Saturday's formal inauguration of former military ruler Olusegun Obasanjo as Nigeria's first civilian president in 15 years has fostered hopes for the building of a stable democracy in a country plagued by military rule for much of its 40 year's of independence. The willing resignation of General Abdussalaam Abubakar, the successor of Nigeria's renowned dictator Sani Abacha, in favor of the popularly elected Obasanjo has been applauded by the international community. Several prominent figures attended the inauguration ceremony, signaling an end to the international isolation that stifled Nigeria during the rule of the military regimes.
Nigeria has already benefited immensely from the return to civilian rule. The country has been readmitted to the British Commonwealth and has received several lucrative business deals in response to its governmental transition. In a statement reported by the Lagos-based Guardian on May 31, Coca-Cola representative Laolu Akinkugbe said that the company's recent decision to invest an additional $60 million in Nigeria was a result of the country's "new era of democratic governance." According to Guardian finance reporter Lanre Oloyi, the return to civilian rule coincided with a 60.4 percent rise in volume on the Nigerian Stock Exchange to 53.4 million shares. The end of military rule has also led to an increase in badly needed international aid and loans. On March 17, Michel Camdessus, managing director of the IMF, promised forthcoming aid and support for an African renaissance under Obasanjo.
But despite the international applause, the ascendance of Obasanjo is not without controversy. To begin with, the election that declared Obasanjo the official winner on March 1 was marked by serious electoral inconsistencies. While many foreign governments rushed to endorse the results, a few key observers were conspicuous in their refusal to declare a fair election. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who was on hand to observe the elections, said he witnessed voting fraud. With regard to the suspicious number of votes cast in 1999 (double the number cast in the annulled 1993 elections), an unnamed Western electoral observer told Agence France Press (AFP), "We knew from the outset the voter figures were bogus, but we did not want to go overboard about it because everyone wants the military out of power." Losing presidential candidate Olu Falae challenged the election results but lost a recent court battle to have the results declared void.
There are cracks in Obasanjo's image as an exuberant champion democracy. Though many excuse the new president's past as a military ruler in the 1970s because of his willing abdication in favor of a civilian government, he was criticized during his previous rule for human rights abuses and his authoritarian style, according to a May 27 AFP article. Before the recent election campaign, prominent military officials visited Obasanjo and during the campaign he received their backing. Because of this history and these associations, many Nigerians see Obasanjo as a puppet of the military elite.
In the post-election concern over government corruption and the continued role of the military, Obasanjo has done little to reassure domestic confidence. The new president has declared that he will not prosecute former military officials, suspected of embezzlement. In making cabinet appointments over the weekend, Obasanjo gave all awarded service posts to members of the dissolved Provisional Ruling Council, which headed the former military government. Obasanjo appointed the former president's national security advisor, General Abdulahi Muhammad, as his new Chief of Staff. And many Nigerian legislators were enraged at Obasanjo's attempt to interfere in the selection of the Speaker for the National Assembly, a controversy detailed in a letter in the May 31 issue of Nigeria's Vanguard by former Senate President Ameh Ebute.
While foreign interests have rushed to support Nigeria's transition to civilian rule, domestic opinion remains more skeptical. Despite a recent end to a massive public sector strike that had crippled the country, Obasanjo faces lingering unrest as ethnic, labor and religious feuds continue. While Obasanjo's rule can possibly lead to the gradual retreat of the military and more tenable elections in the future, he must act quickly to ease public outrage at decades of exploitation by the government and most definitely must not follow the example of his predecessors. He must dispel the image of a government of military elite that, as Francis Ojemoyi of the Vanguard wrote Monday, "is hell bent in maintaining the status quo." Obasanjo's past, his questionable election and his appointment of military elite demonstrate he has a long way to go.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com