On the road for a new Nigeria

Next leader of Africa's most populous land solicits foreigners - and

Africa's largest oil producer faces the problem any single-export country has when the prices for that commodity fall. It looks for help abroad to diversify its economy.

That's why Nigeria's incoming president, Olusegun Obasanjo, is traveling to tap not only foreign investors but also the estimated $50 billion that Nigerians squirreled away overseas while their land was in turmoil under military rule.

Already, since his election Feb. 27, the former political prisoner has logged thousands of air miles in his travels around Africa, Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the United States (for which Nigeria serves as fifth-largest supplier of crude oil). He is trying to reinvent his country's image before the world and garner support for its economic needs before he takes office on May 29.

Mr. Obasanjo says in an interview in New York that he will cut his country's dependency on oil, which accounts for 99 percent of its export earnings and this year may fall to just $7 billion - a little more than half its 1997 revenues.

"The main purpose [of my trips] is to let important centers of the world know what is happening in Nigeria, and to galvanize support for investment," he says, pointing specifically at the manufacturing and service industries.

Obasanjo's meetings in Western cities have not been confined to courting foreigners. He played host at a reception at the grand New York Palace Hotel for Nigerians living in the area.

"There are at least 3 million Nigerians living abroad who would like to get involved in their homeland but have been discouraged from doing so because of political instability," says Peter Lewis, an expert on Nigeria's economy at American University in Washington.

"By one estimate, on the low side, there's $50 billion being held abroad by Nigerians.

"A year's oil revenue in a good year is about $10 billion to $12 billion. So you can imagine what will happen if you could mobilize a third of Nigerian money being held abroad.

"That money can go and come back and be reinvested. You can have multiplier effects through this capital circulating in the economy.

"I don't think that most people expect foreign investment to be the salvation of the Nigerian economy," Mr. Lewis adds. "The main source of dynamism today is likely to come both from people within the country who are holding back their money for a safe and reliable investment opportunity and those living abroad."

At stake in the effort at economic revival is not only Nigeria's welfare but also that of West Africa.

Africa's most populous nation (an estimated 120 people) is the main contributor to a peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone - much to the relief of the United Nations, whose troubles on the continent have led to a reluctance to engage its troops in the civil war.

And Obasanjo, who will assume the presidency as Nigeria's first civilian leader in 15 years, believes that his country's political course will be "a catalyst to success of democracy" elsewhere in the continent.

In order to play such a prominent role and attract foreign capital, Nigeria will have to disentangle itself from its heritage of corruption - a task that Obasanjo says he is committed to tackling.

But the retired general will face some strong enemies in a country that has been ruled by the military for three-quarters of its 39 years of independence.

An appeals court recently dismissed a legal challenge to the election results. But other challenges to Obasanjo are far from over. He will not be able to count on the support of the more than 100 retired officers in his political party if reforms jeopardize their power and privileges, political analysts say.

"There is always a prospect of another coup," says Pearl Robinson, the director of the international relations program at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "Not all of the military are happy, particularly some junior people who are waiting in line for their turn to possibly become head of state and make some money."

According to one Nigerian who asked not to be identified, some junior officers' discontent is likely to grow if they remain in Sierra Leone. Despite increased US contributions to the West African peacekeeping force this year, Nigerians have suffered heavy casualties and desertions.

But Obasanjo confidently dismisses this, insisting his troops will stay.

"I am not concerned about it [the desertions]," he says. "The general population has not risen against it."

Still, Western diplomats have pinned high hopes on Obasanjo, a co-founder of Transparency International, the Berlin-based organization devoted to fighting corruption. Indeed, the president-elect has a solid reputation on the global scene. A longtime spokesman for political accountability in Africa, he was once a contender for the UN leadership. He won accolades around the world for being the only Nigerian military leader to step down and make way for a civilian government in 1979.

It's no wonder that his name and Nelson Mandela's have been mentioned in the same sentence. But being a leading African statesman and a former political prisoner are where the retired general's similarities with the South African president end.

"Obasanjo is not going to become president with the moral authority of a Nelson Mandela," says Ms. Robinson, who was an elections monitor. "In the political arena of Nigeria he does not carry that same moral authority."

Underscoring this view, members of Obasanjo's own Yoruba ethnic group have been protesting, at times violently, the former general's election. They see him as a traitor to the Yorubas' southwest and a puppet of the north, home to Nigeria's military leaders.

"I am not a tribal leader," says Obasanjo. "I am a national leader." Indeed, his falling-out with the southwestern states can be two-edged.

"In a way, nobody owns him. He has no really strong base of support, so everybody will try to influence him," Robinson says. "If he's got the political skills to walk this line, it can be seen as a very strong hand.

"I find it interesting that he is spending this period of time going around the world rather than at home putting together political alliances in Nigeria." she adds.

The peripatetic Obasanjo may be playing the international card, reinforcing his stature overseas to strengthen himself in the eyes of Nigeria's northern elite ahead of his inauguration, according to Robinson.

And, if his travels lead to a diversified economy, the president-elect may be able to stave off any would-be plotters of the coups with which Nigeria is all too familiar.

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