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Nigeria's "go slow" leader

Africa's most populous country faces many challenges, but its president is curiously inactive.

Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua waves to the crowd as he arrives for prayers during celebrations for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha in Abuja. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

ABUJA and LAGOS — They call it a "go slow": the lines of traffic that clog the streets of Lagos, Nigeria's largest city. The stultifying gridlocks cut into the amount of business that can be accomplished.

"Baba Go Slow" is thus the fitting nickname for Nigeria's president Umaru Yar'Adua, who is a nearly invisible presence as the ruler of Africa's leading oil exporter. Some question whether Yar'Adua is plagued by poor health. But for his part, Yar'Adua says that he simply likes to think before he acts, an unusual approach in a country with a history of strongman leaders.

"He is very introverted," said Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Center for Democracy and Development (CDD) in the capital Abuja. "What his people say is that he is a planner, he likes planning quietly and achieving quietly. But we are not sure what the achievements are."

It has been almost two years since Yar'Adua — the hand-picked choice of former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo — became president in an election that was one of Africa's worst to date. Hundreds died in politically-inspired and politician-funded clashes in the run-up to the April 2007 poll. Election day itself was criticized by many observers as a grand display of organized fraud and violent theft. 

Court appeals followed, but it seemed the litigious runner-ups only lost because they were less competent thieves. Their cases were thrown out by the Supreme Court after 20 months.

What has followed is a government marked by inaction. Nigeria — Africa's most populous country with 140 million people and the continent's largest economy, with a gross domestic product of $328 billion — is run by a government that is widely regarded as ineffectual. Under Yar'Adua, it has become even more lethargic. 

"There has been paralysis," said Dan Akpovwa, publisher of the Abuja Inquirer newspaper. "Some people put it down to the elections being challenged, others to his ill health, but either way not much governance is going on."

Sickness — and rumors of sickness — have dogged Yar'Adua. From his collapse at a campaign rally two years ago to the unexplained vacations that most believe are for medical treatment abroad, the 57-year-old former university teacher has left Nigerians doubting whether he will last his four-year term, let alone manage the country effectively.

"Nobody knows what is wrong with the president. His people have not come out to say what he has [and] that lack of transparency gives room for wild speculation," Akpovwa said.

Ibrahim also accuses Yar'Adua of a failure to communicate, which he said indicates a contempt for the electorate that is unsurprising given the flawed election and the questioned legitimacy of Yar'Adua's mandate. "Once you don't owe anything to the people you can ignore them," Ibrahim explained.

Since Yar'Adua took office, there's been little progress on key areas such as ensuring adequate power supply, fighting the tide of corruption and solving the rebellion in the oil-rich Niger Delta — more than 2 million barrels of oil are pumped out every day, driving Nigeria's economy.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and other militant splinter groups continue to disrupt Nigeria's oil production. They sabotage some pipelines and tap others.

The lucrative racket of stealing crude oil for illegal sale, known as "bunkering," is worth an estimated $5 billion a year. Increasing numbers of oil workers and their families are kidnapped for ransom.

Although there is a government ministry for the Niger Delta, it is poorly funded. Peace summits to resolve the problems have been called, only to be abandoned.

Meanwhile the violence and disruption worsen: Last month kidnappers shot a young girl while abducting her nine-year-old brother on the streets of Port Harcourt.

In another backward step on the corruption front, Nuhu Ribadu — the former leader of an anti-corruption watchdog called the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) — was forced to go on leave. Although Ribadu was criticized as being partisan in selecting which individuals to indict, he was getting some prosecutions.

His replacement, Farida Waziri, a retired senior policewoman, lacks her predecessor's zeal. "Clearly the anti-corruption fight has slowed down," Ibrahim said. "My worry is… [that it is] a conscious policy shift to slowdown the process."

Obasanjo, the formidable former president, still casts a long shadow over Nigeria's politics. He was forced to relinquish power after losing a bid to amend the constitution to campaign for a third term. Yar'Adua was his handpicked successor.

Recent maneuvering within the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) suggest that Obasanjo is not finished yet. He and his estranged former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, appear to be making up, setting the stage for what many believe will be another orchestrated election in
2011.

 

More GlobalPost dispatches by Tristan McConnell:

Obama's Kenyan roots celebrate

Opportunities abound for Obama in Africa 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/nigeria/090205/nigerias-go-slow-leader