Early in May I fly from Lagos to Abuja as part of a group of foreign journalists travelling to interview President Obasanjo, who has just announced that he intends to stand for re-election. Abuja, home to Nigeria’s political elite, was conceived just over a quarter of a century ago. A settlement of big hotels and uncompleted construction projects, it has little of Lagos’s eventfulness. Located in the geographical centre of a country characterised by inter-regional tensions, Abuja is supposed to epitomise togetherness, and is the face that Nigeria wants to show to the world.

Our first stop is the UN Development Programme office, where we talk to scientists about the environmental crisis developing in the country. ‘We have massive erosion which is aggravated by very high density of population,’ says Emmanuel Oladipo, a sustainable development adviser. Nigeria has 120 million people, a sixth of Africa’s total population, and human activity has reduced forest cover from between 40 and 50 per cent of the land to less than 10 per cent. The conversation, though, turns inevitably to oil. The misuse of Nigeria’s underground and offshore wealth is the greatest of the many injustices perpetrated on the country’s people by its rulers. Oil dominates the official economy: in 2000, it accounted for more than 90 per cent of the value of its total exports. Large-scale exploitation began in the 1960s, but the nation has little to show for the export revenues of more than $250 billion earned since then.

Obasanjo lives, like his predecessors, in the Presidential lodgings at Aso Rock, one of many picturesque inselbergs in and around Abuja. The corridors inside are busy. A number of blue signs ask for silence and prohibit loitering: a white man waits underneath one in defiance of protocol. The route to the President takes us along an open-air walkway framed by metal bars, from which we can see the villa’s huge and almost empty carpark, and hear the cry of one of the resident peacocks.

We proceed to an ante-room dominated by a huge installation of gold-painted fibreglass. It depicts the faces of about thirty people chosen to represent the diversity of Nigeria, home to nearly three hundred ethnic groups – the boundaries of the modern state were confected by the British in 1914.

Eventually, we are shown to a large auditorium with seating for about 150 people. The dais at the front of the room displays the Nigerian coat-of-arms: two horses flanking a shield, on which an eagle sits. The website of the President’s office says that this is the only recognised symbol for the nation. The motto beneath the shield reads ‘Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress’. We wait. The interview had been scheduled for 12.30. Shortly before two o’clock, we get some bad news: the interview will not take place until 4.30, in the campaign office.

The delay leaves plenty of time to read the papers. The day’s stories include the parlous financial performance of Nigeria Airways, social unrest in the oil-rich Niger Delta, and the latest on the investigation into the murder of Chief Bola Ige in December. There is an announcement of the forthcoming first public hearing of the judicial inquiry set up to investigate the inter-communal violence that has occurred in a number of states during the past year, as a result of economic problems and religious differences.

A cryptic electoral campaign advert for Ibrahim B. Babangida features a picture of the General, with his familiar gap-toothed grin. ‘Nigerians, get ready to smile,’ reads the blurb, signed by the ‘IBB 2003 movement’, whose composition and relation to Babangida is not at all clear. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of the corruption that flourished under Babangida’s rule, to a degree remarkable even by the standards of Nigerian administrations. Nor is there any reference to his decision to annul the 1993 Presidential elections. The advert is an indicator of the lack of principled and credible opposition to Obasanjo. The Independent National Electoral Commission last month denied 21 new parties permission to stand in next year’s poll. The unsuccessful applicants included the National Conscience Party led by Gani Fawehinmi, a respected human rights lawyer and long-time irritant to Nigerian military rulers. Fawehinmi argues that the Commission’s ruling has seriously damaged the ‘spinal cord of the democratic process’ and entrenched the influence of the Army. His analysis is supported by the presence among Presidential candidates of General Muhammadu Buhari, a military ruler in the mid-1980s. Wole Soyinka memorably satirised the authoritarian ‘war against indiscipline’ launched by the General, supposedly in an attempt to improve civic standards; and an article published in April in Vanguard, one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers, reflected a widely-held view when it described Buhari as ‘the Draco of our times’.

Buhari’s re-emergence reflects the tendency of Nigeria’s disastrous former rulers to endure in the national consciousness. Both Babangida and Abacha have roads named after them in Abuja, and there is an Ibrahim Babangida Golf Club. Our journey to Obasanjo’s campaign office takes us up Shehu Shagari Way, where we are halted temporarily by a fleet of twenty cars conveying the President to his appointment with us.

Nearer the campaign headquarters, the road is blocked by a police van with the words ‘Operation fire for fire’ painted on the side. The message, a reference to an official initiative to combat violent crime, is a reminder of the social breakdown evident throughout Nigeria. On the gate to the smart cream and blue office, a poster of Obasanjo advises that ‘continuity will serve our democracy.’ It sits alongside a picture of a snarling and dagger-toothed black dog, advertising the building’s thorough security arrangements.

In the room where the meeting is to be held, officials of Obasanjo’s People’s Democratic Party mill around while a television in the corner shows a documentary about the transatlantic slave trade. At 4.45 the TV is turned off. Shortly afterwards, a hissing announces that the President is here. In white robes and a pink brimless hat of the kind traditionally worn by the Yoruba people of the West, he greets his visitors and asks us how much time we need. Someone asks for 45 minutes. ‘That’s too much,’ he replies. ‘Let’s see if we can do it in 25, please.’

The first questioner asks what the distinction is between Obasanjo’s regime and its military predecessors, which included one led by Obasanjo himself, given that some people seem to see little difference. The President’s response is astringent. ‘It depends on the people you are talking to,’ he says. ‘If you are talking to people who think they should have been ministers or ambassadors who did not get those appointments, they would tell you there is not much difference. In fact, some would probably tell you it was worse than before.’ The truth, he continues, is that Nigerians have greater freedom and more access to social services than they did three years ago. Basic schooling is compulsory, medical facilities have been built and many communities have drinking water for the first time. ‘The greatest change of all, to my own mind, is that Nigerians today feel they have hope of a better future,’ he says. ‘And nothing can be substituted for hope.’

The interview is laced with Obasanjo’s trademark acerbity. The President has enjoyed diplomatic successes during his time in office: he was part of the committee that decided to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth this year, following its rigged election, and he is one of the leading advocates of Nepad, the plan for African development recently given the (very) qualified support of the G8. At other times, however, he has shown himself to be a crude judge of audiences. In January, broadcast live on television, he instructed victims of the explosion at a Lagos weapons dump to ‘shut up’. The official explanation was that he was unaware that more than a thousand people had died in the accident, and that there had been a subsequent rush to escape the area. ‘He is coming to understand what politics is all about,’ a party worker tells me later. ‘The military style is different from the democratic style.’

Hints of the parade ground are apparent in his response to a question about concerns that the political dominance of his Party will lead to malpractice at election-time. Should he worry about the electoral process in Britain, he asks scornfully? He concludes with a barely-coded instruction to a foreign press corps that has been involved in several skirmishes with the Government in the past few months. ‘I would plead with those who are looking at issues in Nigeria not to look at them with a jaundiced eye, but to look at them as they would look anywhere else.’

A few minutes later an aide indicates that the meeting is over. Outside, Obasanjo’s praises are sung by campaigners dressed in the white, red and green of the People’s Democratic Party. Adamu Ciroma, the Finance Minister, and members of the Party’s diaspora associations take questions. Ciroma is asked if he has any figures on the amount of money remitted home by the large population of Nigerians living abroad. ‘You know, in this country we are terrible when it comes to statistics,’ he says. ‘We are probably the worst country where statistics are concerned. We are working on that.’

The figures that do exist are disturbing. The UN Millennium Human Development Report estimates that between 66 and 70 per cent of the population lives in poverty, compared with 48.5 per cent in 1998. The deprivation is obvious from a visit to Abuja’s main market, where Chinese suitcases and gin bottles filled with peanuts vie with beggars for the attention of passers-by. People step around a young man lying on his front in the middle of the pavement, hand outstretched, flip-flops on his elbows to prevent chafing.

Francis Obiekezie, who runs a second-hand clothes shop in the market, is one of the many people I have met who take a less positive view of the state of the nation than Obasanjo. He notes that the Nigerian naira is in continual decline against the US dollar, making imports steadily more expensive. Jobs are hard to come by, even for graduates such as himself, and the ruling classes have little idea what is going on. ‘Those old politicians – all they end up doing is amassing wealth, making money for themselves and their families,’ he says. ‘We have plenty of resources – but they are unco-ordinated.’

On my return to Lagos the following day, the newspaper vendors on the airport road are trying to sell their stock before the threatened tropical storm breaks. During a ‘go-slow’ I lean out of the window to buy This Day and the Guardian, two of the main dailies. I give the seller 200 naira but the traffic jam dissolves before he has a chance to hand me my change.

I have mentally waved the money goodbye by the time we stop again about a hundred yards down the road, but then I see the newspaper-seller sprinting to catch up with us. He thrusts a banknote through the window before disappearing into the crowd. Kayode, my driver, snatches the papers from me and asks suspiciously: ‘How much did he give you?’ I show him the 50 naira note – the correct change, delivered in good faith against the odds.

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