As Vote for New President Nears, Democracy Disappoints Nigerians

Campaign posters cover a wall in Kano, Nigeria. Voters go to polls Saturday to pick a successor to President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose election in 1999 ended decades of military dictatorships.
Campaign posters cover a wall in Kano, Nigeria. Voters go to polls Saturday to pick a successor to President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose election in 1999 ended decades of military dictatorships. (By George Osodi -- Associated Press)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 20, 2007

KANO, Nigeria, April 19 -- This was Tanko Bala's life before the arrival of democracy: He had a steady job at a factory, a predictable supply of electricity in his home and a few of life's indulgences. Milk with his morning tea. Movies in the evenings.

This is his life now: The factory has closed. The electricity has all but disappeared. The television has been sold along with the VCR. And the elections that arrive every four years are, in Bala's view, so thoroughly rigged that Nigeria's government seems no more a reflection of popular will than it did during the days of military rule. He expects little more from Saturday's presidential election.

"Democracy, they wanted to do good things, but the cheaters are too much," said Bala, 40, a thin, modest man with a wife and three daughters. "Instead of doing work for the people, they do work for themselves."

Nigeria's corruption, rated by Transparency International as among the worst in the world, has undermined its young democracy by weakening public services and trust in elected leaders. President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose election eight years ago ended decades of military dictatorships, is leaving behind a decaying nation whose citizens are poor and increasingly frustrated.

Among the casualties has been faith in democracy itself. Satisfaction with Nigeria's democracy fell from 84 percent early in Obasanjo's first term to 25 percent in 2005 among those surveyed by Afrobarometer, a polling service that measures African public attitudes.

Another casualty has been the nation's infrastructure, which has deteriorated despite a massive surge in oil revenue. Billions of dollars supposedly have been spent improving Nigeria's electrical system, but poorly maintained power plants generate far fewer megawatts than they did when Obasanjo took office, prompting many Nigerians to conclude that much of the money for repairs and upgrades was simply stolen. They also blame corruption for the aging schools, crumbling roads and meager supplies of clean water.

The economic toll has been severe. Here in the northern city of Kano, 500 factories once produced textiles, mattresses and prepared foods for distribution throughout West Africa. Fewer than 100 remain, and few of those operate at full capacity. Without a steady supply of electricity and water, or decent roads and railways to deliver goods, factory owners say they struggle to compete in an increasingly global, open market.

Universal Textile Industries, one of the survivors, spends nearly $40,000 a month on fuel for backup generators, its general manager said. And when the power cuts off, which it does three or four times a day, thousands of spindles turning cotton into thread suddenly stop, snapping the threads. Restarting the machines takes nearly two hours.

As factories closed, beggars grew more visible on Kano's streets. Massive garbage piles began attracting not just grazing goats but also desperately poor children who pick out plastic bags and bottles to sell. Others simply hold up empty plastic bowls to motorists at intersections.

Some Nigerians have grown nostalgic for military rulers who once provided a rough kind of stability through price controls, trade barriers and repressive police tactics.

One of the leading presidential candidates, and Bala's choice for the job, is former dictator Muhammadu Buhari, whose 20-month reign in the mid-1980s is remembered for human rights abuses but also as a pause in the personal enrichment that politicians enjoyed at the expense of citizens.

"Military rule is the best," Bala said, "because the military will not allow people to do anything they want."

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