The Ghost of Biafra

When Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made his surprise announcement on 13 January to begin a nationwide dialogue to discuss constitutional reform, he was bowing to the inevitable. The clamor by disaffected politicians and human rights activists for such a conference had reached a crescendo.

Obasanjo and the ruling Peoples Democratic Party were re-elected in May 2003 in controversial circumstances. Opposition forces, led by Muhammadu Buhari, the candidate of the All Nigeria People’s Party, accused Obasanjo of using the police to intimidate voters and falsify the election results.

Initially, it looked like Obasanjo would weather the storm and serve out his last term without making concessions to his opponents. However, in late December 2004, the national election tribunal, sitting in Abuja, the capital, ruled that while the election had been free and fair in most parts of the country, the number of votes was larger than the population in Ogun, the President’s home state. The opposition seized on the ruling and called on Obasanjo to resign.

Simultaneously, the eastern part of the country descended into anarchy. Political thugs linked to the president resorted to strong-arm tactics in an attempt to remove one of the governors, angry that he had not given them lucrative public contracts. Obasanjo refused to call them to order, even after they invaded and razed government offices. In the Niger delta, where oil production and official neglect have devastated the environment and wrecked livelihoods, enraged youths took to the swamps and led an insurgency against Federal troops.