Foreign Affairs April 2006

Worse Than Iraq?

Nigeria's president and onetime hope for a stable future is leading his country toward implosion—and possible U.S. military intervention

The "ripening" began soon after what seemed the dawn of a new era: the sudden death, in 1998, of the military dictator Sani Abacha and the subsequent election to the presidency of the retired general Olusegun Obasanjo. Now sixty-nine and in his second term, Obasanjo had been imprisoned by Abacha in 1995 for allegedly plotting a coup; he emerged from prison in 1998 a national hero.

In a country where ethnicity trumps citizenship, religion trumps ethnicity, and power trumps religion, Obasanjo seemed the ideal compromise candidate. As a Yoruba, he would placate the most prominent and progressive ethnic group in the southwest. As a Christian, he would appeal to 40 percent of Nigerians (also largely in the south). As a professional soldier, he had clout in the north as well, and would be able to restrain the military and forestall any uprisings by out-of-power generals. And as a democrat of international repute (he is a former candidate for United Nations secretary-general and a friend of Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter), he would convert Nigeria from the pariah state left behind by Abacha into an internationally respected regional power.

Sixty-two percent of Nigerians voted for Obasanjo in 1999, giving him a hefty mandate and showing that he had indeed won support outside his own ethnic and religious groups. He immediately set about undoing, or appearing to undo, the legacy of nearly three decades of mostly military rule. Announcing that he was "fully committed to using all appropriate means and resources to ensure that every man, woman, and child will perceive and reap the benefits of democracy," he established a commission to investigate allegations of corruption. However, nothing substantive has resulted—except that the commission has accused Obasanjo himself of taking bribes.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Bus, Truck, Boat, and Camel.

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