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.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Corruption, intrigue . . . and wanderlust

One of Ghana's biggest selling newspapers, the state-owned Daily Graphic, yesterday led with a story about a cocaine shipment that was intercepted in April as it was being offloaded in a fishing bay.

The story contains police corruption and intrigue, with part of the 2,340kg haul disappearing soon after it was found on the MV Benjamin, which explains why it is still running five months on.

It also highlights the extent to which people will travel in the pursuit of commerce, licit or otherwise. Of the five chief suspects - who are still at large - three are South Koreans, while some of those arrested on the ship were Chinese. The judicial committee investigating the loss of part of the haul is also looking into a separate case surrounding bribery allegations, in which one of the protagonists is a Venezuelan drug baron.

I encountered the legitimate face of this globalisation today when I met Samir, a restauranteur of Lebanese origin. Born in Ghana and now sporting a wispy white beard, Samir told me his ties with Lebanon are no longer strong. Moreover, as a Lebanese Christian he finds himself growing distant from Ghana's predominant Shia Lebanese community, which he says is becoming radicalised by events in the Middle East.

The Lebanese reputation for mercantilism goes back to the time of the Phoenicians, and I even encountered descendents of the Lebanese diaspora during a three-year stint in Mexico. Their presence is particularly strong in west Africa.

When Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings led his second successful military coup in 1981 wielding a leftwing agenda for Ghana, there must have been some fears in the western diplomatic community that he would lead the country into the Soviet sphere of influence. Samir, who at the time owned a mill processing US aid in the form of wheat imports, said that soon after the coup he received an invitation to the US embassy.

“The ambassador wanted to know what I thought about Rawlings,” he said. “I told her that Jerry was okay. I said to her, ‘You Americans and Europeans flee at the first sign of any trouble in a country, but when you see the Lebanese staying, you know that country will be fine.’ ”