The Magazine

Ignoring Nigeria

The election that wasn't and other disturbing -portents.

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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Only four countries export more oil to the United States than Nigeria. Each day, Nigeria produces the same amount of oil, give or take a few barrels, as Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates. If oil prices hold steady at their current level, Nigeria will continue to earn more than $50 billion a year from oil exports.

Oil is Nigeria's curse. It generates enough wealth to provoke lasting and violent conflicts, but not enough to raise the nation out of poverty and misrule. And now, once again, Nigeria is on the brink of political chaos.

Almost nine years ago, a sudden heart attack liberated Nigeria from the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha. Two Saturdays ago, pervasive fraud and brazen violence ruined an election that had had the potential to make history. If all had gone well on April 21, Nigerian voters might have witnessed the first transfer of power from one elected civilian president to another. Instead, no one knows who the next president will be.

Although Nigerian democracy has always been a rather corrupt and violent affair, it may now be replaced by something far worse. And this failure has everything to do with oil.

The Election

The name of the winner is Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. Nigerians themselves know little about Yar'Adua, an obscure provincial governor from northern Nigeria, home to most of the country's 70 million Muslims. Last December, President Olusegun Obasanjo used both bribery and intimidation to ensure Yar'Adua's nomination as the candidate of the ruling People's Democratic party. Obasanjo resorted to this approach only after a previous round of bribery and intimidation failed to result in a constitutional amendment that would have allowed Obasanjo to run for a third term of office.

Yar'Adua prevailed with 24.6 million votes, about 70 percent of the total. The former dictator Gen. Muhammadu Buhari came in second with 6.6 million votes, about 18 percent of the total. Outgoing vice president Atiku Abubakar placed third, with 2.6 million votes. Both Buhari and Abubakar quickly declared the result invalid.

Even before the results were announced, observers dismissed the election as a failure. A delegation of 150 from the European Union said the election had "fallen far short of basic international and regional standards." Two American delegations, including one headed up by Madeleine Albright, arrived at the same conclusion.

Yar'Adua's inauguration is scheduled for May 29, giving the opposition only a short time to block his ascension to the presidency. Gen. Buhari's party announced that it would challenge the results in court, although Buhari himself rejected that approach, saying that the courts had already demonstrated their impotence. Instead, Buhari wants to re-run the election and declared that it is "up to the Nigerian people to accept slavery or stand up for their rights." On May 1, Buhari led a mass protest to demand a new poll.

For his part, Yar'Adua has extended an olive branch to his rivals and said that he wants to resolve the crisis by forming a government of national unity. Of course, that would allow Yar'Adua to remain president in spite of his artificial mandate.

The wild card in this situation is the sitting president, Obasanjo. Critics have speculated for months that Obasanjo would provoke a crisis in order to justify an extension of his presidency. Despite ample warning that the April elections would degenerate into a farce, Obasanjo aided and abetted that process. Now, if there is no resolution to the crisis before May 29, Obasanjo may get exactly what he wants.

The Oil Curse

Nigeria's politicians bear direct responsibility for the persistent dysfunction of their country's political system. Yet the behavior of Nigerian politicians is impossible to understand without a close examination of the perverse incentives created by great reservoirs of oil.

For countries with very few inhabitants and a lot of oil, it is a blessing, not a curse. In the microstates of the Persian Gulf, oil generates so much wealth that the ruling families can purchase the loyalty of their subjects by providing them with a Western standard of living. Even then, there is more than enough money left over for local princes to indulge their taste for sports cars, racehorses, palaces, and private jets.

Middle-sized kingdoms like Saudi Arabia have found it hard to maintain this arrangement after decades of rapid population growth. In Nigeria, such an arrangement was impossible from the beginning. Today, Nigeria has a population of 140 million, or one-sixth of the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa. If each citizen received an equal share of the nation's annual income from oil, the payoff would amount to a little more than $300.