Bring up Nigeria in polite, educated company and you’re almost guaranteed the same reaction: a bemused smile, a derisory reference towards email scams, and a quick change of subject. Almost nobody will bring up the vast natural resource, recent strides in domestic developments, or thriving art scene that makes up this industrious nation. However, with elections on the horizon and Nigeria poised to become a front runner in not just African leadership, but global production, it’s about time the world started paying attention.
By all accounts, Nigeria ought to be enjoying the amenities of a modern country. Its oil exports, the sixth largest in the world, could provide it with Dubaiesque skyscrapers and evenly distributed infrastructure. However, thanks to a staggering level of political corruption, and a ruling party (People’s Democratic Party) with hands in most revenue sources, Nigerians are subject to rolling blackouts and no guarantee of a fresh water supply. Other exports such as tin, columbite, wood, chemicals and steel helps fund the salaries of Parliament, who make on average 2 million Narita per year. This comes out to about 12,000 USD. However, considering Nigeria only has a GDP of 165 billion, and 70% of its citizenry below is the poverty line, it is a gratuitously inflated salary to say the least.
Yet despite all of this, Nigerians have kept an almost infallible optimism alive. A University of Michigan study concluded in 2003 that Nigerians rated as the #1 happiest country in the world (the U.S., by the way, did not even make the top five). Optimism about the future seems to be key, and there are lots of reasons for Nigerians to look forward. The mega-city of Lagos in the south has a number of improvement projects underway and international forces are even joining in. Chinese and Danish developers are helping reclaim parts of the sea to aid Lagos in its never-ending expansion and numerous other building projects are added all the time. Mixed in to this is the continuous hustle of a city full of entrepreneurs and you have a society that needs just a few years of solid, fair leadership before it could emerge as a social and financial force both in Africa and the world. But to understand how Nigeria has gotten to where it is now, we first must take a brief look into the nation’s incredible history, and since I’m a sucker for some ancient kingdoms, we’re starting out way back.
This West African nation was home to a number of early civilizations. About the same time the Ptolemaic Dynasties were getting their Greek on in Egypt , the Nok people of modern day Nigeria were turning out terracotta statues. Multiple empires continued to dominate the region. The Kano and Katsina people dated back to 999, then there were the Hausa, Kanem-Bornu, and Fulani empires, who all took turns dominating the region.
The Kingdom of Nri, which served the Igbo people, was one of the more notable kingdoms in what is now Nigeria. Dating from the 10th century all the way until the British colonization in 1911, the city-state of Nri was considered on par with Rome and Mecca in terms of culture and civilization. Within the Igbo culture math, calendars, banking and judicial systems were created. This was complimented by their own unique religion and myths on creation which were used, in the place of force or violence, to spread their empire.
The first major western contact Nigeria had was with Spain and Portugal, who set up trade routes with Lagos and Calabar. They traded primarily in slavery, which was condemned by the Nri Kingdom, but popular amongst other sections of the culture. In 1885, the British showed up and in 1901 Nigeria became an official British Protectorate. Sixty years later, on October 1st, Nigerians won their independence and went about establishing their first sovereign government. In 1967-1970 perceived corruption and numerous military coups led to a 30-month civil war that killed upwards of 3 million between July 1967 and January 1970. Then the oil boom came, Nigeria joined OPEC and the game was on.
Since the oil discovery began funnelling billions of dollars directly into the pockets of corrupt officials, Nigeria has seen numerous coups and voting fraud. In 1993, free and fair elections were promised and when the winner, Mashood Kashimawo Ollawale Abiola was declared null and void by the powers that be, mass riots and protests shut down Nigeria for weeks. Soon after, another coup by General Sani Abadwa found Nigeria in the grip of one of the most brutal rulers yet. Suppression of dissent ran high and soon corruption and bribery scandals were uncovered. In 1998 he died under unusual circumstances that were never fully explained.
The tide seemed to be turning in 1999 when Olusegun Obasanjo was elected ending 33 years of military rule. However embezzlement and scandal wracked the nation during this time. In 1999 the government dropped a suit against Pfeizer for running a trial for the anti-meningitis drug Trovan that left 11 children dead and dozens more disabled. The families were looking at receiving 2 billion in damages, when suddenly the drug company threatened to investigate the attorney general, Michael Aondoakaa. He quickly settled with Pfeizer for 75 million and was later removed from office by President Goodluck Jonathan. Subsequent elections in 2003 that saw the reelection of Obasanjo were internationally condemned as being fixed and highly flawed. In 2007 Umaru Yar’Adua of the People’s Democratic Party was elected and three years later, on May 5th, 2010, he died. Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was appointed as his replacement. Which brings us to the present.
Presidential elections! The two real rivals are the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan from the south of the country and Mohammadu Buhari, a former leader from a military coup in th 1980s, coming out of the north. Nigeria is a country where most of the Muslim population lives in the north with a predominately Christian majority in the south. This means that the vote risks splitting along already tense religious lines. There have been a few reports of violence during the run up to the election. In one state, the headquarters for the PDP was burned down amid anger over possible rigging. There was a bomb explosion and a few reports of intimidation and riots in four of the thirty-six states that make up the country. A few clashes were sparked when party officials were seen escorting and inking the fingers of voters.
However, in all, things have been relatively peaceful, especially when you consider how immense this entire voting event has been. In total, 469 seats in Parliament were voted for. The ruling party (The PDP), while still holding a majority, did worse than many thought they would. Thirty-six governors were elected to lead the states and now ballots are finally being counted for the final vote: the presidential election. So far it seems clear that Goodluck Jonathan has a substantial lead, and most commentators are comfortable calling the race in his favor, but all the votes (at press time) have yet to be counted. Numerous independent sources are calling this one of the freest elections in decades. An independent commonwealth observer system has been set up and almost all analysts in the region have hailed the transparency and seriousness this year of voting has evoked in the country, with some voters even staying at polling centers to oversee the actual counting of ballots.
With mass improvements scheduled around the country, Nigeria has a lot to look forward to. That is, as long as the new leadership does not fail its people or the potential of their own country. Reforms and projects in Lagos and Abuja have begun to great results, but must be carried through to include the basics of modern cities. Nigerian people are well aware of such issues and determined, this time, to hold the government accountable. Hopefully their politicians are listening.