All the five registered political parties in Nigeria have adopted general Sani Abacha, the military ruler, as their candidate for the August presidential elections. And the Nigerian government has responded by announcing the cancellation of the poll on the grounds that since the general - one of the country’s most corrupt and repressive rulers - is the sole candidate, only a referendum is needed to resolve the issue.
The 54-year-old president, who took power in a coup in 1993, is publicly committed to return the country to civilian rule by October this year. He has not even bothered, so far, to say whether he will accept his nomination as sole candidate. But there is little doubt that, come the August poll, he will ride once again to the rescue of the very country he has helped bring down to its knees. And the equally corrupt opposition politicians, who have failed to capitalize on his excesses, can do very little to stop him.
Abacha’s triumph is reflected in the fact that the parties nominating him as a ‘consensus candidate’ include the United Nigeria Congress Party (UNCP) and that one of the remaining four, the Grass-roots Democratic Party, had to amend its own constitution to be able to adopt as candidate someone who has not declared their candidacy yet.
His triumph is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the country has come to a virtual standstill, with shortages, including fuel shortages, the order of the day, and the country’s infra-structure near collapse. Nigeria, one of the world’s biggest oil-producing countries, is currently paralyzed by petrol shortages while its railroads, electrical grid and telephones hardly function.
The country pumps more than 2 million barrels of crude oil each day, while its four refineries can theoretically make 445,000 barrels of petrol, almost twice the country’s needs. But the refineries are not functioning, and the government is budgeting $600 million to import refined products between January and September alone. According to Nigeria’s Oil and Gas Monthly, a trade journal, less than half of that amount would have revived two of the four refineries, which ‘have been lying prostrate for more than three years.’
The reason for the refineries’ failure to work is not such a mystery. The government subsidizes petrol and sets an official sales price of 52 cents a gallon, with only about nine cents going to the State Oil Company. This does not even cover the cost of production, let alone the cost of maintaining the refineries. And the funds the State gives to the company to meet maintenance is stolen by officials with impunity.
Meanwhile corrupt officials, through their business partners, resell the country’s oil abroad, or in the black market, where it is worth around $5.70 a gallon. This daylight robbery is facilitated by the fact that the government channels the entire oil trade - exports of crude and imports of refined products - through a few selected traders, who pay kickbacks.
It is not surprising that Nigeria now heads the list of most corrupt countries of the world, and that its businessmen and officials, including diplomats, are heavily, and famously, involved in the international narcotic trade. But Abacha does not depend solely on this pervasive atmosphere of corruption and on the abundance of petro-dollars to secure his grip on power.
The least popular military ruler, the general relies on a large security force, which he personally commands and is not answerable to other military bigwigs. The Special Bodyguards - a 2,000-man personal security unit - is widely feared in Nigeria. This is not suprising of course, since it has enabled Abacha to eliminate all credible opponents of his absolute rule - detaining them, on occasion executing them or driving them into exile.
As a former US ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, said in a recent newspaper interview, ‘Abacha has less support than any previous military leader, but he manages to run things tightly.’ So tightly, in fact, that the general reputedly works all night and sleeps during the day to keep an eye on those army officers who might be tempted to spring a coup on him in the dead of night.
But before the general congratulates himself on how tightly he manages to run things, he should pause to recall the fate of another general on the opposite side of the African continent, who, like him, used to work all night and sleep during the day before his ouster in 1991. General Muhammad Siyad Barre of Somalia was actually driven into exile in Nigeria and later died in Lagos, a broken man.
But Abacha, much younger and more secure, is not likely to recall Barre’s fate. Like president Saddam Husain, he has nothing to fear from opposition politicians, but unlike the Iraqi dictator, he has reason to smile about the reaction of western governments and the United Nations to his grip on power.
The British foreign office and the US State department have both attacked the Nigerian government’s decision to cancel the August presidential elections. A State department spokesman said that the move could hardly be described as ‘advancement of democratic rule,’ while British foreign secretary Robin Cook commented that the commonwealth countries would consider appropriate sanctions in the near future.
Existing commonwealth sanctions do not apply to the sale of Nigerian oil, and Abacha is not losing any sleep over them. Half of Nigerian oil is sold to the US, which is, therefore, unlikely to react strongly.
In any case, British and American businessmen are deeply involved in Nigeria’s corruption and enjoy their governments’ approval to rob the resources of one of Africa’s richest countries. London and Washington, the engine which drives UN sanctions against Iraq, are not gunning for Nigeria or Abacha. This explains the absence of any strong UN reaction to Abacha’s enthronement.
So far, only the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva has issued a weak resolution criticizing Nigeria. It urged the junta ‘to restore democratic government without delay.’
Abacha’s strength is that he does not need any financial assistance from the west as long as he can sell his oil, which the west needs. And with $10 billion at his disposal annually, he can afford to buy both internal and external opposition.
Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1998