Mixed views on Nigeria's Obasanjo

The outgoing president, who steps down Tuesday after two 4-year terms, is credited with spurring growth. But few citizens have seen any improvements.

When Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo steps down from power Tuesday after two terms in office, some of the kindest tributes will come from abroad. Many world leaders see the former army general as a staunch reformer, a visionary, an enemy of corruption, and an architect of African debt relief.

As he ends his tenure with a tour of Sierra Leone and Liberia, where he played a leading role in bringing peace, some experts will praise him for his willingness to host talks and send troops to several African hot spots, including Darfur.

But in Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos – a city that practically throbs with free-market energy but suffers from chronic power blackouts – Peter Williams, a middle-aged security officer, says he would give Mr. Obasanjo so-so marks as president.

"He scored average," says Mr. Williams. "When he came to power there was no communications, but now we have mobile phones and can communicate all over the world." He sighs. "The only thing is, we still have no electricity and that is part of his weakness."

History, of course, may yet point to the Obasanjo regime as a turning point for Nigeria, a time when a resource-rich country full of impoverished people came into its own. But Obasanjo's more immediate grade by ordinary people and academics alike focuses as much on the disappointments – failed schools, corrupt police, overwhelmed hospitals, and sporadic electricity – as on the periodic triumphs that Obasanjo has achieved since winning office in 1999. What is certain is that few Nigerian politicians have left as indelible a mark on their complex, vibrant, self-destructive country as the man most Nigerians refer to by the nickname 'OBJ.'

Pushed Nigeria forward

"What Obasanjo was about is pushing Nigeria so far forward that a U-turn was no longer possible," says John Adaleke, an independent financial analyst in Lagos. "He's created a government that probably works better than it did eight years ago. What he hasn't done is create an impact on the ordinary man on the street."

Turning a country of 140 million mainly poor people into a modern economy was never going to be easy, but it's especially hard in a country with as much entrenched corruption as Nigeria. Government ministries are often magnets for politically connected friends who consider it their right to steal from the public purse.

Nowhere is this more true than the Ministry of Power. When Obasanjo took over in 1999, the country produced about 4,000 megawatts of electricity with its gas-fired power plants. Today it produces around 2,500 megawatts, because of poor maintenance.

Confronting a culture of corruption

To deal with this corruption – in 2006, Transparency International listed Nigeria as one of the 20 most corrupt nations in the world – Obasanjo created an Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and gave it free rein to investigate anyone in government, including members of his own cabinet. It was this anticorruption drive, in part, that encouraged Western donors to forgive Nigeria's crushing $12.5 billion in foreign debt.

Since April 2003, the EFCC has racked up an impressive 150 convictions against crooked government officials, arrested three sitting governors, all from Obasanjo's ruling People's Democratic Party, and recovered over $5 billion in stolen public funds.

"Corruption should be treated like terrorism, like genocide in a third-world country like Nigeria," says Ibrahim Lamorde, head of operations for the EFCC in Lagos. "All over the world, people want to come and invest here. The market is huge. Our people are hardworking, among the best educated in Africa. But, unfortunately, a few industrious guys are going around doing terrible things that soiled the name of the country.

"But we believe we will change the country," he adds. "If we say 'no' to corruption, then poverty will solve itself. It's just a question of determination."

While the overall economy has picked up because of investment in oil, with an average growth rate of 6 percent in the past six years, social indicators remain dire. Life expectancy is just over 40 years. More than 40 percent of the population does not have access to clean drinking water and 20 percent of children die before age age 5.

Despite being the continent's largest oil producer, Nigeria has very few working refineries, making it the 6th-largest importer of refined products like gasoline and diesel in the world. This adds a cost to everything Nigerians buy, from mangos to electronics.

Tusi, a bright, young hotel manager, can only smirk when she thinks of what the Obasanjo era has brought to her life.

"Yes, the economy is growing on paper, but the cost of living is going up, too," she says. "We may get electricity one hour every day, and 23 hours a day we run generators. That adds to your costs. If they solved the electricity problem, things would get cheaper, because we won't all have to generate power ourselves."

But Mr. Adaleke, the financial analyst, says the best thing that the next president, Umaru Yar'Adua, can do is to continue the privatization drive started by Obasanjo. Pointing to the simple act of deregulating the state-run phone industry, and allowing private mobile phone companies to proliferate, Adaleke says that Nigerian entrepreneurship quickly took advantage.

"In 2000, the Nigerian state telecom company had created 700,000 telephone lines... and only 400,000 of those were working," he says. "After deregulation, private cellphone companies like MTN and Econet came in, and we had 8 million lines, 10 million lines, 20 million lines. Now electricians can have their own phone services. That's made a big difference in the lives of ordinary people."

"The bright light for Nigeria is that the policy is finally going in the right direction," says Adaleke, "and Obasanjo can take credit for that."

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Key events in Olusegun Obasanjo's career

1937: Born in Abeokuta, southwestern Nigeria

1958: Joined the Army and received training in Nigeria and abroad

1967-70: Served as commander in Nigeria's 30-month Biafran civil war

1976: Became Nigeria's military ruler

1979: Handed power to civilians

1995: Jailed for plotting to topple former dictator Sani Abacha

1998: Freed from jail by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar

1999: Elected president of Nigeria

2007: Leaves after two four-year terms

Sources: BBC, AP, UN

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