In Nigeria's first democratic elections held under a civilian government in 20 years, the key players incumbent Peoples Democratic Party candidate Olusegun Obasanjo, and All Peoples Party-sponsored challenger, Retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari are familiar faces to the country's 60 million estimated legitimate voters. As the old saying goes though, familiarity breeds contempt, and Nigerians abroad and at home have little faith that either contender can chart an effective course of recovery for the perpetually ailing nation. Forgotten by most critics is that holding an unimpeded, relatively free election in the country would be reason enough to be grateful.
Observers cannot help but sympathize with the reflexive cynicism of Nigerians. It is only natural that citizens of a country that has earned an estimated $280 billion from oil exports over the last three decades would expect to get their moneys worth in state-of-the-art infrastructure and education. Yet Nigeria is currently ranked among the 20 poorest countries in the world, with an external debt of $29 billion and a debilitating reliance on oil as the linchpin of its economy.
Other roots of civic disenchantment lie in the fact that the country has an eligible voting pool of approximately 60 million, but is unable to field more than two viable candidates, both of whom have had their turn at the trough of civil service. The fact that they have each presided as military heads of state during the socio-economic decline of the late 1970s and early 1980s does little to recommend them, although they have since enjoyed better-than-average reputations than other ex-military politicians.
The public has been especially adverse to Obasanjo, whose term has drawn much in the way of criticism and little in the way of praise. Accusations that he has created a civilian dictatorship, which led to a threatened impeachment last year, should be tempered with an honest review of his successes. His term drew the first visit of an American president to Nigeria since Jimmy Carter toured in 1977, and though the change of administrations in the U.S. slowed down Clinton's budding plans to support Nigerian development, the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries should not be underestimated.
Obasanjo's frequent visits to foreign capitals have also served to increase the international profile of the country, even as they have earned the ire of his opponents at home. A former nominee for the post of United Nations secretary-general, his relatively good standing in the eyes of the diplomatic community is also a boon for a nation that has been led by pariahs for most of the last two decades. His involvement in the creation of the new African Union has further bolstered his political stock, though critics point to the composition of the new alliance as proof that it is much the same as the defunct Organization of African Unity.
The World in 2003, a report published by the Economist magazine, presents an encouraging picture of the Nigerian economy this year. It predicts a 4.3% growth rate, while inflation is projected to drop by just over 1%. While the report admits that this will mean little to the common man in the short run, it is nevertheless an indication of progress in the right direction.
In the opposing corner from Obasanjo is Muhammadu Buhari, in many ways the total opposite of the incumbent. Buhari's short reign, which came as a result of a coup against the democratically elected former president Shehu Shagari, inspires mixed reactions from Nigerians who remember the era. The country's currency underwent a drastic de-valuation under his rule, and his infamous "War on Indiscipline" meted out such novel punishments as calisthenics exercises for civil employees who were late to work.
Buhari has also drawn the suspicions of international observers with his unswerving support of Sharia, or traditional Islamic law, in the 12 states of northern Nigeria that have adopted the code. Speaking to the Kaduna-based Gamji Youth Association in 2001, Buhari is reported to have said he was willing to give his life to make sure that Sharia was adopted throughout Nigeria. It was also widely reported that he made similar comments to the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria that same year.
He has also been accused of stoking the fires of religious conflict in the divided nation, urging Muslims to vote for a Muslim candidate in the upcoming elections. These factors have made him overwhelmingly popular in the North, eroding the support that Obasanjo received from the region during his 1999 campaign.
As disconcerting as some find Buhari's endorsement of Sharia, his partnership with former Senate President Chuba Okadigbo, an Igbo vice-presidential candidate, is a sign of progress to some quarters. The historical tensions between the North and the South-East were at the root of the 1967-1970 civil war, and current relationships between the two regions remain particularly strained. If nothing else, the Buhari-Okadigbo ticket may reduce the acrimony between the two groups.
Mr. Buhari's trumpeting of his religion also reminds voters of his main selling point -- his strong reputation as an anti-corruption fighter who imprisoned hundreds of corrupt civil servants and businessmen during his reign.
These pinpoints of light in a nation that is universally considered a black hole of corruption should be our focus. Like the 14 traffic lights in Lagos that have recently emerged to tame the notorious streets of the great metropolis, they are symbolic drops in a puddle. Yet the fact that the nations largest city, with a population of 13 million, has added these traffic aides is a good signal.
The most important indicator of change in the Nigerian body politic is the emergence of no less than 30 presidential aspirants in the 2003 race.
Granted, many of these are vanity parties backed by a single wealthy candidate or a nemesis of the two main contenders.
But two decades of resource-sapping military oligarchies is evidence enough that a functioning Nigerian democracy even one staffed by some of the familiar military faces from the past is infinitely preferable to the rampant pilfering and incompetence that characterized the nation during the era of successive military dictatorships.