As published in The Denver Urban Spectrum: June 2006
Nigeria is often called “the Soul of Africa,” and for good reason. It is in many ways the cultural and business center of the motherland. It has also been called, “an African giant,” “the most blessed amongst the blessed,” “the breadbasket of Africa,” and “the comedy nation.”
Remember the saying that “one in every five Black people on earth is a Nigerian”? It has been called other things, some of them negative. I call it the “beacon of Africa’s hope.” Nigeria’s leadership comes not only from oil and trade. It comes from new ways of thinking and the business of culture, leadership, and diplomacy. As Nigeria goes, so does the rest of Africa.
The country is a vast territory that stretches roughly 356,668 square miles and neighbors Benin, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. It is famous for its cities: Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta, Benin City, Kano, Kaduna, Ile-Ife, Calabar, Port Harcourt, Zaria, Sokoto, and many others. Its culture, languages, and tourism industry are unique and unmatched anywhere in the world.
Its movie industry is famously called Nolly-wood to feel and sound like America’s Hollywood while embodying the culture and traditions of Africa. According to the Film-Makers Cooperative of Nigeria, Nollywood is a multi-million-dollar industry with about 600 movies made last year alone.
Nigeria has its own rappers too, and some of them have gone international, like 2Face Idibia, whose African Queen album won the MTV Europe, Africa Artist of the Year award in 2005. Others, like 50 Kobo and the UK based group-Gidi Unit aka JJC-SkillZ, though controversial, are less known. They have styled themselves after famed American rapper 50 Cents. They aggrandize themselves with expensive cars, money, and women. (The actual kobo is the lower denominator of the naira, the national currency, and is used for millions of transactions in the international market place).
Some of Nigeria’s more renowned artists, like King Sunni Ade and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, are admired worldwide for their juju and high-life class of music.
Nigeria is a former British colony that became independent in October 1960. Today, it is composed of about 66 states containing an estimated 450 ethnic groups. After recently completing its first census in 15 years, Nigeria was determined to be the most populous African country with over 120 million people. It has the most Muslims of any African nation.
Its president is Olusegun Obasanjo. He is a tall, dark Yoruba man, 69-years-old. He always wears a traditional Nigerian outfit and appears laid back and soft-spoken. Like him or hate him, he’s been shaping the face of Africa for some time, both through encounters with U. S. leaders in Washington and at home in Nigeria.
Obasanjo is a former military ruler credited with voluntarily handing over power to a democratically-elected civilian government in 1979. With the exception of Nelson Mandela who stepped down as South African president in 1999, and is now retired as an international diplomat, and Kofi Annan, who heads the UN, he is the most visible leader amongst Africa’s 53 heads of state. From when it gained independence in 1960 and until Obasanjo was sworn into office in1999, Nigeria’s history was fraught with numerous coup attempts and takeovers: 1966, 1975, 1976, 1983, 1985, and 1993.
Nigeria experienced secessionist movements such as the 1967 Biafra war, civil unrest, and strikes over military rule, oil, and minority rights issues. In 1993, election results were annulled after declaring Moshood Abiola the winner. There were also human rights abuses that culminated with the slaying of prominent playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. Also, several northern states defiantly adopted Islamic or Sharia law. Nigeria has faced suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations and the withdrawal of aid by the United States as a result of these problems.
Today, after nearly 15 years of military dictatorships, the re-emergence of Obasanjo and his subsequent election as president marked the dawn of a new era. Wherever he travels, he projects a new attitude about Africa’s leadership, its peoples, cultural diversity, strong diplomatic ties, and transatlantic trade. U.S. and international leaders in Washington and around the world have been watching and listening.
Under Obasanjo, Nigerians have been working to undo negative perceptions about their country. With his visibility and international presence, he gives the impression of a man with a mission. He is showcasing Nigeria’s role as the leading African nation of the 21st century. One example is the launch of the Heart of Africa Project. According to Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Information and National Orientation, it is a cohesive information program for Nigerian Image management and economic progress.
The broader context of the project is that it seeks to cleanse the country’s image, tarnished by 419 scammers and drug dealers, through the enforcement of a stricter code of conduct by its citizens, at home and abroad. Former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, is leading a presidential advisory council on International Relations, and recently cautioned foreign diplomats in Nigeria against making negative comments about the country.
Whichever direction Africa’s number one nation takes, bears implications for the rest of the continent. Under Obasanjo’s leadership, Nigeria has strengthened ties with its African neighbors. Recently there were cross-border skirmishes and tension with Cameroon over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsular. The southern Cameroon region was part of Nigeria until it decided in a 1961 United Nations plebiscite to join French-speaking East Cameroon. The United Nations International Court of Justice ruled in 2002 that the peninsular belongs to Cameroon. Since then, Obasanjo has visited Cameroon to help strengthen bilateral relations.
Bill Clinton visited Nigeria in August 2000, barely 12 months after he was elected, to discuss support for the country’s nascent democracy, and increase the fight against HIV/AIDS throughout the continent. George W. Bush visited in July 2003 to discuss, among other things, trade and Nigeria’s role in combating terrorism in the world,. In January 2006, Laura Bush, accompanied by her daughter Barbara visited to discuss the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Conversely, Obasanjo’s been to Washington D.C. many times, most recently in March 2006. Before his arrival, reports surfaced that former Liberian president Charles Taylor, indicted for war crimes, was on the loose. Many wondered why Taylor was still under protection by Nigeria. He was later caught by security officials and handed over to the Sierra-Leone War Crimes Tribunal where he stood trial. Handing over Charles Taylor, the former leader of an Africa Nation, for trial, earned him many friends in D.C.
According to Chido Nwangwu, a Nigerian journalist based in Houston who writes for USAafricaonline.com, Obasanjo, because of his record number of foreign trips, has become the most frequent-flyer president of Nigeria ever. Nwangwu credits Obasanjo with the progress made in the technological development of the oil and gas sector, and for investments made in Nigeria by many Houston-based firms.
Obasanjo has been chair of the Africa Union and is now taking a leading role, working alongside the United States to bring peace to the Darfur region of Sudan. Nigeria was the first to volunteer peacekeeping troops for Darfur. And Obasanjo was the first to condemn the military take-over in Togo in 2005 after the late president Gnassingbe Eyadema’s son, Faure Gnassingbe, violated the country’s constitution and assumed power with the support of the army. Faura was pressured to organize elections and was subsequently elected president.
Nigeria and its president are at a delicate time. Tensions are said to be high in anticipation of next year’s presidential elections. While the issues of immigration, abortion, and race are dividing America, it is talk of a possible third term by Obasanjo that is splitting Nigeria into various political camps. The country’s constitution allows for only two terms of office for the president.
If Obasanjo respects the rule of law, he will set a new precedent of higher standards for other Africa leaders. He is known to be at odds with his vice president, Atiku Abubakar, a Muslim and northerner over this third term controversy. Abubakar, whose Potomac, Maryland home was raided by the FBI last year, is openly planning his own run for President in 2007.
While testifying to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in an open hearing in February, John Negroponte, U. S. Director of National Intelligence said “Some good news is coming out of Africa,” but the most important election on the African horizon will be held in spring 2007.
Writer’s note: In May, the Nigerian National Assembly rejected the motion for a third term. Obasanjo accepted the outcome, and, at an emergency meeting of the National Executive Council of the Peoples Democratic Party, called it a “triumph for the democratic process and legislative independence,” according to Vanguard newspaper. For many in Africa and the world, it was welcome news. So Obasanjo will be out in 2007, having served two full terms as president. He is preparing to make way for elections and a new leader in 2007. If this holds, then Nigeria and Africa have another cause to rejoice.