Ben Rawlence

The sky is never fully clear in Ibadan. A haze of pollution hangs above Nigeria’s third city. It is most visible in the morning, when the sun lights it from the side; lit from above, the sky simply becomes murky, like soup. It was early morning when my American colleague and I left Ibadan, after six suffocating days. Our taxi nosed its way through crowded streets, as the faithful made their way to Mass. Everyone was wearing their Sunday best: lavishly embroidered trousers and tunics matched with head-wraps of the same cloth, or shoes with stripes. Even the boy who ran alongside the car motioning to his mouth pleadingly was dressed in a beautiful yellow two-piece, embellished with what looked like gold thread. He eventually left with our bottle of water and a nervous backward glance.

As the car joined the motorway, I wound down the window and took gulps of fresh air. It didn’t last long. The day began to warm up, and soon diesel fumes from trucks and buses poured through the open window. I didn’t breathe easily again until we reached Awka, in the far south-east of the country, a few hundred miles from the border with Cameroon.

Nigerians go to the polls on 14 April to elect new state governments and on 21 April to elect a new president and House of Representatives. These are the third elections since the end of military rule in 1999; President Olusegun Obasanjo is stepping down after two terms. Despite Obasanjo’s high international profile, it is hard to find any Nigerian not in the ruling party who has a good word to say about him. Poverty and corruption are now more widespread than they were under military rule, and public services have seen little or no improvement despite the soaring oil revenues flowing into the treasury. In 2006, Obasanjo tried to amend the constitution to allow himself to stand for a third term; the senate united to stop him and so this will be the first time since Nigeria gained independence in 1960 that power has passed from one civilian head of state to another.

The last set of elections took place in 2003; according to one local group of observers they were less elections than low-intensity armed struggles. Gangs of armed thugs mobilised by rival politicians clashed in the streets and even in polling stations as they tried to gain the upper hand in what has come to be known as ‘competitive rigging’. Along with representatives of the United States and the European Union, Britain’s diplomats are unforthcoming about what they might do if the same thing happened this time, and indeed about how they will be able to tell if it has. It is difficult to describe the chaos of elections in Nigeria: 120,000 polling stations, 140 million people (a sixth of the Africans on the continent) and thousands of candidates prepared to do almost anything to get elected. But no Western oil-importing country is willing to risk losing oil concessions to the Chinese for the sake of a few harsh words about a fraudulent election. Most Nigerians I spoke to were cynical about voting and about anybody’s ability to rein in their politicians. They were also nervous. The bell-boy in the Premier Hotel in Ibadan laughed: ‘I’m not going to vote. I don’t want to die.’

He has much to be nervous about. Ibadan’s ancient and more modern walls are awash with political posters. Prominent among them are posters of Rashid Ladoja, the sitting governor of Oyo State, and of his deputy, Christopher Alao-Akala, who is also running for governor. A little over a year ago Ladoja was impeached on trumped-up charges by a handful of members of the state assembly backed by a gang of armed militia; Akala assumed his place while Ladoja’s appeal wound its way through the courts. The High Court in Ibadan reinstated Ladoja, declaring his impeachment invalid on the grounds that not enough assembly members had voted for it. Meanwhile, in his brief time in office, Akala looted public funds on a major scale and distributed them to his supporters. He was announced as the candidate of the ruling party – the People’s Democratic Party – the weekend before we arrived in Ibadan; at his election rally, supporters of Ladoja left three dead and many others in hospital.

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[*] The AC is a new party made up mostly of disgruntled PDP members, who sided with Abubakar after he led the opposition to the president’s campaign to change the constitution. That campaign prompted the president to launch a criminal investigation, which duly indicted the vice-president on charges of embezzlement, and which prompted Abubakar in his turn to give the press copies of cheques made out by Obasanjo to bogus companies. In the end, however, Abubakar has come off worse, having spent most of the campaign fighting court battles to allow him to contest the elections.