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Behind the strife, economic and political problems in Nigeria

By Peter Cunliffe-Jones, Daily Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), 6 March 2000

The violence of last week has been blamed on Nigeria's stagnant economy, with parliament haggling over the government's 2000 budget since last November.

WHILE the worst bloodshed to wrack Nigeria in 30 years may be subsiding, President Olusegun Obasanjo faces a heap of untackled economic and political problems, analysts said this weekend.

Setting out his goals when he came to office in May, Nigeria's first civilian president in more than 15 years pledged to end political strife, tackle industrial-scale corruption, and ease crippling poverty.

Marking his 63rd birthday on Sunday, the former military ruler has little to celebrate on any front, analysts said in Lagos.

Speaking to the nation on Thursday, Obasanjo said he had been shocked and saddened by ten days of unrest that had left hundreds dead in what he called the worst bloodletting ... since the civil war 30 years ago.

The government Obasanjo formed has meanwhile pledged to end corruption, but has failed to carry out any high-profile prosecutions of the officials alleged to have been behind massive looting of the public coffers under past regimes.

On the economic front, little has changed for the ordinary Nigerian. Unemployment is high, public services remain poor, infrastructure remains weak -- notably in electricity and telecommunications -- and stagnant public businesses remain in state hands.

According to Sheikh Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, a radical Islamic leader in Lagos, the social ills of the country were the reason for the eruption of violence that claimed hundreds of lives in northern Nigeria last month.

Hundreds died in the northern city of Kaduna in riots which flared during a protest by Christians against Muslim demands for Islamic Sharia law.

But speaking to the newspaper The Guardian, el-Zakzaky said the violence was not caused by the issue of Islam in Nigeria any more than violence in the south last year was caused by that region's dominant religion: Christianity.

People should realise that this a social problem, nothing to do with Islam or Christianity as some people think, he said.

People are frustrated so that at the slightest provocation they become mad. It is part of societal ills. The solution lies in addressing such ills.

There is ignorance, unemployment. People seem to be at loggerheads even with themselves. Otherwise how do you explain somebody picking up arms to kill other people and destroy property?

People are frustrated with life as a whole, that is why sometimes without even provocation people exhibit violence tendencies, he said.

However, according to presidency sources, the drive by the government to tackle the country's economic problems has been put on hold by the failure to date of the parliament to pass the 2000 budget, delivered by Obasanjo last November.

Parliament has so far refused to approve government spending plans, despite a growing chorus of concern from business leaders that the delay is crippling business confidence.

The government's own privatisation programme has meanwhile appeared to stall, with no dates announced for any major privatisation.

Power supplies are as episodic as ever and an attempt to end Nigeria's crippling lack of telecommunications (500 000 lines in a country of 120 million people) plunged into farce last month with the cancellation of a bidding process and the arrest of the communications agency chief for financial misconduct.

According to Clement Nwankwo, the head of a non-governmental organisation charged with monitoring the transition to civilian rule, many Nigerians are as frustrated with life under a civilian president as under his military predecessors.

And much of the reason is economic. People are suffering economically and this (the violence) is an expression of that, Nwankwo said last week.

If something doesn't change soon for people, in their daily lives, it is easy to see more trouble like that in Kaduna, said an African diplomat who asked not to be identified.

-- AFP, March 6 2000.