By Arab News
By Jonathan Power
The Nigerian election has got off to a good start. The voting for Congress — to be followed at the end of the week with the ballot for the president — has been well organized and peaceful. Nigerians value their democracy so hardly won from one military dictatorship after another.
It’s not been easy after so many decades of brutal and divisive rule to get to the point where fairness reigns. But now after 12 years of democracy the country is shaping up to be as its people want it to be.
Whatever critics have said about Olusegun Obasanjo, the first of the post military presidents, Umaru Yar’Adua, his successor, who died in office and now the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, the truth is, despite their mistakes, despite the awfulness of some of the political friends they felt they had to make, they were fine men with good hearts who, each in his own way, achieved a lot. Obasanjo put the economy right side up. Yar’Adua made the Muslim half of the population feel they were part of the action and won a large measure of peace in the violent oil-rich Delta and Jonathan has shown that the religious affiliation of the president matters less and less and has proved to be a bold economic reformer as well as a keeper of the peace in his native Delta.
I write not just of their record but of their personalities. I have spent time with all three of them and each of them impressed me with the depths of their personalities and the profundity of their look on life. Nigeria which has one third of the population of all the black people on the planet, is a very fortunate place indeed.
But who knows it? The Nigerian people are professional critics and that I understand. All progress pales before what has yet to be done. With rare exceptions what the foreign press write about is what they want to see. Very few of them have been to Nigeria more than half a dozen times. Even fewer of those who practice today visited during the pre-Obasanjo times. And they know little of the major economic reforms undertaken by Obasanjo and his two startlingly good female finance ministers.
The huge foreign debts were paid off, inflation was dramatically reduced, the banks were consolidated and reformed. The airport and the docks with all their disorganization and bribe-ridden culture were brought to heel. Agriculture was given enormous support by Obasanjo, the gentleman farmer, and has achieved a growth rate that is, apart from Uganda, the best in Africa. A good chunk of oil revenues were deposited in a special reserve account to be drawn on in bad times only to be frittered away by the Yar’Adua administration.
By the end of Obasanjo’s tenure the economic growth rate was moving forward at a handsome rate of 8 percent a year, one of the three highest in Africa. On the civil liberties front an enormous amount of progress was made. Political prisoners were released (as Obasanjo had been in the year of his election), the press and political organization became free and the judiciary was given its independent head. Under his appointee Nuhu Ribadu, head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, over 1,000 people were prosecuted and many imprisoned. Ultra-rich, corrupt governors were among those sent to prison. (Critics said that Ribadu only went for Obasanjo’s rivals, but the truth is some of them were the worst cases.) Law-abiding Obasanjo took to the World Court Nigeria’s claim to the oil-rich Bokassa peninsular and handed it over to neighboring Cameroon when the court ruled against Nigeria. Obasanjo turned the military, once the tool of dictatorship, into a valued peacekeeping force that helped bring peace to Liberia and other parts of Africa
There were things undone or badly done. Obasanjo never got on top of the necessary reforms to the power sector. He didn’t have a deft hand as the quieter and more persistent Yar’Adua did, whose diplomacy brought a sharp diminution of violence in the Delta and allowed the oil companies to increase output for the first time in years.
Jonathan has continued Yar’Adua policies but without much of the corruption that Yar’Adua tolerated. He too has carried out a major reform of the banks. Nigeria now is among the top six in the world’s league tables of economic growth. Its numbers in poverty are falling. Jonathan has neither the military-trained bossiness of Obasanjo nor the weakness of a dying man. In fact he is like his patron, Obasanjo, but without the bad side. If elected, it is my opinion that Nigeria will take a great leap forward and double its income per head in around seven years — the result of a compounded rate of a growth rate around the 10 percent mark. Watch Nigeria with open eyes!