'A Frightening Cocktail'

Nigeria: A Country in Limbo

Lagos Nigeria
Residents of the stilt village of Mokoko, in Lagos, Nigeria, on March 23, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

In the following interview, Olisa Agbakoba, a veteran lawyer and human-rights crusader, analyzes Nigeria’s plight. His conclusion: Self-seeking politicians will continue to ride roughshod on the nation.

How would you assess the state of the nation?

I think the best way to find out how Nigerians feel today is to ask somebody on the street: What is your response to life? How do you feel? I think most Nigerians would say they don’t feel upbeat. If you asked Nigerians these questions two years ago or three years ago when we had democracy coming in, we were optimistic, anticipatory, relieved, but suddenly I think there is the feeling of dampness in the air. People feel burdened, not happy; the system is not working; there is a general lull....When I go around, people talk about Nigeria’s problems: no light, no water, no jobs, no money.

Politically, how do you see it?

Election problems, governance problems, everything you look at is not working well. There is no sense that the Nigerian politician is connecting with the problems on the ground. Issues that touch Nigerians—welfare, poverty alleviation, unemployment—are not being addressed. Businesses run away; nobody wants to invest in the country. [Nigeria’s Attorney General] Bola Ige was assassinated [in late December 2001], bomb explosions in Lagos [in January]—nobody wants to come here. Crime is on the rise not because Nigerians are adept at stealing or breaking rules; it’s because they have no choice.

They are hungry. If you go out on the streets at night, how many policemen do you have in Lagos to deal with the law-and-order situation? This is one of the largest cities in the world, the sixth largest in the world. The law-and-order situation is terrible when you have 10,000-15,000 policemen. It is not enough. That is a very frightening cocktail containing sufficient explosives to blow up any day.

Could you put your finger on the factors responsible for this since the return of democracy?

The first broad issue is that the period within which we went from nondemocratic to democratic government was very short. We understood that we cannot go from a nondemocratic government to a democratic environment without creating a bridge, without giving some of the fundamentals that are necessary for a stable democratic environment.

The fundamental required for a civil democracy is the constitution, and the constitution has two elements—it has a political element and legal element. Before you agree to have a constitution, you need to ask those who are part and parcel of Nigeria what type of political system they wish to see, because we have not had that discussion since 1940. All seven or 10 constitutions we had from 1940 to 1997 were prescribed by colonial and military authorities, so we felt as a human-rights body that to stabilize Nigeria was not to rush the process; but the politicians had a different view.

Had we had a slightly longer transition, we would have been able to discuss these two elements, [make a] political arrangement at the national conference, and translate that arrangement into a legal document, the constitution, then elections. Then parties would have emerged based on ideologies and affinity.

[President Olusegun] Obasanjo inherits an extremely difficult terrain. We can’t trifle with such very complicated an operation; only the best doctor can deal with it. We ask, do we have the best actors ruling Nigeria? I don’t think so. I think they are mostly made up of people who know how to recycle themselves.

What is the position of the human-rights community on the present situation?

I can easily tell you that we’re going to have a difficult time managing to get through 2003. In the human-rights community, there is a certain cynical view; each time we say things, [people] say, “Those noisemakers, why don’t they go and sit down; they wanted democracy, now there is democracy; what else do they want?”

Sometimes, we simply keep quiet for the thing to play its course, so people can then see, “Oh, this is what they have been saying.” When we began to crack [Sani] Abacha’s autocracy with our 5-million-man march and all those things, the beneficiaries became politicians. One would not put oneself forward again only [to have] the politicians, who never learn, suddenly come and become opportunistic; that is on the one hand. On the other hand, I think it is time that Nigerians stand up for their rights.