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Vol 43 No 3

Published 8th February 2002


Nigeria

Torrents of trouble

Policy failures and political ambitions lie behind the latest tragedies and threaten the government

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair visits President Olusegun Obasanjo this week, he will find his host facing something like a civil war. Officially, the two leaders will discuss Africa's development plans, the war against terrorism, and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. But Nigeria's internal predicament ­ communal violence, corruption, crime, human rights abuses ­ is as bad as Zimbabwe's political crisis, although it gets less media coverage. If things were as bad in the Balkans, European newspapers would call it a war. President Obasanjo has been strongly supported by the West since his inauguration in May 1999 (AC Vol 40 No 12). He was painted as a southerner trusted and supported in the north; a Christian with many Muslim friends; a retired general who could face down rebellious officers; a former political detainee committed to human rights and the outlawing of military rule; a world-class anti-corruption campaigner, committed to wiping out graft. Two and a half years on, Nigeria is still trapped in its grim cycle of poverty, corruption, ethnic violence and political paralysis. The crises of recent months have been so grave that the survival in office of Obasanjo's government seems a minor miracle. As Blair lands in Nigeria, the country is trying to get over some fresh body blows. On 27 January an explosion of army ammunition at the Ikeja cantonment in Lagos killed more than a thousand people ­ some blown up, many more drowned in canals and lagoons while trying to flee. As Nigerians debated whether the tragedy was caused by gross military negligence, sabotage, or both, the national police force began its first ever strike. Obasanjo at once declared the strikers saboteurs and mutineers, and deployed troops in the country's most sensitive locations. This fell just short of a declaration of martial law. Ordering in the army to stop a military putsch would be Obasanjo's last line of defence. But the accusation of mutiny ended the protest in three days.

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