Nigeria's democratically elected president Olusegun Obasanjo last month announced after heavy consultations that he would seek reelection. The announcement sparked a carnival like response in the capital city, Abuja - a city from which he apparently escapes as often as possible.
Nigerians well remember the butcher of Abuja, the dictator General Sani Abacha and his equally brutal predecessor, General Ibrahim Babangida, the evil genius who annulled a free and fair election.
Many believe Babangida was a catalyst in the release from imprisonment and later successful election of another former general - current president, Olusegun Obasanjo. There is, however, a striking difference between these three generals, and its not just that this president is an elected civilian and the others were military rulers.
Whereas Abacha rarely left the safe confines of Aso Rock, as the presidential villa is known, Obasanjo's penchant for traveling abroad has earned him a nickname of frequent flyer by the local press corps. Abacha's poor health, and, more to the point, his fear of being overthrown kept him close to home. Obansanjo suffers from neither concern. Being overthrown is no fear as long as American security forces are on hand to protect him. His health is hearty enough to support his extensive travels to the point that many Nigerians are wondering if he is in touch with the lives of the ordinary stay-at-home citizens.
One reason given for Obasanjo's trips is his need to thank all his friends who pressured for his release from jail. Known as the military ruler who, in 1979, handed power over to the civilians, Obasanjo had been jailed by Abacha when he had become a threat to Sanis not so civil rule.
Others speculate that as a born again Christian, Obasanjo feels responsible for the crushing debt into which his military predecessor- colleagues plunged the country. For this burden of $28 billion he feels the need to personally appease foreign creditors and beg debt forgiveness.
Other times, it just appears as if the president is playing grandfather to new and emerging democracies on the continent.
The average citizen does not care about presidential globetrotting if he or she can get jobs and decent housing. It is believed the presidential fleet consist of four state of-the-art Boeing 727 planes with the latest in global communication systems. (And how long does it take your average citizen to get a flight out of Lagos airport?) He did get a taste of what the rest of the population has to deal with when, returning from one trip abroad, a power failure occurred in Abuja blacking out the entire runway just as his plane touched down. The jet landed safely. The Aviation Minister went on a rampage. A cartoonist with one of the notable Nigerian papers depicted the president telling his press secretary after the incident to "please remind me to buy candles when we get to China."
Early this year, when a munitions dump in Lagos exploded killing hundreds, resentment towards Obasanjo grew by leaps and bounds. As he was being heckled for his slow response to this disaster, he, in turn, reportedly blew up and said "Shut up! I don't have to be here," pointing out that his cabinet members were at Nigeria's ground zero. As a mark of his concern, the President cancelled a trip to a developing nations summit in Brazil.
Many Nigerians living abroad find it fascinating when they hear the president speaking to them at conferences imploring them to return home. Stories of armed robbery and power failures come to mind. Others are concerned with corruption in high places. Obasanjo's Attorney General was assassinated in his own home after his security detail left him suspiciously unguarded as they themselves had their dinner. One wonders if Obasanjo really is aware of the problems at home.
Now that next year's election is drawing near, his critics have seized upon his travels and dubbed him an absentee president.
,br> He believes the country is progressing, so much so that he told the Financial Times he would give himself a passing grade with satisfactory progress.
Of course, as I have said to Nigerians and non-Nigerians, things turned out to have been much worse than I thought they were from the outside.