In the struggle to restore health to Africa's politics and economies, there are decisive moments of tangible gain or dangerous relapse. The presidential election in Nigeria on April 21 is such a breath-holding moment. Africa's scorecard is finely balanced. Its 53 countries are overwhelmingly democratic, and the economic growth rate of sub-Saharan Africa remained above 5% last year. Ghana has just celebrated 50 years of independence and is prospering. Last year's elections in Congo went better than most people dared hope. A new peace deal has been brokered in the Ivory Coast. But there are also serious negatives: conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia; political repression in Zimbabwe; genocide in Darfur.
An orderly, fair election in Nigeria would give a mighty fillip to the democratic project in Africa. The transfer of power from one elected President to another would also be a first for Nigeria. If all goes well, an important test will have been passed, an important example set. But already there is widespread fraud and violence, and if the result is contested by substantial numbers of voters, the turmoil will affect the whole continent. Nigeria is not just its most populated country, it is the big brother of West Africa.
Nigeria's previous elections provide slim grounds for optimism. Its politics are traditionally run by local political godfathers mainly state governors who forge deals and alliances to support candidates. That support can take the form of bribes, vote rigging and intimidation of rivals. This campaign has already been scarred by violence. More than 60 people have been killed in political clashes since November, and that figure will probably increase as the election nears. The electoral commission has little credibility after its disastrous reregistration exercise last year which saw the number of voters miraculously leap from 50 million to 61 million, while scores of people say they were unable to register.
Yet there are signs of change. A few nonpoliticians are running for office and raising the debate above pork-barrel politics. And there is no incumbent fighting to retain the presidency. Olusegun Obasanjo is stepping down after eight years in power Nigeria's longest-ever period of democratic rule. It's not that he's leaving voluntarily, exactly. It says something for the strength of Nigeria's fledgling parliament that last year it derailed a plan to amend the constitution so Obasanjo could run for a third term.
He leaves bloody anarchy in the Niger Delta, which produces most of Nigeria's 2.5 million bbl. of oil a day and increasing volumes of gas. At least 1,000 people a year are killed in battles on land and sea between the 50-odd militias who fight the authorities as well as each other for opportunities to steal oil and kidnap oil workers for ransom.
Yet Obasanjo has given the country some stability, pushing through profound economic reforms, achieving an $18 billion debt cancellation deal and taking on some of Nigeria's most corrupt politicians. More than $380 billion has been stolen by Nigeria's rulers over the past five decades according to the government. One military ruler alone stole some $6 billion. Obasanjo set up the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (efcc), which says it has recovered $5 billion of stolen assets, going after ministers and governors, and even prosecuting the chief of police, who served six months in jail.
While pursuing Obasanjo's political enemies, however, the efcc seems to have granted immunity to many Big Men as they call them here of his People's Democratic Party (PDP). Obasanjo makes no secret of his plans to retain power in a different guise. He has become chairman of the board of trustees of the PDP, and from that position he could control nominations for government positions and even policy and strategy. As one Western diplomat said, "He intends to sit in the passenger seat giving advice and ready to grab the wheel if Nigeria goes off course."
Obasanjo is backing Umaru Yar'Adua, a quiet, prudent former chemistry teacher, for the presidency, after a falling-out last year with his former ally Vice President Atiku Abubakar. When Abubakar announced he was running for President, he was barred from standing by the electoral commission, which cited his indictment for corruption. Abubakar has challenged the ban in the Supreme Court and continued to campaign as a candidate. But the leading challenger to the PDP is now Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general who organized a coup against President Shehu Shagari in 1983 and lost the 2003 election to Obasanjo.
Nigeria resounds with prophecies of clashes and chaos. Still, it's a national tendency to predict disaster and then swerve to avoid it at the last second. Trouble is, that tendency terrifies others on the road they hope will lead to prosperity and stability. As I came through Ghana on my way to Nigeria, one Minister told me: "Please beg those Nigerians for all our sakes to stay cool and calm. We don't want a disaster that will damage us, too."
Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society, which promotes cooperation between Britain and African nations