Nigeria at turning point as it turns 50

September 28, 2010 12:00 am

, LAGOS, Sep 28 – Nigeria marks 50 years of independence this week with the country facing a defining presidential vote that holds clues to whether the African giant will finally begin to live up to its huge potential.

Major celebrations are set for the October 1 anniversary – including what has been billed as the world\’s largest cake – but deep problems persist in the country and threaten to derail progress many observers say is occurring.

Those issues include widespread poverty, pervasive corruption, religious and ethnic violence, and a government unable to deliver services like reliable electricity despite its oil wealth.

Some, however, say they see signs of hope in Africa\’s most populous nation, including an electorate growing weary of corrupt leadership and ready to insist on change.

Others point to its influential culture, which has produced world renowned writers and musicians, such as Fela Kuti, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel literature prize.

"The thing that is incredible, or sometimes troubling, is that we are at a very delicate crossroads – just one error and we could head towards the road to Somalia," Pat Utomi, a respected economist also running for president, told AFP in an interview.

"But my gut feeling is that we will shout and we will quarrel, and then we will go in the right direction, and Nigeria will be an interesting place to watch."

It is a country starkly divided between rich and poor, with slums sprouting up across the teeming city of Lagos, including those built on rickety stilts in the water, while mansions sit on a nearby island.

Nigeria ranks 158th out of 182 countries in a UN index that measures health, education and wealth – even though the West African nation is among the world\’s largest oil exporters.

At a slum on the Lagos waterfront last week, where houses are made of scrap wood and metal, a fisherman said the government should do more to help, but his demands were simple.

"If all of them can be assisted with an engine, I think things would be OK," Sunday Baba Friday said in the Yoruba language, referring to canoe fishermen in the area.

Meanwhile, a couple of bankers, both 28, on their lunch break last week on the relatively wealthy Victoria Island said they were encouraged by what they called Nigeria\’s slow but steady progress.

Money is only one of many dividing lines. British colonialists left behind a country often described as several different nations in one.

Nigeria\’s 150 million people are roughly split in half between Christians and Muslims and belong to some 250 different ethnic groups.

Simply having held itself together through a half-century despite a brutal 1967-1970 civil war and a series of military coups is worth lauding, some say.

"It\’s like putting the English, the French and the Germans together," said Kunle Tejuoso, the 47-year-old owner of the Jazzhole music store and record label, where a bookstore catering to Lagos intellectuals also operates.

"It\’s amazing that we\’re still hanging out together."

The election, scheduled for January but likely to be postponed, could be historic in a number of ways.

To start with, the apparent favourite in the presidential ballot is a candidate who, according to many, has not waited his turn.

President Goodluck Jonathan, who announced his candidacy on Facebook, is a southern Christian, while many say his party should nominate someone from the mainly Muslim north.

The disagreement within the ruling Peoples Democratic Party results from a policy that it should rotate its candidates between the north and south every two terms to smooth over the vast country\’s differences.

Jonathan came into office in May following the death of president Umaru Yar\’Adua, a northern Muslim who had not even finished out his first term.

Some dismiss the rotation policy as outdated, arguing the country has moved beyond it and the best person should be chosen.

Others say the rule – essentially a power-sharing agreement – has helped hold Nigeria together.

Former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell wrote recently that "the danger of Nigeria plunging into post-election violence is a real possibility."

Jonathan, who would be the first elected president from the oil-producing Niger Delta region, has also pledged a fair vote, which would be a major feat in a country where ballots have often been tainted by rigging and intimidation.

"The coming election will decide whether our democracy survives or not," former minister Nasir el-Rufai wrote in a newspaper commentary.


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