Saturday, 17 April 2010

Nigerian Economics and Politics

Nigerian Economics and Politics
Entering Nigeria was a matter of real concern and some worry. I had been warned, the lethal conflict in mid-north at Jos between Muslims and Christians had earlier in March led to more than 500 people losing their lives and kidnappings had once again become rife, conspicuous foreigners assuming to have money were at risk.
I encountered no problem whatsoever, but I was also looked after very well by my hosts of CIWA (Catholic Institute of West Africa). What I encountered was also not so much a collapsed, malfunctioning country than a vibrant, industrious, energetic place with people all over the show. To be sure I was in a country with nearly 150 million.
Oil has become Nigeria’s blessing and curse as well. There are signs that the nation is on its way out of the chaotic uncertainties that have characterized it for so long. The corruption is still there because of the oil. Too many for too long, within public administration as well as within the private sector, have enriched themselves unduly.
However, the economy is becoming stronger. One reason is the return of Nigerians from the diaspora. The property sector is booming. A reform within the banking system also bodes well and the present Central Bank governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi is a stabilising factor, who is not afraid of chasing gamblers and fraudsters out of the system.
Despite the world recession for the last couple of years, some private business initiatives have been successful. One such example is Arik Air, a domestic airline that now also is embarking on routes to London and Johannesburg. I flew domestic with them and can testify to their high quality service.
Moving in urban Nigeria you are struck by the fact that there are money and resources. It is a rich country but many are still poverty stricken. Any democratic government must have this as a primary aim: overcoming such poverty. But you are also struck by some very disturbing phenomena. In the urban area of for example Port Harcourt you have to endure five to ten power outages per day. In order to secure electricity every property or business therefore need a back up system of generators, noisy and dirty.
Secondly, there is not enough clean water and therefore, also due to the continuous warm and humid weather, people are arming themselves with water bottles, produced and sold at a price in the country, all over the place; however, as I already have said, there are signs that things are stabilising, and if those signs are there to stay, we will within a period of less than five years see a sleeping giant stepping forward, making itself known to the world, in a way that we have not at all experienced before.
The political scene is absolutely fascinating to study, but complicated and difficult to judge. Nigeria is a federation with a great number of states, a high number of ethnic groups, indigenous languages, African Traditional Religion of course very well represented, and in addition a very strong presence of two world religions, Christianity and Islam.
President Muammar Ghadaffi made the incredible remark at the height of the tensions between Christians and Muslims in Jos in March, that it would be better if the country were divided into two, on Christian (the south) and one Muslim (the north). As far as I could read from newspapers he was severely criticised for this in all quarters.
The situation in the Nigerian federal presidency is both intriguing and amusing, to my mind. The sitting president Umaru Yar’Adua became sick in November last year and was then taken to a Saudi Arabian hospital. The deputy, Goodman Jonathan, has had to step in, but under very strange circumstances. Apparently not a word from the sitting, now sickly president; Yar’Adua is back in Nigeria for the last few months, but is not well, but there is no clarity as to his health, and Jonathan has not yet had a meeting with him. If anything, speculation is rife in all quarters.
Lately, however, deputy president Jonathan has taken a number of initiatives, despite the fact that due to constitutional intricacies relating to the Muslim north and the Christian south, he cannot possibly sit more than over a year. He has in any case reshuffled and renewed the federal government and there are signs that he means serious business.
The conflict in mid-north at Jos was also thoroughly discussed during the conference in Port Harcourt organised by CIWA, 22 – 26 March this year. It was thanks to a presentation by Dr John Gangwari, titled ‘Education for Human Development and Empowerment: Imperatives for Northern Nigeria’. During a most initiated discussion I was struck by three things. First of all, the arguments in the conference, which would have to represent some kind of Christian stand point, were made from positions of strength. I realised that this would be the case from both sides. This strength, I gather, is also a matter of strength in the sense that both sides want to stay on in the Nigerian federation and want to make it work.
Secondly, the conflict is a religious conflict and not just an ethnic one, as deputy president Jonathan has tried to convey a few times recently, probably so as to appease people both at home and abroad. No solution was offered, but again, the impression came through quite strongly that there are ways forward for peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims.
Thirdly, to my surprise Dr Gangwari quite unashamedly called the southern, Christian educational system the Western system, which I questioned. Wouldn’t such a usage play into the hands of those Muslims that suspected Christians, also in Nigeria, to be in collusion with the Christian West? He and others however did not seem to worry too much about that.
Perhaps I here also ran into another interesting and important trait of Nigerian mentality at the moment: the fact that the West no longer is a major threat but rather a natural partner in nation building. One should probably also keep in mind the massive number of Nigerians in exile, making their name known for better for worse, some of whom are now returning home.
After years of military dictatorships, there is after all a kind of democracy being developed. There are many signs of this. The most obvious to me was the vigorous debates in the conference but also in the daily press, which I at least was able to taste.

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