In his speech delivered on Oct. 30 at the Kennedy School of Government, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria described the path that led to his country's descent into an abyss of mass poverty and political tyranny that were nurtured by a sequence of treacherous military dictatorships. The democratically elected ex-military dictator also outlined his government's reform plans to rebuild the nation's international image by fighting corruption, mandating equal rights for all 70-plus ethnic groups, affirmative action programs for women and, perhaps, do a tiny bit for the environment in the troubled Niger Delta region.
This is all fine and dandy. However, the president's overall message was couched under an umbrella of forgiveness--forgiveness to the tune of $30 billion in national debt. President Obasanjo's argument is that rescheduling loan repayment for young democratic regimes in traumatized countries is not sufficient to guarantee political stability and sustainable development.
To really ensure that these faltering governments survive the loans must be erased. Or else, the dangerous murmurs will rise again from their populace: Na democracy man go chop? To those not versed in Pidgin English (a miscegenous legacy of the colonial era) the literal translation of this statement means, "is it democracy that we will eat?"
Military coups typically succeed such popular murmurs of dissatisfaction when true societal development does not keep up with political reform. Nigerian citizens cannot afford another military coup, but according to Obasanjo, the real issue is whether the world can afford to pay $30 billion to avoid another military coup in Nigeria. With ambiguities about the future of military institutions in countries such as Nigeria, it would appear that the situation could quickly develop into a blackmail of the global financial assistance system. This is why President Obasanjo's threat to the western world--that if the external debt is not forgiven Nigeria will be forced into a hermit situation to save money--appears to be not so much of a threat.
In fact, becoming a hermit could be the only responsible strategy to save the country, both economically and politically. The withdrawal of Nigerian troops from elaborate United Nations peace-keeping missions in Liberia, Sierra-Leone and other troubled regions would save a lot of money and show Nigerians and the world that Obasanjo is willing and able to trim the military down to size. Nigeria does not need a huge military and neither can the country afford one. Let the rich and stable countries supply the troops for UN missions, thank you.
It is only by reassessing the role of the Nigerian military that lasting political and economic progress can go hand-in-hand in Nigeria. Perhaps this is true for many other developing countries. President Obasanjo is in a unique position to embark on such a strategy. The idea of pulling Nigerian troops from international missions in order to save money towards the national debt is a brilliant first step that can be taken to disguise the critical issue of reducing the size and power of the military. The international community should support such a plan instead of or as a complement to the somewhat troublesome proposal to forgive the national debt.
According to Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics, the answer to the question, "Na democracy man go chop?" is a simple yes. Sen's bold statement can be paraphrased as follows. Famine does not occur in nations committed to the rule of democracy because elected governments know that the way to the people's vote is through their stomachs. This piece of advice will ring especially true for Nigeria if the military engine is successfully diverted to agricultural productivity.
The Nigerian economy's addiction to petroleum has led to a series of unfortunate compromises in the not-too-distant past, including environmental degradation, rampant human rights abuses and urban degeneration. These are not problems unique to Nigeria, but the world is watching how Nigeria handles a renewed voucher for democracy.
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