Even in democracy, Nigerian politics a battle of 'strongmen'

President Obasanjo has until next Tuesday to resign, or face impeachment.

At the offices of Gani Fawehinmi, a maverick Nigerian lawyer and, he hopes, the country's next president, junior attorneys sit at a row of desks in a library ringed with newspaper cuttings that recount clashes between their boss and government authorities.

Opposite Mr. Fawehinmi's desk is a picture of Prince Bola Ajibola, a former Nigerian attorney general, accompanied by a caustic assessment of his time in office. "A sorry sight of professional degeneracy," the commentary notes. "Ajibola is the worst and most spineless attorney general Nigeria has ever had."

Fawehinmi is intensifying his antiestablishment battle in the run-up to elections next year that are seen as testing the quality of civilian rule established in Nigeria in 1999. The country's move away from 16 years of military rule was widely hailed, but many people say that traditions of political venality and public corruption have endured.

Fawehinmi's mission has assumed added resonance after the House of Representatives said last week it would impeach President Olusegun Obasanjo if he failed to resign by next Tuesday – a threat widely seen as symbolic of a political class more concerned with self-perpetuation than national development.

"What is the problem with Nigeria that we can't allow an expansive democratic process?" asks Fawehinmi, complaining that he has been kept off next year's ballot by the political establishment. "The credibility of the transition program [to civilian rule] is gone."

Few see the House's action as a simple case of a crusading Parliament seeking to clean house by ousting a discredited president. The threat, made on the grounds of Mr. Obasanjo's alleged failure to manage the economy and social problems, reflects the fractured and opportunistic nature of the country's politics.

Personal advantage over party

The motion was passed by an overwhelming majority of the 360-member House, even though it is dominated by the president's Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The revolt revealed a system in which ideology and party affiliation count for little amid the constant maneuvering for personal advantage.

Many observers linked the House vote with a government announcement hours before that would toughen a high-profile anticorruption initiative widely criticized as ineffective. Jerry Gana, minister of information, admitted that efforts to improve financial transparency had stalled, and announced a wide-ranging audit of the president's office, Parliament, and the judiciary.

The House responded by condemning the inquiry as unconstitutional, saying that the president did not have authority to investigate the legislature. Some observers see the House's move as an act of self-preservation by members who don't want the anticorruption spotlight turned on them.

Obasanjo is a founding member of Transparency International, the anticorruption body that ranks Nigeria among those countries perceived as being the world's most corrupt.

"The Nigerian military, political, economic, and policy elite see the country as bazaar," wrote columnist Waziri Adio in the newspaper This Day on Sunday. "And members of this elite will do anything to partake in the perpetually ongoing party."

The comments reflect deep popular cynicism about the importance of wealth and personal influence in shaping Nigerian political life. Three-and-a-half years after Obasanjo's election, many Nigerians see little prospect of the emergence of principled opposition to the president, a former Army leader.

"You can't form a party unless you are very, very rich," says Beko Ransome-Kuti, a human rights campaigner. "And the rich people among us are past military office holders and politicians of doubtful integrity. Unless we can find a way out of that, we will still be in trouble."

The political dominance of "big men" possessing money and status is the legacy of four decades of corruption following independence in 1960. The hegemony of the big men has left many Nigerians with little faith in the political process. Around the sports stadium in Calabar, capital of the state of Cross River, local business owners and employees talk about their low expectations of both the transparency of government and its willingness to use income such as oil revenues to deliver improvements to basic services.

"I don't really know much about how the federal government spends the [oil] money or how the state government spends the money," says Mike Bekomson, a computer operator. "Everybody wants to know how it's spent."

Product of stunted democracy

Obasanjo himself has said nothing publicly about the impeachment, leaving it to his advisers to announce his intention to go on as normal and carry out the duties he had sworn to perform.

Officials play down the House's allegations of serious shortcomings including "monumental inadequacies," ineptitude, and a "persistent disrespect for the rule of law." The president has survived previous talk of impeachment, they say, and he will ride out this threat too.

Officials in the Obasanjo administration argue the House dispute is inevitable in a nascent democratic system stunted by a dictatorial past. The president is serious about tackling corruption, they say, and his relations with Parliament should improve as the country becomes more accustomed to civilian rule.

"Nigeria is not unique," says Oby Ezekwesili, special adviser to the president on budget issues. "The issue for us is: how do we mature over time in our political discourse so we don't get to decisions through frayed nerves and bickering?"

Few people give the maverick Fawehinmi much chance of becoming president, but he is sure to continue to hold up a mirror to what he sees as the enduringly ugly features of Nigeria's political class.

"To the ordinary person, governance appears to be synonymous with unleashing pains, pangs, and tears rather than providing succor," his party's manifesto notes. "Whereas the rulers swim in abundance and engage in ostentatious living, the citizens wallow in abject poverty."

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