By Gwynne Dyer

There is something wrong with Nigeria. It is Africa’s most populous country, with a fifth of the continent’s
entire population (200 million). It is a major oil producer, pumping 1.5 million barrels a day. But its GDP per capita is slightly less now than it was in 1980, and only 60% of its school-age children are actually in school.

The military regimes that ran the country almost all the time from independence in 1960 until the end of the 20th century were mostly corrupt and incompetent, and the elected civilian presidents of the past two decades have carried on that tradition.

However, this weekend’s presidential election could be different. Ten million new voters have registered since last time, which will push the average age of the electorate down. It could even produce a different outcome.

The usual process is that most voters choose between the two long-established parties that informally represent the interests of the major ethnic and linguistic groups. They don’t normally have strong, coherent policy platforms. Vague promises suffice, because it’s really more
about identity.

A case in point is Bola Ahmed Tinubu, known as the ‘godfather’ of Nigerian politics. His slogan, “emi lo kan” (‘It’s my turn” in Yoruba), could well define the entire existing political system. It’s a system in which corruption is taken for granted.

The origins of Tinubu’s great wealth are disputed, but US Dept. of Justice documents allege that he was laundering money through Nigerian bank accounts for the heroin trade in the late 1980s. (He reached a compromise settlement with the Nigerian authorities and forfeited $460,000.)

The other ‘traditional’ presidential candidate is Atiku Abubakar, a 76-year-old man with four wives and 28
children. He too is rich, of course, and nobody much minds where his money came from either. But it seems to have arrived when he was vice-president, some twenty years ago.

In 2006 Abubakar was investigated for diverting $125 million worth of public funds towards his business
interests while he was vice-president. A 2010 US Senate report also accused him of transferring $40 million of “suspect funds” to the US. But such petty details don’t hamper senior Nigerian politicians for long.

The dark-horse candidate is Peter Obi. He’s not exactly young (61) and he’s not really new to politics either (he has changed party four times since 2002), but he is the fresh young contender in this election. A wealthy businessman, he is nevertheless the insurgent leader of the youth revolution.

As a devout Catholic from the southeast, Obi automatically gets the votes of the Igbos (Nigeria’s third-
largest ethnic group), and those of many other Christians as well. With the Muslim vote split between Tinubu and Abubakar, he could just pull it off.

Whether Obi could then use the presidency to jolt Nigeria out of its long rut remains to be seen, but it
would certainly help to have a functional Nigeria.

Nigeria matters. It will overtake the United States to become the world’s third-biggest country about 2050, when each country has about 375 million people. By the end of the century, if current predictions hold, it will be catching up on China. (Nigeria 546 million, China 771 million.)

By then, on its current course, Nigeria will be a famine-stricken basket-case of a country – or, with wise
leadership and decent government, Africa’s greatest power and a major player in all the world’s major

Not that Obi can necessarily make that happen, but somebody certainly needs to.