Obasanjo’s Troubling End-Game

In Nigeria today, the key question nowadays is not whether President Olusegun Obasanjo will quit after his second (and final) term expires next year, but who will succeed him. Given Nigeria’s history of sit-tight military dictatorships, that is real progress. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily the president’s doing.

Attempts by Obasanjo’s supporters to persuade the National Assembly to amend the Constitution to enable Obasanjo to continue in office beyond two terms met a solid wall of opposition. Government and commercial activities virtually ground to halt this spring as democracy activists, in alliance with politicians and lawmakers opposed to a third term, battled Obasanjo’s allies to thwart the proposed bill.

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The failure of Obasanjo’s supporters triggered three big political developments. The president’s authority is draining away precipitately, and his vice-like grip on his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has loosened. Opposition parties, human rights groups, and other government critics, hitherto cowed by a seemingly omnipotent Obasanjo and PDP machine, have found a new lease on life. Obasanjo, besieged and angry that friends at home and abroad (particularly in the United States and Europe) betrayed him by aiding his political opponents in killing the amendment, is determined to settle scores.

The storm had hardly settled when Obasanjo sacked General Aliyu Gusau, his powerful National Security Adviser. Several senior military officers whose loyalty was questionable were also replaced. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Finance Minister and the brain behind the government’s economic reforms, was redeployed to head the Foreign Ministry, in a move widely seen as punishment, as Obasanjo has dominated foreign policy-making throughout his tenure.

The official spin is that Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank economist, was reassigned to prepare her for higher office in 2007, and that the move signals the end of the President’s love affair with IMF-guided neo-liberal reforms. But it is no coincidence that Obasanjo removed Okonjo-Iweala from a job for which she has proven competence and, more importantly, in which she ruled the roost: she had led the opposition from within the government to the constitutional amendment.

Obasanjo is also shaking up the oil industry in a double maneuver interpreted as a rap on the knuckles for his Western allies and a last ditch effort to secure a legacy as the one Nigerian leader who tamed corruption in that sector.

American, British, and French oil companies enjoyed a virtual monopoly of Nigeria’s oil industry. Royal Dutch Shell’s joint venture with the government produces half of the country’s daily output of 2.5 million barrels. Two US companies, Chevron Texaco and Mobil, are also key players. Obasanjo’s new oil policy threatens this dominance.

China made a dramatic entry into the picture last April, when Nigerian officials announced that China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) had bought a 45% stake in a Nigerian oil field for more than $2 billion. That field will pump 225,000 barrels per day when it begins production in 2008. Obasanjo also negotiated a loan of $1 billion from the Chinese government to finance repair of Nigeria’s railways and buy new rolling stock.

These deals were brokered at the height of the constitutional drama, when America said it would not support an attempt by the government to extend its stay in office unconstitutionally. In addition to rolling out the welcome mat for energy-hungry China, oil ministry officials say they will tighten financial regulations and impose sanctions on companies seen as defaulting on tax and royalty payments – moves apparently aimed at local subsidiaries of Western oil companies in the Niger Delta.

The announcement was welcomed by ordinary Nigerians, but incited jitters in the industry, prompting anxious questions about how deep Obasanjo’s angry sword will cut, and how smooth the political succession is likely to be. Obasanjo has made it clear that Atiku Abubakar, the Vice President and the arrowhead of the anti-third term coalition, will not succeed him. But this has not stopped Abubakar, a formidable political operator, from launching his presidential bid, despite uncertainty over whether he will fight it out with his boss for control of the PDP machinery or decamp to another political party.

In fact, the PDP has splintered into three warring factions, drastically reducing Obasanjo’s chances to control the succession. Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general who challenged Obasanjo for the presidency in 2003 and lost, has said that he will try again in 2007 on the platform of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), the second largest party. But the ANPP is also in disarray.

Obasanjo’s spokesmen regularly brief journalists anonymously that he favors a successor from the Niger delta area. The President has appointed the late Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son as one of his special assistants, in an attempt to mend fences with political elites in the restive delta. Obasanjo is anxious to thwart the region’s growing armed insurgency, which is driven by widespread poverty and oil industry-related ecological damage.

Dangling the PDP’s presidential ticket before the delta region’s leading politicians is seen as Obasanjo’s strategy to maintain stability and, more importantly, prevent Atiku Abubakar or General Buhari from coming to power. As it has since the discovery of oil and the Biafran War in the 1960’s, the Niger Delta will be at the center of Nigerian politics. This time, however, the politics will be democratic.