Published March 7, 2005 – Copyright The New York Times
For more than 40 years, the epitome of wasted potential and squandered opportunity in Africa has been Nigeria. From the time it gained independence from Britain in 1960, that behemoth of 137 million people has seemed to do its level best to fritter away every natural advantage. Given the second-highest proven oil reserves in Africa, Nigerian officials spent oil income on lavish estates in Europe instead of decent schools and water systems back home. The country that produced the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and arguably Africa’s best author, Chinua Achebe, was better known for the cruel, thieving dictator Sani Abacha.
Now, “Nigeria is changing,” says Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the country’s finance minister. She suggested thinking of America and the West as the parent and Nigeria as the child: “If your child has been doing bad things – drug abuse or alcohol – and they come to you and say, ‘My mother, I want to change; please help me,’ would you say, ‘No’? Would you say, ‘You are hopeless; you can’t change’?”
It’s a tough question for anyone who has ever been assaulted at the airport in Lagos just trying to enter Nigeria, or hit up for a bribe by Nigerian government officials, or struck dumb at the sight of orphaned children drinking dirty water on the street. But if America and the developed world are serious about their stated intent to tackle poverty, most of which is in Africa, then they cannot ignore the home of 20 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s people.
Hard as it is to believe, there are hopeful signs in Nigeria. The Nigerians, through two, albeit flawed, democratic elections, have given themselves a reformist government with the right intentions. President Olusegun Obasanjo has taken up the mantle of anticorruption – or, at least, slightly reduced corruption. He established an Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, whose chairman, Alhaji Nuhu Ribadu, at risk to his life, has been terrifying current and former officials with his investigations. Already, two rear admirals have been convicted of helping to steal 11,000 barrels of oil. Some 130 customs officials have been fired.
Bunkering, the quaint term Nigerians use to describe outright stealing of crude oil by members of the armed forces or the government, has been reduced to a mere 20,000 barrels a day from 100,000 barrels a day, according to Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. And finally – this should please all of us who have received e-mail supposedly from Idi Amin’s son or Charles Taylor’s wife offering untold riches if we’d only provide our checking account numbers – three purported e-mail crime leaders have been arrested.
Beyond the fight against corruption, Nigeria has made huge strides in promoting regional security. Nigerian peacekeepers are in Liberia, Sudan and Sierra Leone. Last month, when Togo installed the son of the country’s longtime strongman as president, it was Nigeria’s Mr. Obasanjo who led the fight that ultimately forced Faure Gnassingbé to step down. We can’t help but notice the difference between Mr. Obasanjo and the leader of black Africa’s other regional power, South Africa. Thabo Mbeki has largely thrown up his hands in the struggle to force Zimbabwe to hold honest elections that could rid it of the odious despot Robert Mugabe.
What’s missing is for America to take Nigeria more seriously, to do much more than simply treat the country as a gas station. The United States has made some strides with H.I.V.-AIDS treatment in Nigeria, but that should be expanded to include prevention as well. The country isn’t anywhere close to qualifying for aid under President Bush’s Millennium Challenge Account, which ties money to good governance. But that approach, while worthy, condemns the 80 million Nigerians who subsist on barely anything. America should supplement the Challenge Account program with something that encourages countries like Nigeria to press ahead with reforms, and find ways – perhaps through private aid groups – to funnel money to the desperately poor. Nigeria is too big to ignore. If it doesn’t succeed, it’s hard to imagine that the rest of Africa has much of a chance.