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On the brink of something big

Nigeria, a major source of U.S. oil, is on the cusp of collapse or maybe its first-ever handover from one civilian leader to another this month. Or perhaps a bit of both.

Published April 8, 2007


ABUJA, Nigeria - In January, the harmattan winds blowing from the north shrouded Nigeria in a haze of Saharan grit. The sun-baked dust smelled like the first blast of stale furnace air. Then, one bright day, the mountain behind the presidential palace disappeared.

Things inside the palace weren't so clear either.

On that afternoon early this year, President Olusegun Obasanjo, who may either be the man who saved democracy in Nigeria or the man who will bury it, had agreed to speak to a dozen American journalists as key presidential elections approached. It was, as he acknowledged, a "very interesting and exciting period in our political and cultural history."

Obasanjo (oh-BAH-sahn-jo) was not running (though not for lack of interest), having served two terms. This meant that Nigeria, which had spent most of its 47-year history under military rule, had its first opportunity to transfer power from one civilian administration to another. The voting is now just days away.

"I foresee a very successful election," said Obasanjo, who speaks with the confidence of someone who says he gets his political advice from God.

Beyond the corridors of the presidential compound, the public lacked their leader's optimism.

Voter registration was behind schedule. In the Niger Delta region, armed bands were kidnapping foreign oil workers, attacking platforms (cutting production by hundreds of thousands of barrels) and stealing freighter-loads of oil straight from the pipeline. Whether this was to express anger at 40 years of nonexistent government investment, or just a criminal get-rich-quick scheme was open to debate. Then there were the routine miseries - the lack of drinkable water, the fuel shortages (in a country that sells 1.1-million barrels of oil a day to the United States), daily power outages, worsening poverty, AIDS and a steady brain drain.

If Nigeria was a country on the brink of democracy, it was also a country on the brink of collapse.

Yet what seemed to preoccupy the president was a personal crusade to keep his own vice president from running to succeed him.

"The No. 2 man in this country is fighting the fight of his lifetime because of the corruption around and about him," Obasanjo said.

Obasanjo and his vice president hadn't spoken in months. Atiku Abubakar, 60, had led the campaign to block Obasanjo when the president tried last year to rewrite the constitution so he could serve a third term. Atiku (ah-TEE-koo), who had presidential aspirations of his own, thought two terms was plenty. Soon, Atiku, as the dour and blocky vice president is known, became the target of a corruption probe. Atiku pressed ahead with a run for president - but for the leading opposition party - and threw corruption charges back at Obasanjo.

The infighting was almost comical, but the stakes were high.

To secure his legacy as the father of democracy, Obasanjo needed to do nothing but step aside.

It was far from clear that he would.

* * *

At the edge of the Garki market, an open-air bazaar in the capital of Abuja, a cluster of men and women crowded around a small folding table.

On one side a young man was hunched over a Chinese laptop, pecking the name of the person sitting across from him. Flanked by portable toilets, it seemed an inauspicious place to register voters.

The crowd watched quietly as the man pressed his thumbs on a small optical scanner. (Recording both thumbs became necessary because of reports in the last election that people voted twice - once with each thumb.) A small camera atop the computer screen snapped. Minutes later a portable printer spat out a paper registration card. He was the 24th person registered that morning.

Nationally, the registration effort, which had begun in October, seemed to be flagging. Despite the president's assurances of full funding, election officials had run into trouble trying to buy the 33,000 computers necessary to register an estimated 65-million voters. The checks kept bouncing, a fact the chairman of the electoral commission attributed to "administrative rascality."

A slight distance from the group, Ezekiel Igbonekwu, 29, stood near a wheelbarrow full of wares: cleaning supplies, fishing nets, cheap stationery and electrical cords. He had registered, but he hadn't decided whom to vote for.

"Whoever do me fine, I will vote for," he said. Translation: He was willing to entertain offers.

* * *

In Nigeria, casting a ballot looks mechanically the same as in other democracies. But after that the democratic compact breaks down.

Power doesn't flow up from the electorate. It flows down from the elected through patronage. This patronage flows from oil, which at peak capacity gushes at a rate of up to 2.4-million barrels a day from the creeks of the Niger Delta.

Every month since the 1970s, oil companies have paid a percentage of their profits to the federal government. It gets divvied up among the 36 states, with a premium going to nine oil-producing states.

Decades of this kind of windfall ought to create a paradise. But corruption has deformed every aspect of Nigerian life. Rivers State, one of the leading oil producers, receives about $1.3-billion a year, but has a poverty rate of 58 percent. The only places with reliable electricity are the walled compounds where oil workers live.

Since the 1970s, government officials - from presidents right down to the mayor of the smallest of the 774 local municipalities - have stolen $380-billion from the public coffers.

The crowning indignity is how little of the stolen money trickles down. One American diplomat noted dryly that Abuja has no luxury goods stores. The wealthy spend most of their loot abroad.

* * *

People expected great things from Obasanjo when he was elected in 1999. He had impeccable credentials as both a former military man and president. He'd gone to prison for criticizing the excesses of military rulers and been "born again."

After initial resistance in the legislature he created the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nigeria's first anticorruption agency. As chief, he named Nuhu Ribadu, a young prosecutor skinny as a stick of dynamite.

Ribadu made enemies quickly.

"Probably the most dangerous work you can do in the world," Ribadu told us in the EFCC's offices while bodyguards with machine guns patrolled the parking lot. "Probably more dangerous than walking the streets of Baghdad."

In four years, Ribadu (ree-BAH-doo), 46, has decimated the Internet scammers who made Nigeria synonymous with promises of millions in unclaimed riches. His agents have recovered $750-million and arrested 2,000 of the fraudsters.

One might question the lasting impact on the Internet scam industry, but there's no denying Ribadu's effect on national politics. The EFCC Web site trumpets 150 convictions; the number of indictments defies accurate measure. At one time 31 of the nation's 36 governors were under investigation.

"We are trying to see if it is possible to change the people's stereotyped orientation towards corruption; we are trying to see if we can stop the people who have turned the economy of the state to their personal estate," Ribadu said recently.

But in a country so inured to graft, people find it hard to believe a corruption watchdog can avoid being corrupted. Ribadu says most of his agency's targets have come from the president's own People's Democratic Party. Small fry, say critics. The campaign against Atiku mattered far more.

"We have a case against him," Ribadu had said back in January. "We don't feel he is fit to be elected." It was the FBI, he said, that first tipped his agents off about Atiku's connections to Rep. William J. Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat found with $90,000 in his freezer. In the end that link wasn't the basis of Atiku's indictment last September; it was his alleged mishandling of funds from something called the Petroleum Development Trust Fund. The case hasn't come to trial, but it has profoundly affected the election anyway.

The constitution bars a candidate from standing for election simply if he has been indicted - not convicted - for fraud or embezzlement. Ribadu wasn't bothered by the potential for abuse. "If we succeed here," he said. "It will change Africa."

That night we ate at the home of a police officer who lives in Nyanya, a suburb of Abuja.

Fidelis Fuanwan has been a police officer for 27 years. He earns $108 a month, which is why the best housing he can afford is a two-room apartment with a polluted well in the back courtyard that his family of four shares with 30 other people. The police force is widely considered rife with corruption, though if this is what one gets for taking bribes, it looks like a poor bargain.

To get clean water for cooking, his wife, Roseline, walks to the market up the street where she buys five-gallon jugs. Over the course of a month, a quarter of Fuanwan's salary goes to ensuring his children don't die of diarrhea.

I asked him whom he would vote for on election day. He won't vote, he told me. There won't be time. He'll be patrolling. On the lookout for unrest.

* * *

The streets of Ajegunle, a sprawling Lagos slum, are paved in trash. The top layers are loose mounds of garbage a foot or more tall that over time settle down to a semipermanent hardness. Residents call Ajegunle "the Jungle," but swamp might be more accurate. Ajegunle has no sewers, at least not ones that work.

The only people getting rich in Ajegunle are the ones running the churches that tell people they can pray their way to prosperity. Buildings collapse, but the churches keep going up.

Queen Akufie, 32, goes to a nice new church with concrete block walls and real windows. But she lives with her two young children in a doorless room in a dark stable that houses 19 other families.

She can see the future. In January she knew what would happen this month.

The rains would come and sewage would flood her home. She would bundle her belongings and raise them up until the water ebbed away. She would swat the mosquitoes from her children and pray they didn't catch malaria because she has no money for medication.

And somebody from a political party would come to Ajegunle bearing a day's rice, or clean water, maybe a little cash, in return for her vote.

* * *

As the spring wore on, the dusty winds subsided, the rains came and with them a rising tension.

Atiku was stricken from the ballot, as Ribadu had vowed he would be. Atiku vowed to fight his way back on to the ballot in the courts.

One of the lesser presidential candidates died, raising the possibility that Obasanjo might use an obscure provision to suspend the elections.

A human rights group put the death toll of political violence since November at 70. Many feared worse would follow if the election were postponed or the results obviously rigged.

And hovering behind this was the risk the military might try to stabilize the country at gunpoint.

"The country is on the brink," said Adewale Balogun, of the Center for Constitutional Governance. "If there is any controversy, people will say, 'No way.' We know what the repercussions will be. Everybody is on the brink."

Bill Duryea is the Times national editor. He traveled to Nigeria with the International Reporting Project, affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Nigeria at a glance

Population: 140-million

Official language: English

Ethnic groups: 250

Major religious groups: Muslim (50 percent), Christian (48 percent), other (2 percent)

Independence: 1960, from United Kingdom.

Oil production: 2.4-million barrels/day (peak)

Literacy: 68 percent of population 15 and older

Population below poverty line: 60-70 percent

Number of cell phones: 21.5-million

Number of land lines: 1.2-million

What to watch for:

- Gubernatorial and state elections Saturday; presidential and national elections April 21.

- The president has said the elections are "do or die" for his party, raising fears of fraud.

- Vice President Atiku Abubakar is fighting to get back on the ballot for April 21.

- Violence in Niger Delta may be the pretext for a state of emergency that delays elections.



[Last modified April 8, 2007, 12:15:49]

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