Magazine article The Christian Century

Notes on a Born-Again Nation

Magazine article The Christian Century

Notes on a Born-Again Nation

Article excerpt

AMAN ONCE asked God why he had blessed Nigeria so abundantly, a popular joke goes. Not only did the country have vast human resources, rich agricultural land and diverse mineral deposits, but God had placed immense quantities of oil and natural gas within its borders. "Surely this is unfair," the man remarked, "especially when compared to what you gave other countries in Africa." "Yes," God replied, "I have blessed Nigeria abundantly in all these ways--but I made up for it by the quality of the leaders I gave it."

Poor leadership has been Nigeria's bane since independence. The low point was the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, which ended with his Viagra-induced death in June 1998. Within a year after Abacha's demise, Nigeria's political prisoners (including the man who is now president) were released, and the atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion disappeared.

The country is now being reborn under the leadership of Olusegun Obasanjo, a self-professed born-again Christian. During his incarceration under Abacha's regime, Obasanjo was converted by prison evangelists. He has dedicated his second chance at life and at ruling Nigeria--he governed as a military dictator from 1976 to 1979--to the country's transformation. "Let's make Nigeria great again" was his campaign slogan.

Last summer I returned to Nigeria, the land of my birth, to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Transition Initiatives (USAID-OTI). In May I was in Abuja, the capital, to witness the handing over of power to civilians after nearly 15 years of continuous military rule. Dozens of world leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Prince Charles, were in Eagle Square to watch as General Abdusalami Abubakar fulfilled his promise and transferred power to Obasanjo.

As Obasanjo was taking the oath of office, however, I saw the police on the other side of the square whipping people to keep them from climbing over the surrounding fence. The inauguration of the new democratic Nigeria occurred side by side with the physical harassment and intimidation that had characterized the old Nigeria.

During the summer I took part in many events marking Nigeria's political, economic and social transformation. One was a June conference organized to discuss the hastily created 1999 constitution. Thirteen months earlier, members of civil society could not have gotten together to discuss anything at all without getting arrested. Many of those attending the conference had been released from prison only the year before or had only recently returned from exile. The gathering was a celebration of victory over what had seemed an unbeatable dictatorship. The mood in Nigeria was similar to that of South Africa in the heady days following the end of apartheid. The victory had been won, and now there was a nation to build.

The task was far more difficult than the politicians expected. To ensure that his appointed ministers would not become corrupt, Obasanjo made all but two of them sign their resignation letters before they were sworn into office, so that he would be able to fire them at the least suspicion of unacceptable conduct. As high-profile members of the new government, the ministers are expected to remain completely above board.

While staying in Abuja at the residence of one of the new ministers, I was horrified at the number of people who filled the house early in the morning and late at night, seeking contracts, money and other favors. Many came with requests that seemed frivolous. The pressure that Nigerians put on their leaders is tremendous. While the government officials themselves are learning by trial and error how to govern democratically, the people still expect the kind of patronage that marked the days of military rule.

AFTER 100 DAYS in office, Obasanjo made an appearance on NTA, the national television network. This nationally televised presidential chat included a question-and-answer session, with people calling in from all over Nigeria. …

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