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E-Letter To The Washington Post And Douglas Farah Re: Nigerians' Hopes in Elected Leader Fade

Your article "Nigerians' Hopes In Elected Leader Fade" is a sad but true commentary on the reality that far too often in Africa, the desire of the people to remove leaders from power, in whom they are dissatisfied, results in the emergence of a successor who is unable to solve the deep economic problems that really are as much the root of the dissatisfaction of the populace as the often-talked about corruption of the previous leader. Nigerians are learning, the painful way, that it is not enough to remove a "corrupt dictator" if his successor can't promote economic development and growth.

I can remember my days in Staten Island, New York, particularly in 1996, when I would catch rides with the borough's numerous "dollar van" drivers. Some of my favorite drivers were from Nigeria and we spent the whole summer, it seemed, talking about General Sani Abacha who at the time was leading Nigeria. The Nigerians that I spoke to were very displeased with Abacha's rule and although they recognized the shortcomings of his political opponents, they wanted Abacha out, at all costs.

How ironic and appropriate then, it was for me, yesterday, to leave a meeting in Washington D.C., only to be picked up by a Nigerian-born taxi driver. I already had in my mind to write about Nigeria today and after I learned that my driver was from Nigeria I asked him what he thought of the current leader of Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo. The expletives that flew out of my Nigerian Brother's mouth were impressive. He went on at length about the shortcomings, in his view, of Obasanjo. It was certainly not an analysis meant for virgin ears.

In short, my driver saw no difference between Obasanjo and Abacha and he added that "all of them are corrupt" and have messed up Nigeria - that is the clean version of what he actually said.

Your article accurately portrays some of the dashed hopes in Obasanjo that many Nigerians feel. However, your article does not go to the root of the apparent ineptness of many African leaders on economic matters.

I was struck by your ignorance of, or refusal to indicate how, the International monetary Fund (IMF) is largely responsible for the problems that are taking place with fuel in Nigeria. Almost a year ago, we wrote of how the IMF was behind the decision in Nigeria to raise subsidies on petroleum products. The action led to social unrest, strikes and riots in Nigeria. The IMF told Nigeria that it would have to lift the subsidies in order to qualify for the $1 billion loan that you refer to in your article. Far from just making their own mistakes, the Nigerian government has been following the advice of the Fund on its energy policy.

To this day, the masses of Nigerians have no idea that the IMF called the shots on the decision to end the subsidies. Their hidden hand is a large part of why African nation after African nation cannot implement trade, fiscal and monetary policies which lead to development, growth and prosperity in Africa.

The IMF, since 1949, has been making macroeconomic policy on the continent. And because of the monetary inflation and debt crisis which ballooned in Africa in the 1970s, the Fund's power increased over African governments, as it was the IMF who became the intermediary between African countries and their creditors.

The IMF took advantage of this privileged position and forced countries to embrace the so-called "tough measures" - fiscal austerity packages that cause African nations to raise taxes and devalue their currencies at the same time. The combination is a recipe for disaster.

In Nigeria the IMF now, behind the scenes, holds considerable sway because of the country's $35 billion debt.

The bottom line is that many of us knew in 1999 that Obasanjo was relatively powerless to solve the economic problems of his country. And the minute that we got wind of his dealings with the IMF we knew that a nail had been placed in the coffin of Nigeria. There is no way that the IMF will allow an African leader to have the necessary autonomy to address his country's economic woes, once they, the IMF, start paying the bills.

And that is why Africans will never be satisfied as along as they only seek an end to the corrupt practices of their leaders. That is not enough and is not an economic model that will address poverty. Sure, the stealing of money from African people must be stopped but even if all of the corruption in Africa ended overnight there would still be about the same amount of poverty due to the continent's external debt and the grip that the IMF, World Bank and increasingly, the WTO, are gaining on African policy making.

Until that grip is loosened and eliminated any successor to a "corrupt dictator" will disappoint the people.

Your article is a good one but does not make it clear enough as to why the people of Nigeria are disappointed in Obasanjo.


Cedric Muhammad

Thursday, March 29, 2001

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