Nigerian leader faces test of unity

Despite reforms, religious tension looms over Obasanjo's reelection bid.

The five-story whitewashed building downtown is barely a month old. The air-conditioning is purring, the name plaques outside the offices are shiny, and the lounges smell of leather from the brand new couches.

But the place is deserted, except for the sound of a football match emanating from a TV down some corridor. This is President Olusegun Obasanjo's reelection campaign headquarters, and his team is taking it slowly, seemingly sure of victory next year.

General Obasanjo, the onetime military ruler who was democratically elected three years ago, announced in April that he would seek the nomination of his People's Democratic Party (PDP) and run for another term. The elections will be historic. Since independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has been rocked by one military coup after another and has never had successive elected governments.

"Democracy has been solidly established and no one wants to return to military rule," says Silva Opusunju, one of Obasanjo's top campaign coordinators. Mr. Opusunju admits, as does Obasanjo, that progress has been slow on many fronts, and the country still faces major social and economic challenges. But, he argues, "the right path has been taken. People are thankful for that and credit Obasanjo."

But critics say Obasanjo is on his way out, having not done enough to better the conditions of the nation's 125 million people, or to bridge the widening ethnic and religious divides.

Though no strong opposition candidate has emerged, on Saturday, three new parties officially registered for the poll. Two of the three are pushing Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, the former military leader who ruled Nigeria from 1985 to 1993, to run. General Babangida is a northern Muslim who backed Obasanjo, a southern Christian, in 1999. But the relationship between the two has allegedly soured, reflecting a national religious rift. Some warn that no leader will be able to unite the differing sides, and Africa's most populous nation may descend into violence and fracture into several smaller nations.

In some ways, the path of democracy ushered in with Obasanjo has indeed benefited many. Human rights have improved, courts have become more independent, restraints on the media have been removed, and some economic privatization has taken place. Obasanjo has been broadly praised for his mediation and peacekeeping efforts in Zimbabwe, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, as well as for his role in helping design the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the pan-African development program due to be unveiled next month.

But in other ways, much is still the same. Accusations of government corruption and mismanagement – which sap this oil-producing country (the world's sixth-largest) of its wealth and keep an estimated 70 percent of the population under the poverty line – still persist, despite promises of reform. A majority of the population lacks access to clean water, consistent electricity, satisfactory education, or gainful employment.

"Perhaps we all expected too much of Obasanjo," says Kabiru Yusuf, editor in chief of the Weekly Trust newspaper. "We thought he might do more in terms of reforms for the people who elected him.... In regards to corruption, it's business as usual." For three years running, Nigeria has been ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International, a watchdog group.

More worrying still, interethnic, geographic, and religious tensions, always in existence here, have arguably worsened since the end of authoritarian rule. Fighting over the past three years has claimed thousands of lives. Sectarian violence, especially between Christians and Muslims, is rising steadily, and many predict that it will get worse as the elections approach.

"Issue-based platforms don't come into play much," says one Western economist here, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's about being Igbo or Yoruba or Christian ... and ... getting your candidate in so you can then get your hands on some of the goodies of power." The culture of democracy has yet to be understood in Nigeria, says the economist.

Violence hit the easygoing, temperate city of Jos last September, when Christians and Muslims – goaded on by politicians – turned on one another, killing some 500 and destroying homes, shops, churches, and mosques. More riots broke out in January and again in May, spreading to other towns and villages in the region. A curfew is now imposed in Jos.

"We used to live very cordially together," says Rev. Dallhato Abdu of Jos, "but then the Muslim northerners started getting jealous that the president is a Christian. They claimed he was ignoring them and they started attacking us. Now we are divided."

The Muslims see it differently. Sheikh Ahmed Suleiman used to live around the corner from Mr. Abdu. Now, after his house was burned down in the riots, he is looking to sell the land to a Christian and move to a Muslim neighborhood. "The problem is with the Christian politicians," he claims. "They are inciting the youngsters for selfish reasons. They are trying to tell us we do not deserve as much as them because we are Muslims."

Political power struggles have found a fertile new testing ground in the Islamic courts. Twelve northern states with Muslim majorities have adopted full sharia (Islamic law) since January 2000, sparking anxiety among nonbelievers and Christians.

Obasanjo, who originally said the commotion over sharia would "fizzle out," recently tried to quell the growing turmoil by having his justice minister declare sharia punishments – such as beheadings, stonings, and amputations – unconstitutional. Sharia states accused the president of discrimination and meddling in their democratic right to choose their legal system.

And while it seems Obasanjo's campaign coordinator Opusunju is right to say democracy is solidly established, not everyone credits the president with it.

"We don't have a choice but to hold onto our democracy," says Oronto Douglas, a civil society activist. "What is the alternative? The old brutal military dictatorship?" Mr. Douglas, like many here, worries about the fragmentation going on, but trusts these will not tear the country apart. "Someone will rise who cares about national equalities and is able to stabilize this vast country," he says. "And we will vote for that person."

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