As the journalist Karl Maier, whose This House Has Fallen stands as the authoritative work on modern Nigeria, has put it, Nigeria is a "criminally mismanaged corporation where the bosses are armed and have barricaded themselves inside the company safe." Nigeria's similarities to Saudi Arabia are manifold: corruption, oil wealth, a burgeoning Muslim population, and value to the United States as an energy supplier. Osama bin Laden has called Nigeria "ripe for liberation."
The "ripening" began soon after what seemed the dawn of a new era: the sudden death, in 1998, of the military dictator Sani Abacha and the subsequent election to the presidency of the retired general Olusegun Obasanjo. Now sixty-nine and in his second term, Obasanjo had been imprisoned by Abacha in 1995 for allegedly plotting a coup; he emerged from prison in 1998 a national hero.
In a country where ethnicity trumps citizenship, religion trumps ethnicity, and power trumps religion, Obasanjo seemed the ideal compromise candidate. As a Yoruba, he would placate the most prominent and progressive ethnic group in the southwest. As a Christian, he would appeal to 40 percent of Nigerians (also largely in the south). As a professional soldier, he had clout in the north as well, and would be able to restrain the military and forestall any uprisings by out-of-power generals. And as a democrat of international repute (he is a former candidate for United Nations secretary-general and a friend of Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter), he would convert Nigeria from the pariah state left behind by Abacha into an internationally respected regional power.
Sixty-two percent of Nigerians voted for Obasanjo in 1999, giving him a hefty mandate and showing that he had indeed won support outside his own ethnic and religious groups. He immediately set about undoing, or appearing to undo, the legacy of nearly three decades of mostly military rule. Announcing that he was "fully committed to using all appropriate means and resources to ensure that every man, woman, and child will perceive and reap the benefits of democracy," he established a commission to investigate allegations of corruption. However, nothing substantive has resulted—except that the commission has accused Obasanjo himself of taking bribes.
During his first term, Obasanjo established a development commission to distribute oil revenues among the country's indigenous peoples, but its efforts have come to naught; most of the windfall oil profits of the last few years have gone toward refurbishing mansions for the elite. Oil spills and gas flares blight the delta, ruining farmland and poisoning fishing grounds. Owing to the abysmal state of its few refineries, Nigeria remains an importer of gasoline. Officials divert gas from the pumps and sell it on the black market. Fuel shortages are endemic.
Obasanjo still talks of improving the lot of his people, but his rhetoric hardly sounds over the din of mayhem and rage. Nigeria appears to be de-developing, its hastily erected facade of modernity disintegrating and leaving city dwellers in particular struggling to survive in near-apocalyptic desolation. A drive across Lagos—the country's commercial capital and, with 13 million people, Africa's largest metropolis—reveals unmitigated chaos. The government has left roads to decay indefinitely. Thugs clear away the broken asphalt and then extract payments from drivers, using chunks of rubble to enforce their demands. Residents dig up the pavement to lay cables that tap illegally into state power lines. Armed robbers emerge from the slums to pillage cars stuck in gridlocks (aptly named "hold-ups" in regional slang) so impenetrable that the fourteen-mile trip from the airport to the city center can take four hours. Electricity blackouts of six to twelve hours a day are common. "Area boys" in loosely affiliated gangs dominate most of the city, extorting money from drivers and shop owners. Those who fail to pay up may be beaten or given a knife jab in the shoulder.
The U.N. Human Development Index ranks Nigeria as having one of the worst standards of living, below both Haiti and Bangladesh. For all its oil wealth, and after seven years of governance by one of Africa's most highly touted democrats, Nigeria has become the largest failed state on earth.