Authors: Howard W. French
Abacha’s government had announced that the venue of Abiola’s treason trial was being shifted from Lagos, the huge southern coastal city that was the stronghold of his Yoruba ethnic group and of the democratic opposition, to Nigeria’s answer to Brasília, Abuja, a city created in the center of the country in 1976, in large part to neutralize the Yoruba influence over the government. There was no precedent or legal justification for the change of venue, and the opposition was marshaling its forces in a courageous attempt to try to stop it. After a few days of following the street action in Lagos, I decided to fly to Abuja to take the temperature of the military leadership.
My goal, of course, was to land an interview with Abacha. His interviews with Western journalists had been extremely rare, and were always given under the kind of carefully controlled circumstances that reeked of public relations deals. I knew it would be a tough sell, but I had a few contacts in Abuja and was eager to work them.
Nigeria’s new capital is situated in the middle of nowhere, and its airport is far away. Closer to the desert, it was much hotter here than it had been in Lagos, but mercifully far less humid. Feeling mugged by the heat, I wanted to doze off, but my driver, a small, talkative Igbo— the country’s third-largest ethnic group, and Nigeria’s preeminent traders—was eager to hear about life in Ivory Coast, and he plied me with questions.
The highway ran straight and seamless through a savannah of anthills and reddish earth. It was built by European companies at vastly inflated prices, with huge kickbacks for everyone involved, in the same fashion as any public project in Nigeria. We flew through this singed emptiness in the hired car until Abuja announced itself on the horizon with the presence of its grand religious buildings—an otherworldly mosque with a massive gold dome and an equally huge white cathedral whose shapes hovered in the afternoon heat like mirages. Later I learned that the scale of the buildings had been carefully matched, reflecting the ever-delicate balance between Islam and Christianity in the country.
Abuja signaled its political ambitions through buildings like these, and through the dowdy formalism of its other structures, like the huge white gates at the city’s edge. Otherwise, it was an oddly unfinished place, an African Oz of immense boulevards and little traffic, of huge hotels and few guests, and of impressive-looking government ministries with no sign of the comings and goings of bureaucrats.
A well-known American academic had previously introduced me to Adamu Mohammed, a senior national security advisor as well as confidant to Abacha, so I called him as soon as I checked into the Abuja Sheraton. He said he would come and pick me up later that evening. In a couple of prior telephone conversations with Mohammed there had been subtle hints that I might get to meet Abacha, but each of these discussions was heavily laden with bitterness about what he called the American press’s simpleminded approach to Nigeria. “You people fail to understand the complexities of this place,” he told me. “You think that you can simply take the rules of your society and apply them here, but that is a foolish mistake. Nigeria is a country of two hundred fifty ethnic groups. We have our own specific problems, and our own traditions, and people must appreciate and understand that before they can begin lecturing us.”
On the surface it seemed like a reasonable enough, if not so original, gripe. The biggest problem with the grievances of this very sophisticated person, however, was that they were being proffered as cover for Abacha, a man whose claims to leadership rested on raw power, and on raw power alone. No amount of sophistry could hide the fact that Abacha’s dictatorship was dragging Nigeria ever further from the rule of law, fueling ethnic tensions, gutting the economy, and forcing more and more of the country’s talented educated class to choose a life of exile in order to survive.
Mohammed came for me a little after 10 p.m. He has a dark complexion and the somewhat drawn and leathery skin of a heavy smoker. His dress, a simple white boubou, was surprisingly plain, and yet he was possessed of a certain elegance that radiated from a lively intelligence, and an ocean full of Nigerian self-confidence. Soon we were climbing into the black, chauffeured government Peugeot that was awaiting us and driving through the poorly lit streets of the big village that masqueraded as Nigeria’s new capital. Mohammed started working me over with sentences that began with phrases like “What you people fail to understand about Nigeria . . .” As I began playing devil’s advocate, he launched into an increasingly rabid attack on the southerners and the conversation grew more and more strained.
“They are unruly people, those southerners,” he said. “They think that they can just take over the country by sowing disorder, but we will never allow it. Lagos should never be confused with Nigeria. Here we have traditions and order, and we respect authority. All those unruly people know is chaos.”
Both Mohammed and I knew that the people he was referring to, who were still leading a boisterous protest movement against Abacha largely in the south, had the firm ground of principle to stand on. I was sympathetic to their cause, and the more hysterical he became, the less I was able to pretend otherwise.
Ray Ekpu, the editor of
one of Nigeria’s major weekly magazines, had confirmed to me just a day or two earlier in Lagos what I had already surmised about the crisis: “When you remove all of the excuses for canceling the elections, and the allegations against Abiola, you come down to one hard fact: The northerners do not want power to go to the south. If Abiola had been someone from a minority ethnic group, perhaps they would have accepted it. But in their minds, the Yoruba already control the civil service and the business of Lagos, and they feel that holding on to power is their only way to survive.”
Nigeria had been created by the British as a colonial entity in 1914 and bequeathed to its people as an independent state in 1960. From the very beginning the prize of independence was a booby trap, an eagerly awaited gift that would explode just as it was being unwrapped. The colony’s masters in London had done little to prepare the population for the task of running a European-style nation-state. The truly explosive element, however, was the country’s very composition. Nigeria was a creation of European imperialists and mapmakers, and it pulled together an amalgam of diverse regions and peoples who spoke mutually unintelligible languages.
The new Federal Republic of Nigeria’s three largest groups, the Muslim Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast—the last two both predominantly Christian— had been lassoed into one state only by a huge accident of history. Each of these ethnic groups was larger than the population in many African countries. Each had stronger cultural and historic links with peoples in neighboring countries to the north, west and east, and each yearned for self-determination. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that differences in temperament, culture and even training received from the British— who concentrated their educational efforts in the south and encouraged poorer northerners to make careers in the military—quickly set Nigeria on a path toward disintegration.
This ticking bomb exploded in 1967, with the Biafran War, a gruesome civil conflict that, like World War I, had begun in confusion, seemingly by spontaneous combustion, and was egged on by outsiders, most conspicuously by a France anxious to see West Africa’s Anglo-phone behemoth broken into less formidable bits. The Biafran War ended in 1970, but the combustible fuel of ethnicity had never altogether ceased fuming.
Between cigarettes, an exasperated Mohammed made calls on his cellular phone, usually speaking in Hausa, which I do not understand. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I sensed that he was telling associates to call things off, and I felt my chances of landing a meeting with the scar-faced president slipping away. Over the next few hours, what I had hoped would be an evening with the dictator devolved instead into a series of encounters with the regime’s dignitaries. To a man, they were people who had played significant roles in their country’s history, and they were trotted out, it seemed, to impress upon me that Nigeria’s situation wasn’t just a matter of Abacha against the world. But like dodgy exhibits in a shoddy court brief, they had produced exactly the opposite effect.
The first character was Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Igbo general who had led the Biafran secession. I had once mentioned him briefly to Mohammed as someone I had met in Ivory Coast at a New Year’s party at my parents’ house years earlier, during his long exile there, and for an uninspired hour or so, the would-be founder of Biafra, as full of ambition and as accomplished at betrayal as ever, tried to convince me that Abacha’s efforts to rewrite the constitution and reorganize Nigerian politics along “truly democratic lines” were legitimate.
This was hard enough to believe on the face of it. But hearing it from the man who had confused the fate of Igbo Nigeria with his own ego, unnecessarily prolonging the Biafran War long after it had become hopeless, while reputedly earning himself a fortune in gun-running, was upsetting. This was the man who had instigated the war and then fled Biafra aboard an airplane intended to carry orphaned children to safety. I held my tongue, so as to avoid any incident.
Hours later, though, the evening ended disastrously at the Abuja home of another top Abacha aide, Baba Gana Kingibe, a northern aristocrat who was the regime’s foreign minister and later its interior minister, or top cop. Kingibe had run on Abiola’s ticket as his vice-presidential candidate, and his treachery arguably put even Ojukwu’s to shame.
Kingibe was a classic civilian version of the modern northern elite: impeccably educated in Britain and full of snobby witticisms; insufferably condescending, but also simmering with resentments and insecure as hell. His generation of ambitious northerners, men in their fifties, was driven by an obsession never to be dominated again by their generally better educated, richer peers in the south. The south may have been where Nigeria’s oil was, but the north still controlled the army. As long as it continued to do so, people like Kingibe were determined to control the country’s resources—particularly the El Dorado of oil revenues aptly referred to by greedy politicians as the national cake.
Over drinks in his sunken living room, stylishly appointed with sleek European furniture, Kingibe probed for ways to establish some rapport with me, and the conversation kept returning to the subject of American blacks. Not quite able to hide his disdain, he hinted strongly that African-American politicians had been receiving payoffs from Nigeria in an effort to build a Nigeria lobby in Washington. With the notable exception of Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, who had made a trip to Abuja to meet with General Abacha, and told CNN afterward that the Clinton administration should “treat Africa like any other nation” (
), however, there had been precious little to show for it.
In the insidious language of Nigerian military rule this sort of thing is called “settling people,” a term with an oddly colonial ring about it that means “to buy someone’s silence or cooperation.” With all the money the Abacha regime could offer Jesse Jackson, Kingibe wondered aloud, why did Jackson remain so ill informed about Nigeria, and so obstinate in his criticism of the government? What would it take to get Colin Powell to give Nigeria a fresh look, instead of dismissing the country as “a nation of scammers,” as he once had? Nigeria was the world’s largest black state, Kingibe said. America depended on Nigeria for its oil supply. Surely there must be a basis there for a good working relationship.
As I grew weary of all the questions about how Nigeria could “settle” black Americans, I began asking some of my own. I couldn’t resist. What about Abiola? What about the canceled elections in which you stood on his ticket? Why don’t you let the Lagos courts hear the treason charges? Why take the extraordinarily dubious step of changing the venue?
“Let me explain something to you, Mr. French,” Kingibe said to me in his effete nasal drawl, equal parts West African privilege and Oxford polish, as his eyes narrowed menacingly. “This Abiola problem has nothing to do with the courts. It has nothing to do with the law. Do you understand now? Is that clear? Now you may leave.” My evening had just ended.
Back in Lagos the next day, I looked for Fred Eno, Abiola’s chief of staff, hoping to be brought up to date on what was happening in the democracy movement, but he had left the hotel. In fact, all of the opposition types who had been haunting the place had disappeared. I learned later that Eno had been jailed, like countless others who had tried to resist Abacha openly. Others had simply been killed. I would never speak to Eno again.
Nigeria under the generals, I thought, was like a decadent Rome, a place that had unraveled to such an extent that the only hard-and-fast rule that held any longer was the oldest rule of all—might makes right. The country’s only greatness was its unrealized potential. To paraphrase Charles de Gaulle’s famous, irony-dripping put-down of Brazil, Nigeria was a land whose future would always remain bright. With Abacha at the helm, I wondered whether even this might not be too generous.
The immensity of the problem here started, of course, with the population—more than 100 million people—but could be seen almost anywhere one looked, from the endlessly long bridges in Lagos that choked and froze twice a day with traffic jams, or go-slows, to the scale of thievery and injustice on display every day. Life had hardened people so thoroughly that when a pedestrian is hit by a car along one of the city’s major highways, no one even stops to help. I had always thought this was Nigerian urban legend, hyperbole, until I saw for myself the remains of a man run over so many times he had been reduced to the thickness and consistency of wallpaper paste.