Sunday Times (Johannesburg)

24 November 2002

Nigerian People Power a Threat to Stability

column

Johannesburg — THE cancellation of the Miss World contest in Nigeria and its move to London is a victory for people power. It is an indication of how Nigeria has changed, from the dictatorship of Sani Abacha and other military rulers, to the democratic state of Olusegun Obasanjo.

But it is people power with venom, power that could derail the democratic experiment that started in 1999 when Obasanjo was elected president of Africa's most populous state.

The reality is that had Abacha been in power today, and had he wanted the Miss World contest to take place, even the blasphemous statement by ThisDay would not have led to its cancellation. He would have come down heavily on the newspaper; withdrawn its licence, and suppressed whatever revolt the article and its context had ignited.

The paper's licence is still intact, but the editor is in jail, which shows that while a democratic constitution is in place, it has still to take root. ThisDay published three apologies around its statement that Prophet Mohammed would not only have endorsed the pageant , but been seduced by the entrants' beauty sufficiently for him to want to marry one.

That did not help. People power, especially in areas such as Kaduna, turned to anger. Offices of the paper were torched, and a pogrom was declared on Christians in the area, with necklacings and mass killings leaving over 100 people dead.

In the capital Abuja, riots erupted after Friday prayers, cars were damaged and people injured. The contest that was supposed to be a showpiece of women's beauty had instead triggered an outbreak of intolerance and mass murder.

The organisers were adamant that all of this had nothing to do with the contest itself but was simply a reaction to the newspaper article. How naive they were, failing to appreciate how the contest had been caught between two explosive issues.

The first was the rise of Islamic intolerance in Nigeria that had seen two women sentenced to death for adultery. Staging a contest in which women would parade semi-naked was a non-starter for people who live by a tradition that decrees a woman must cover her whole body when in public.

The signals of resistance had been there from the start: the date had to be changed because it would fall within the holy month of Ramadaan, and there were calls for it to be cancelled. ThisDay's article merely provided the spark that ignited a burning fuse.

The second point of significance to events of the past week is the political battle for the soul and control of Nigeria . Obasanjo is the only ruler of Nigeria (in his two terms firstly as a military man and now as a civilian) to come from the non-Muslim south.

His election was the result of a compromise that saw the north agreeing to relinquish power to the south. Not only that, but also relinquish power to a non-Muslim president. The military dictators had all been northerners and Muslims , a fact that ensured that major investments moved to the north.

Even the oil drilled from the deep south was piped to the north to be refined, thus creating jobs in those areas which the military rulers came from. The Obasanjo compromise did not sit well with everybody, and it was not long before states in the north, feeling their power ebb away, started a move to declare themselves Islamic states in which they would rule by sharia law.

Moves to sharia law were never presented as being in the direction of secession but that, in effect, is what they were. The federal constitution would only apply to the extent that it was in line with sharia law. Where there was a divergence, as in the stoning of women adulterers, sharia law would prevail.

At the same time there was a move to impeach Obasanjo, again spearheaded by members of his party from the Muslim north. The president has so far been able to withstand this pressure.

Elections are now around the corner and, as the jockeying gets into full swing, it appears that the might of people power and intolerance displayed this week, and its victory, could signal the end of Obasanjo. And with that, the beginning of a long night of destabilisation that could even see the military back in power.

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