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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Thu Jan 13 14:02:51 2000
Date: Wed, 12 Jan 2000 21:41:09 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk '#60;newsdesk@igc.apc.org'#62;
Subject: POLITICS-NIGERIA: A Glimmer Of Hope
Article: 86596
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A Glimmer Of Hope

By Remi Oyo, IPS, 11 January 2000

LAGOS, Jan 11 (IPS) - Oil worker, Alagbo Thomason is optimistic that Nigeria, which is recovering from 15 years of military rule, will overcome its economic woes, and play a major role in international arena.

With democracy now entrenched in Nigeria, I think we will do better, he says.

Thomason, who works for an oil company in the troubled oil-rich Niger Delta region, says if the government is able to handle the situation in the Niger Delta by appeasing the warring youths instead of fighting them, we may have permanent peace in Nigeria.

Nigeria, which achieved independence from Britain in 1960, is the 10th largest oil producer in the world, and the most prolific oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. It currently produces 90 million tonnes of crude per year (2 million barrels per day) most of which it sells to international traders.

The oil is the single most important sector in the country's economy, providing over 90 percent of its total exports.

In the Niger Delta, youths have attacked Western oil installations, demanding oil companies and the government to supply them with schools, better roads and political representation.

Some of the answers to Nigeria's woes may lie in foreign investment. But foreign investors, too, do not appear to be keen to invest, although a number of them have visited Nigeria since the return of democracy (in May 1999), says Thomason.

To attract them, Thomason says the government must as a matter of urgency tackle the unrest in the Niger Delta and revamp Nigeria's economy and ensure that the privatisation programme is properly put in place.

Although experts on Nigeria predict hard times for Africa's most populous nation, no Nigerian appears under any illusion that the year 2000 will usher in prosperity, peace or pageantry.

Adesina Sambo, a political scientist, told IPS this week that: 1999 marked the end of 16 years of military rule in Nigeria and the restoration of democratic rule. It's been some seven months since civilian administration took over the reins of power at different levels of government.

The performance of these administrations could be used to project the political outlook for Nigeria in the year 2000, says Sambo, a senior Lecturer at the University of Lagos.

One of the highlights of parliament include the removal of Salisu Buhari, Speaker of the House of Representatives on grounds of false claims of age, while his colleague, Evans Enwerem, President of the Senate, was sacked for incompetence.

Since their removal, at least six speakers of Nigeria's 36 state parliaments have lost their positions, but not their seats, while a couple more are under threat.

While critics like Sambo may attribute Nigeria's political woes to the teething problems of a young democracy, the ordinary Nigerian appears accommodating to the government of President Obasanjo.

Nigeria's economy is still in doldrums. The Naira is weak, exchanging at 104 to the US Dollar, worse than in the dying months of the military government of Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar, which ended in May 1999. Services have been paralysed, the cost of production has gone up and unemployment has remained at an all time high of more than 10 million.

But Tayo Fakiyesi, an economist in the Nigerian commercial capital of Lagos, told IPS this week that there are improvements in terms of business expectations.

Investors have better hope, says Fakiyesi, a senior lecturer at the University of Lagos.

He cites the case of uncleared goods in warehouses. The Manufactures Association of Nigeria (man) recently estimated that its members had unsold goods worth six billion naira (about 60 million US Dollars). The uncleared inventories have vamoosed in the past few months, Fakiyesi says.

If you have confidence in tomorrow as the manufacturers have shown, existing resources can be utilised. That in itself creates more jobs and a boost in the horizon, he says.

He urged the government to embark on information dissemination that will turn the focus of Nigerians from politics to the economy.

Nigerians need to see that an increase flow of consumer items will improve production needed for growth, he says.

Until we have a complete re-orientation that the market can solve its problems, when policy makers stop leaping before they look and denounce the concept that government is omnipresent and omnipotent, this country will not grow, Fakiyesi warns.

He also calls on the government to divest Nigeria's economy. Why should we continue to spend dwindling resources on public sector enterprises when the economy can be dominated by private sector investment. No sane country believes government is everything, he says.

Fakiyesi calls for the privatisation of loss-making parastatals such as the Nigerian telecommunications (NITEL) and National Electric Power Authority (NEPA). Businesses have lost billions of dollars due to the inefficiency of the two government-owned companies.

Nigeria, with an external debt of some 32 billion US Dollars, has some 700,000 allocated telephone lines, a far cry from the expectations of the International Telecommunications Union for a nation of 110 million people. Rarely have these lines been functioning at all times.

Last December, President Obasanjo told senior officials of NEPA, led by the Minister of Power and Steel, Bola Ige that: it is tantamount to irresponsibility if we all sit here and claim to be serving the people and we are unable to give them electricity.

To improve the standard of living of its people, Fakiyesi argues as did Sambo that government must engage the civil society in the re-birth and rejuvenation of Nigeria in the next millennium.

He argues, for instance, that the threat by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) to call a nationwide strike if government deregulates petroleum pricing shows that labour does not understand the dynamics of globalisation and that the worker will be better off in a market-driven economy.

You must bring the civil society into the government wavelength, Fakiyesi advises.

The civil society played a significant role in the exit of the military from political centre-stage in Nigeria, says Sambo.

According to him, the combative posture of civil society groups during the dark period of military rule in Nigeria should shift to reflect the new democratic fervour. These groups should assume roles that are more in tune with democratic governance such as the concern with accountability and transparency, says Sambo.

He argues that much freedom has been in the air since the exit of the military. The feeling is palpable and Nigerians everywhere bear testimony to this fact, but it is freedom that has also been stretched sometimes to its brink, inevitably putting undue strain on the country's nascent democracy.

I allude here specifically to the spate of ethnic violence perpetrated under the aegies of nationality groups such as the O'dua People's Congress, Egbesu etc. Democracy had been good for the upsurge of hitherto quiescent social forces. But the upsurge also portend danger for Nigeria's nascent democracy, he says.

The spate of violence in the Niger Delta appears to have abated enough to allow the export of Nigeria's fourth delivery of liquefied natural gas. Tension is still rife in the region.

The unrests also call into question guarantees under the constitution, regarding revenue allocation. The 1999 constitution remains a disputed document on account of its military origin, says Sambo, a member of the 24-member committee which coordinated the debate that gave birth to the document.

Positions vary on what to do with the document, some favouring significant modifications of the document through amendment while not a few favour the jettisoning of the inherited document and the convening of a sovereign national conference to fashion out a new constitution, he says.

Also threatening Nigerias's unity is religion which has assumed more political dimension.

Religion has been used to test aspects of the political foundation of Nigeria, he says. The federal basis of the country has been invoked as the excuse for instituting Sharia as the legal order in some states of Nigeria.

The Sharia issue is strictly speaking not a matter of legality but politics, Nigeria's peculiar politics of brinkmanship, he says.

Sharia, a law derived from the Holy Koran, has been introduced in a number of states in the predominantly Muslim north of the country.

It is unlikely that the problems which have confronted Nigeria's democracy in the past seven months will wither away in the coming year, Sambo says. Their management, however could very well be the indicator for how Nigeria will fare.

On a brighter note, there is an unmistakable reversal in the pariah status of Nigeria since the advent of democracy, says Sambo.

But others, hardest hit by Nigeria's ailing economy, are critical. Salaries still don't get paid regularly by some government agencies, the threat of retrenchment always looms, there is no hope of any wage increase and the quality of life has worsened. Filth, crime and insecurity still rule the streets, says Georgina Nwaokolo, a government employee in Lagos.

Nwaokolo, a mother of four, says: My children resumed school today (Jan 10). The struggle for transportation, what to eat and wear is still very much with my family. Illness seems a crime, even at government hospitals, where personnel still expect a tip for doing their jobs. Medicines are not always available - frankly speaking nothing has changed since the military left in May 1999.