Betting on Nigeria
By C. Payne Lucas
C. Payne Lucas was president of Africare from May 1971 to June 15, 2002. This article was first published as an editorial in The Washington Post (March 16, 1999).
Anyone wishing Africa well would be anxious to see Nigeria's continuing transition to democracy succeed. For all of Africa and for U.S. policy on the continent, the stakes are enormous.
More than any other country in Africa, Nigeria has both the means and the will to play the leading role in the continent's stability, which is just what U.S. policymakers have been trying to get more African countries to do for several years now. In the past decade, Nigeria proved itself willing and able to bear the brunt of peacekeeping operations in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. A stable and democratic Nigeria, served by a professional army that subjects itself to civilian authority, can do more than any other country to save Africa's people the enormous cost and human toll of constant conflict.
Moreover, in spite of the terrible economic beating their country has taken over many years of military misrule, Nigerians still represent the single largest pool of highly trained people in all of Africa. This is why it can reasonably be said that without Nigeria, political and economic progress in Africa cannot go far.
In conversations with Nigerians living at home and abroad, one gets the sense that this current round of transition is probably the last chance to get things right in that country. Many Nigerians believe that either their country gets it right this time or the world might witness tragedy that could prove worse than the catastrophic Nigeria-Biafra war of the late 1960s.
As we saw with the tragedy in Rwanda, it makes a lot more sense to play an active conciliatory role before things get out of hand than to engage in guilt-ridden soul-searching after irreversible damage has been done.
Nigeria's transition, however imperfect, is on course. But Nigerians will need plenty of support from the West in the next five to 10 years, especially with the collapse in the price of oil, the country's unpredictable and still-powerful military, and the continuing unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta.
The United States and its allies must remain engaged in Nigeria well beyond the scheduled hand-over to an elected government on May 29 . We must encourage the government and people of Nigeria to respect the rights of all of Nigeria's citizens, whatever their ethnic and religious backgrounds, in whatever part of the country they might live.
The West can put in place a vigorous program to help strengthen Nigeria's economy and its civil society. If democracy survives in Nigeria, the chances of its survival in many other African nations will be much higher, especially in West Africa. In any effort to discourage or contain the emergence of dictatorship, nothing works better than a growing middle class, a free press and a strong, confident civil society.
Nigerians have paid a high price for the massive dishonesty in their government all these years. In this respect, the Abacha era was the very worst in a trend that previously seemed as bad as it could possibly be. Just last week, the transitional military government announced that some of the more than $700 million recovered from the Abacha family and their cronies would be put back in the nation's dangerously low foreign reserves, and another portion distributed to states and local governments for badly needed services.
In the less than five years that Abacha was in power, at least $5 billion is known to have been stolen from the public purse. A lot of that money -- and possibly as much as $30 billion that analysts believe has been stolen from the Nigerian people in the past 28 years -- is hidden in banks in Europe and the United States.
It may not be wise or practical to expect the next government to take on the potentially disruptive task of trying to prosecute all those who stole these enormous sums. Such a move is likely to upset the restive military. The president-elect, Olusegun Obasanjo, is himself a retired general who understands how dangerous angry military officers can be for Nigeria's stability. But the U.S. government is in a strong position to help the Obasanjo government quietly recover much of the loot. With oil prices at their lowest point in decades, the government itself and the long-suffering Nigerian people need the money.
American corporations are well-positioned to play a major role in the economic recovery of English-speaking Nigeria. They can also help ensure transparency by keeping their deal-making honest and ethical. It's not just the right thing to do. In an economy with the size and potential of Nigeria's, there will be enormous rewards for everyone down the road.
Copyright 1999, C. Payne Lucas. All rights reserved.