough, but the amount of compensation paid by the oil company has been measly.”

Youth unemployment is a major factor behind violence estimated to claim over 1,000 lives each year among the Niger Delta’s 20 million inhabitants. Another is the environmental damage caused by gas flaring and over 300 spills each year, which make the delta one of the most polluted spots on the planet.

“Fifty years of oil production has left a damaging and almost irreversible ecological footprint on the landscape,” says Oronto Douglas, an environmentalist and human rights lawyer. “It will take a systematic, focussed and aggressive restoration programme to get the whole ecosystem back to ecological health.”

The kidnapping this year of over 60 foreign oil workers, released after payment of ransoms, makes such an effort harder. Insurgents are more familiar than Nigeria’s army with the delta’s labyrinth of creeks and rivers running through dense mangrove, and they have been able to mount operations this year that have cut oil production in the world’s eighth largest exporter by around 500,000 barrels per day (bpd). Over 30 Nigerian employees of Italian oil company Agip are still held hostage after militants seized the Tebidaba flow station on November 5.

Oil companies have realised these tensions threaten their ability to operate in the region, and have poured millions of pounds into development projects in the few last years. However, a high proportion of these projects fail due to either a lack of proper consultation with the communities involved, mismanagement or corruption, which is an endemic problem in the region.

A current government initiative to bring in a UN team to clean up the environmental damage in Ogoniland, where author Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) led protests against Shell in early 1990s, is met with suspicion in the area. Many see it as a ruse for the company to be allowed to resume production there for the first time since 1993.

“The government has talked with Shell about doing this cleanup without any consultation with the community,” says Mosop president Ledum Mitee. “They have completely lost touch with the principles of engagement.”

Some of this year’s escalation in violence goes back to September 2005 and the arrest on treason charges of Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, one of the region’s myriad armed groups. According AA Peaceworks director Judith Asuni, who helped broker an amnesty for militants and a cease-fire between the delta’s warring factions in October 2004, militant leaders took Asari’s arrest as their cue to go underground. Many parked themselves in Delta state, in the western part of the region, whence they launched a wave of kidnappings and attacks on oil installations that in February led to the output cut.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), whose demands are political and include the release of Asari, claimed most of these attacks. But the use of money to secure the MEND hostages’ release led to more recent kidnappings by other groups, where securing a ransom has been the sole purpose.

“Between January and March you could argue the hostage takers had legitimate reasons,” says Asuni. “Afterwards, no.”

Another reason for the escalation in violence is the approach of elections in April. Politicians, hiring gangs of young men often referred to as “cultists” to carry out intimidation for them at election time, have contributed to the arms influx.

“Two years ago we were getting cooperation from the politicians and you could see things turning around,” says Asuni, whose organisation has helped rehabilitate over 3,000 former militants. “Now the arms are coming in and the boys are getting mobilised.”

Fighting between armed groups in the delta is nowhere near the level of 2004 prior to the cease-fire, when Asari’s men fought pitch battles in and surrounding parts of Rivers state against followers of his former lieutenant Ateke Tom, killing hundreds. But periodic skirmishes between the Degbam and the Dewell – cultist groups loyal to prominent Ogoni politicians – flared up again in October, causing residents to flee Borri, the largest Ogoni community.

In the 1999 and 2003 elections, the trend was for politicians to discard the cults once elections were over. It is then, when the armed youths have been cut loose, that inter-communal clashes have been at their worst in the Niger Delta. As well as fighting each other, cultists have also turned their arms to activities such as “protection” of oil installations, kidnapping and oil theft – a dangerous practice known as “bunkering”.

Earlier this month at least 19 people died in a fire reportedly caused when an oil thief failed to put out his cigarette before approaching a pipeline. The worst such incident occurred in 1998, when a ruptured pipeline exploded killing more than 1,200 people, and over 200 people died last May after a similar explosion outside Lagos. Bunkering is also a major cause of the oil spills.

Bunkering has been going on for a long time in the delta, but in recent years it has grown in scale, with estimates of how much oil is stolen ranging from 70,000 to 300,000 bpd. Theft on such a grand scale necessarily takes place with the collusion of police and soldiers at river checkpoints, and it is a widely held view that officials in the highest reaches of government are also involved.

“The government, police and oil companies have created and reinforce an industry of violence,” Mitee says. “In the past, people who stole were made outcasts; now they’re made chiefs because it shows they’re smart for stealing from even bigger thieves.”

All photos, Marcus Bensasson. Top: Debris from the oil spill clean-up in Joinkarama. Middle: Ledum Mitee speaking in Abuja at the launch of the "Fix Nigeria" initiative. Above: Gas being flared at an Agip flow station. You can find more photographs for this story on Flickr.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Under the politician's whimsy

Abeokuta is reached from Lagos via a new access road complete with streetlights, rare in this corner of the world. Newly built homes, terracotta like the ground beneath them, cluster between road and verdant country.

Turning onto the road from the main highway you are greeted by a giant billboard projecting the beaming smile of Ogun state Governor Gbenga Daniel, standing for reelection, next to President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose farm the road passes on its way to Abeokuta, his home town.

Daniel looks set to win a second term as governor in April's elections. He is part of the president's People's Democratic Party (PDP) and during his governorship so far Abeokuta has witnessed a construction boom, with new roads, the redevelopment of its stadium in anticipation of the National Sports Festival earlier this year and projects designed to boost tourism.

Abeokuta, 60km north of Lagos in the country's south-west, is an attractive town and the birthplace of many famous Nigerians, including Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, Nobel prize-winning author Wole Soyinka and Obasanjo. Many buildings date back to the colonial era, though they are now in a state of disrepair. Through its obas' palace, where chiefs and elders gather to resolve arguments, it retains links with Yoruba tradition. It is a town of crowded marketplaces, heavy traffic and mountains of rubbish. But the hustle is more laid back and less menacing than it is in Lagos, while brightly decorated beaten up taxis and its people dressed in colourfully patterned clothes give the place a positively funkadelic atmosphere.

The town's name, which means “under the rock”, derives from the Olumo rock that provided a refuge for those fleeing from slave traders in the early 1800s. The granite rock is sacred in local tradition and looms large above the town surrounding it.

It used to be that people had to climb the rock to get to its top, but a giant elevator – built by Daniel’s companies – now allows easy access to the top. The clamped-on concrete structure dominates the rock, even from a distance. Critics point out that in a town lacking adequate healthcare facilities and other basic infrastructure, the N750 million (3.1 million pounds) spent on its construction could have been used address people's needs more directly.

I asked my guide's for her thoughts on this. Without any conviction, she pointed out how good it was that old people were now able to reach the top of Olumo rock without having to climb it. I pressed further, and this time elicited a resigned shrug: “He's the governor, he does what he wants.”

Photos, Marcus Bensasson. Top: one of Abeokuta's busy street markets. Above: The giant elevator at Olumo rock. You can find more photographs of Abeokuta on my Flickr photostream.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Clouds hang over Nigerian elections

Approaching Lagos Island in the pouring rain, light from the dilapidated buildings and shacks came through in pastel colours, so that by squinting you could almost imagine you were in Dublin looking across the River Liffey. Then the reality of Lagos's commotion returned as the traffic got thicker, and suddenly there were girls in orange, white and green t-shirts running alongside the cars, trying to shove flyers through car windows.

“So many politicians, running for governor and for the senate, how can they pay these people?” asked my driver Isaac. “They just want to get into office so that they can get rich.” I looked at the yellow car sticker that had just been given to me. It did not say what candidate it was for, just: “Lagos - 2007. We need a responsible female leader who is accessible to the people as a student of Bola Tinubu [Lagos's outgoing governor] democratic values.”

Nigeria enters the April 2007 elections – when the presidency as well as numerous governorships and senate seats are up for grabs – at a critical juncture in its history. President Olusegun Obasanjo previously became the first military head of state in the country's post-independence history to hand over power to a civilian administration in 1979. But the army was back after just four years, and remained until 1999 when Obasanjo, by now a civilian, returned as the elected president. He now has the chance to preside over Nigeria's first transition from one civilian government to another, all previous ones having ended with military coups.

But many of Nigeria's problems have festered over the past seven years. Tension is still high in the oil producing Niger Delta, while periodic flashes of inter-communal violence in the country's centre has been a characteristic of Obasanjo’s time in office. These clashes, usually between Muslims from the north and Christians from the south-west or the south-east, have caused thousands of deaths.

As the supporters of various politicians, holding parallel rallies that day, swamped the car taking me from Murtala Mohammed Airport to my hotel, Nuhu Ribadu, chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), was simultaneously being admitted to senate chamber in Abuja. There he presented a report in which he said he was investigating 31 of the country's 36 state governors, including Tinubu, over alleged corruption.

Tinubu claims the EFCC is being used as an instrument to target Obasanjo's enemies, and believes he is being persecuted for supporting the successful campaign to stop an ammendment to the constitution that would have allowed Obasanjo to stand for a third term. The issue led to a major spat between Obasanjo and his vice president, Atiku Abubakar, a prominent opponent of the ammendment who has presidential aspirations of his own, with each accusing the other of corruption.

Obasanjo, a Yoruba Christian, derives the core of his support from his fellow Yorubas in the south-west, where Lagos is situated. This is a reversal of the situation when he was first elected in 1999 on the back of support from the predominantly Muslim north with the south-western states mostly voting against him.

I got a foretaste of the distrust with which his northern opponents now hold Obasanjo in August, when in England I met Mohammed Mahdi Shehu, a Muslim cleric from the city of Kaduna. At the time the date of the elections had yet to be announced, and Mahdi Shehu, who said he supported Obasanjo in 1999, was convinced the president would use the troubles in the delta as a pretext to declare a state of emergency and call them off.

“Obasanjo can’t afford to let go of power because then the scale of his corruption would come out,” he said. “Sani Abacha [Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt former military dictator] is like Mother Teresa compared to Obasanjo.”

But this is a view disagreed with by many others, including my driver Isaac, who say the situation has steadily improved under Obasanjo, albeit from a low base.

The situation certainly seemed better at the Murtala Mohammed Airport where I got through customs quickly enough, despite a feeling of dread borne from hearing horror stories of first timers' experiences entering the country.

Meanwhile on Lagos Island the streets were filling with supporters of various aspirants to political office. From the following day's press reports, it seems the main event was the launch of the Lagos chapter of the Action Congress, a new political party formed by the merger of several smaller parties, including Tinubu's, joined by disaffected former members of Obasanjo's People's Democratic Party (PDP).

My luck from getting through the airport so quickly was unfortunately short-lived. The rain combined with the disruption caused by the rallies created a traffic jam so severe that the journey from airport to hotel took five hours.