Nigeria’s president Abdulsalami Abubakar appears to have convinced doubters that he is indeed prepared to vacate Aso Rock, the presidential palace in the capital Abuja, as soon as a successor is elected on May 29, 1999 - a date the general insists is ‘sacrosanct.’ But no one is under any illusions that even if the generals return to their barracks they will relinquish their traditional grip on power or purse - the most widely accepted scenario being that Abubakar will honour his pledge to hold elections and hand power to a corrupt civilian regime willing to take discreet orders.
Happily for the general, powerful military officers, influential civilian figures and western governments, which engineered the isolation of Abacha’s Nigeria, are not looking for the installation of a clean and ‘democratic’ leadership - although they often profess to do so. Their main interest lies in finding a ‘soft-spoken dictator’ - as one western businessman recently put it - who is less brutal and grasping than Abacha, but powerful enough to provide ‘discreet’ cover for the plunder of the resources of an oil-rich and Africa’s most populous country.
Abubakar has quickly established that he is less dour and greedy than his predeccssor and that he is, indeed, a ‘soft-spoken’ strongman. He has released the political detainees locked up by Abacha, announced a pardon for Nigerian exiles, promised to investigate past corrupt practices and institute a system of open tendering contracts.
But the pledge which has caused the greatest stir among the country’s business community and in the west is that of privatisation. The general has promised to privatise telecommunications, electric power and parts of the petroleum industry, notably the refineries. The process will almost certainly be supervised by the International Monetry Fund, in line with existing practice in developing countries, and will serve to enrich the ruling elite and, above all, foreign business interests. The process, asserts Abubakar, will be so advanced that no incoming regime can undo it.
Not surprisingly, the general has been given the ‘honour,’ resolutely denied to his predecessor, of touring western capitals - supping with the likes of US president Bill Clinton, French president Jaques Chirac and British prime minister Tony Blair. He has also toured neighbouring African countries, behaving more like a conquering Roman emperor than the leader of a pariah State about to be reprieved.
Britain and the US have re-established airlinks with Lagos, and Commonwealth foreign ministers, meeting in London on October 8, recommended that member States start lifting sanctions against Negeria in recognition of its leader’s ‘democratic reforms.’ The members also recommended that Nigeria - suspended from the Commonwealth in late 1995, following the execution of ‘human rights’ activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and nine other civilians - be allowed to take part in Commonwealth-sponsored activities which would ‘encourage better standards of democracy.’ But they postponed lifting the country’s suspension until after the presidential poll.
Earlier, the European Union’s development commissioner, professor Pinheiro, said that aid would be resumed only after the elections, but he failed to explain why a country which earns $10 billion in oil revenues annually needs foreign aid.
But Nigerian exiles are not waiting for the elections to return. Five leading exiles returned on October 7, while the country’s best-known dissident, the Nobel laureate for literature Wole Soyinka, confirmed he would return, after four years in exile. He hoped that, as he put it, that ‘30 years of rule by guns, boots, loots, whip, whims, decrees and prison bars’ would come to an end in the near future.
But anything could go wrong before the May 29 elections (local elections start in December). And Nigeria - given its pervasive ethnic tensions and its generals’ predilection to military coups (Abubakar is the ninth military ruler since independence in 1960) - is just the sort of place where things do not go according to plan.
Any outbreak of large-scale ethnic unrest could exert pressure on Abubakar to postpone the May poll, as it might provide the occasion for a military coup by generals made restless by his reforms and promise to invetigate corruption in public places. He will recall that in his five years as Abacha’s chief of staff he had announced the failure of two coup attemps - in March 1995 and December 1997. Abacha himself seized power in a military coup in 1993.
Ethnic unrest has already started to occur. In October protesters, mainly from the Ijaw group, attacked several oil-pumping stations and pipelines, cutting Nigeria’s oil production by about one-fifth. Protesters from the Ogoni tribe seized helicopters and drilling rigs, in the oil-rich Delta region, belonging to Shell company. Commentators said the protests marked the end of Abubakar’s honeymoon.
But even if the general postpones the May 29 elections, he appears secure in the support of those western countries that trade with Nigeria (the US takes one-fifth of its oil exports), and of Nigerian civilian politicians, who take their cue from the west and are even more corrupt than the generals. That is as long as he makes the right noises about the ‘registration of democratic rule,’ and implement his privatisation programme.
As a well-connected western businessman, who is living in Nigeria and married to a local girl, has said in a newspaper interview, Abacha was too corrupt and brutal but the country needs a ‘soft-spoken autocrat.’
Theodore Luttwak, a 59-year-old Italian citizen, told the Herald Tribune : ‘Abacha was tremendously corrupt, more than any mafia you can imagine. The general took a share in every contract, everybody, everything. He was a ruthless warrior. But the fact is, you probably do need a soft-spoken diehard here.’
Luttwak is none other than the older brother of Edward Luttwak, a former defence policy adviser to the Reagan administration and a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1998