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A Triumph for Democracy in Nigeria?

March 1, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SPENCER MICHELS: Nigeria — with about twice the land area of California — was once a wealthy nation, one of the world’s top oil producers. But for the last 15 years, corrupt military governments have been accused of siphoning off much of the wealth. Today, many of Nigeria’s 110 million people live in poverty. Political repression in Nigeria has drawn international criticism, especially the 1995 hanging of poet and human rights crusader Ken Saro-Wiwa, and several others.

But last summer Nigeria’s military rulers agreed to an election. The winner is former military ruler, General Olusegun Obasanjo. He served as president in the late 1970′s and voluntarily relinquished power in 1979 to a civilian government, which was later overthrown by the military. Obasanjo was later imprisoned for three years for criticizing military rule and was released just eight months ago. During a campaign that lasted only a week, Obasanjo promised that his voting government would serve as a bridge to a civilian administration.

OLUSEGUN OBASANJO, President-Elect, Nigeria: Now after the election we will expect to go back to the work of reviving Nigerian society.

SPENCER MICHELS: Obasanjo’s opponent was former Finance Minister Olu Falae, who called Obasanjo “a soldier in civilian disguise.” Falae has disputed the fairness of the vote and said he would fight it constitutionally, legally and politically.

OLU FALAE, Presidential Candidate: Well, I’m afraid there has been no election. What has happened is a farce because the will of the people has been subverted by large scale and massive rigging of the vote.

SPENCER MICHELS: The balloting and counting was under scrutiny from international and American election observers including Former President Jimmy Carter. In a statement issued as he was leaving Abuja, Carter said, “There was a wide disparity between the number of voters observed at the polling stations and the final result that has been reported from several states.” He went on to say, “Regrettably, it is not possible for us to make an accurate judgment about the outcome of the presidential election.” But some observers said fraud would not affect the ultimate outcome, a 63 percent victory for Obasanjo.

JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco takes the story from there.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more now on the elections and what they mean, we are joined by Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian author, poet, and playwright, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. He was in exile in the United States from 1994 to 1998. He is the chairman of the United Democratic Front of Nigeria, which opposes military rule, and is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. And Walter Carrington, United States Ambassador to Nigeria from late 1993 until October 1997. He is currently a fellow of the W. E. B. DuBoise Institute of Harvard University.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Soyinka, what is your reaction to the elections and the victory of Mr. Obasanjo?

WOLE SOYINKA, Author, Nobel Laureate: A very sad one. I believe that the results are terribly tainted, and it does not bode well for the democratic future of the nation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So excuse me just one second, but your reaction to the complaints by the various observers is that this is really a serious problem?

WOLE SOYINKA: Yes, indeed. I was home in December — also remember — during the governorship elections, and I can tell you that I left — I was there just about a week — and I left very, very doubtful about the whole proceeding. It’s been a great disappointment since the nation had been waiting for so long for this exercise.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, expand on that. In what way a disappointment?

WOLE SOYINKA: Oh, first of all, the money. Oh, I saw, I actually witnessed the role which money has been playing in this election, and I think that the international observers didn’t even go far enough regarding the massive fraud which took place during the elections. Now, having said that, let me make this clear, because sometimes I’m always being misunderstood. I’m not blaming any of the principals, either Obasanjo or Falae or even the Independent International Commission, but there are forces which have staked millions, millions on this election for the results which they want, and they’ve used equal amount of money in subverting the process right from the beginning.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Forces? What sorts of forces?

WOLE SOYINKA: Some of them are ex-military officers, those multibillionaires’ certain business interests who want the result to go one particular way and have not hesitated at all to use any methods whatever in subverting the regular democratic process.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Ambassador Carrington, what is your reaction to the election and to the victory of Mr. Obasanjo?

WALTER CARRINGTON, Former US Ambassador, Nigeria: Well, I think I agree very much with what Wole Soyinka has said. And I think the real test now is whether or not the civilians are going to be able to govern in a way that is different from the military in terms of the kinds of corruption and fraud that took place in the elections. The challenge right now is to try to try to have a different way of governing so that one can restore the faith of the people in the government. What happened, especially during the five years of the Abacha regime, was that that faith in government was completely lost because people saw the government interested only in their own welfare and not in the people’s welfare. And the hope with these elections was that the civilians would have learned their lesson and would have come back differently, and I think the extent to which there was fraudulent practices going on in many of the states sadly may indicate that a lot of the civilian politicians have not learned their lessons.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Ambassador, what’s at stake here? How important are these elections in the establishment of democracy in Nigeria?

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I think quite a bit. Nigeria is by far and away “the” most important country in Africa, a country of 110 million people, a country which has the potential to be a great leader, not only in Africa, but in the world — a country that is our fifth largest source of oil, the sixth largest producer of oil in the world. And if Nigeria can get it right, it could be a force for great good in the continent. And I’m hoping that with the election of General Obasanjo that he will be able to restore Nigeria to that position of leadership.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Soyinka, what would you add to that? In your view, what’s at stake here?

WOLE SOYINKA: What’s at stake is the restoration, the recovery of the civic politic, which has been severely, deliberately damaged by succeeding military regimes. Obasanjo said something. I listened to a speech — a sentence or two in his “acceptance speech” in which he said he hoped to be the bridge to genuine democratic dispensation. But it’s a bridge, nevertheless, an opposition has been in effect. These election have been most unfortunate. I think the only thing to do is to regard the elections as a real transition program towards a genuine democracy. Because what has taken place so far has not been a genuine democratic exercise.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Soyinka, thinking of this then as a transition, explain the key problems that any president has to confront in Nigeria now?

WOLE SOYINKA: Well, the principal — I think the basic thing is to restore the public services: Telephone, petroleum supply, transportation, lights, electricity, water, educational institutions. I mean, just to get that country working like a well-organized piece of real estate — it’s as basic and elementary as that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Ambassador, what do you see as the key problems?

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I think that’s very true. Public services have really fallen apart. I mean, today Lagos is probably the largest village in Africa. It ought to be a great metropolitan city, but in the villages one of the problems in villages, you don’t have water, you don’t have electricity, you don’t have fuel. That is what has happened in Lagos. There is no fuel. There is very little electricity. That is one of the things. The other thing is it seems to me that there has to be something done about the federal system that makes it more fair so that there is an opportunity for the people in the oil producing regions, for example, to be able to realize some of the great money that is produced in those areas. Those areas have been greatly shortchanged. It would be as if in this country the poorest state would be Texas, even though Texas is a great oil-producing state. That is the situation in Nigeria — where the oil producing areas are among the poorest in the country mainly because they are populated by minority groups who do not have the kind of clout that is needed and also because so much of the oil revenues have been siphoned off by military leaders, and the people have not received the benefit of the oil that has been produced in the country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Soyinka, do you think even with the problems with the voting, and if this is perhaps a transition, that the president, who takes office on May 29, will have the mandate to deal with some of these problems? Or do you, for example, foresee a challenge to his election that could cause more chaos in the future?

WOLE SOYINKA: Well, if whoever takes power goes according to the correct priorities — Walter has put his finger on it. The restructuring of that country is absolutely paramount. In fact, this is what we have always proposed. Over and above whoever happens to be president is the real issue of restructuring the nation of ensuring the minorities, the genuine resource-producing areas are no long short-changed, marginalized, totally alienated. I mean, the Delta region is on fire, and that is an oil-producing area. So if the incoming person gets his priorities right and, as I said, also tackle the basic public function aspect of society, it’s possible that people will accept it as, yes, a bridge into the democratic Valhalla, a rickety one as I said, very, very shaky, and then he might be able to overcome some of the political problems which certainly are going to come up as a result of this very fraudulent process of choosing the next head of state.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Soyinka, just so we know, what are the means available to the defeated candidate to challenge the results?

WOLE SOYINKA: Well, there’s the appeal court of INEC, the protestation court, if you like, of the Electoral Commission, and there are the regular courts also. And I think it’s important that these things — the anomalies be brought to the surface if only to assist the nation in organizing a proper election. It’s unfortunate that the military messed up this particular electoral exercise again.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ambassador Carrington, how would you answer that question about whether this new leader, Obasanjo, will have a mandate, even given the problems of the elections, to deal with the problems that you pointed out?

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I think the fact he won with 63 percent of the vote, now how much of that was the result of unfair practices we don’t know. But I think that what he has to do in addition to what I said before about doing something in the Delta oil-producing regions, he’s got the reach out to his own people in the Southwest, the Yorubas. All of those Yoruba states went to his opponent. And it seems to me that there has to be a kind of national reconciliation. I would hope that there could be some bringing in of the government of some of the leaders of Falae’s party so that Nigerians can pull together because unless they do, if they create a vacuum, if there is unrest, my great fear is that this will give an opening for some military man to have an excuse to try to come back in. So it’s time it seems to me for all civilians, all who believe in civilian rule, to pull together and to try to make this thing work.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much for being with us.