Nigeria Turns Up the Pressure

March 31, 1995|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- There is a man in Africa who had been a military ruler for four years, who decided at the age of 42 to walk away from the presidential palace of the continent's most populous, and potentially richest, country, put on a pair of blue jeans and start a chicken and vegetable farm.

He is Olusegun Obasanjo, the man responsible for engineering Nigeria's transition to democracy in the late 1970s -- and the man arrested two weeks ago by members of the same self-perpetuating clique of officers who overthrew a functioning democracy in January, 1984.

Lieutenant General Obasanjo was so obsessed by his countrymen's refusal to come to terms with Nigeria's economic chaos, and in particular the depletion of the country's precious agricultural base, that he decided to show what could be done with the land.

He does not have a private palace tucked away. His house in Absokuta, the town to which he is now confined, is sizable, but modestly furnished. While his farm buildings were under construction, he often slept in them, watching over every detail with the same tenacity that made him a successful officer during the civil war, brought him to the top of the army and the country when he was in his late 30s and led him to modernize the constitution.

He was both principled and tough. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to move to restore British authority in Rhodesia after it was usurped by the country's whites, General Obasanjo nationalized British Petroleum's interests in Nigeria and threatened to boycott British exports. Mrs. Thatcher subsequently began the process that led to free elections and majority rule in what is now Zimbabwe.

Democracy, farming and disarmament are Mr. Obasanjo's passions. He speaks frankly of the disequilibrium in a society that has been propelled so suddenly from ancient to modern. ''We got caught up in the conflict of culture, of trying to graft the so-called sophistication of Europe onto our African society.''

He once arrived five hours late for an interview at his home. He apologized: Driving home he had come on a long line of traffic halted by an accident. Investigating, he found six bodies on the ground. A crowd of onlookers and two policemen stood by. No one was helping.

The policemen said that it was not their responsibility; they were en route to ''other business.'' Mr. Obasanjo ordered the crowd to help him move the bodies to the roadside and commandeered a car to rush one of the dead women, obviously pregnant, to the hospital in the hope of saving her baby. He then directed traffic for three hours until the police finally arrived.

When I met him again the next day, he had just learned that the hospital had refused admission to the woman because there was no police certificate recording the accident. ''I should have done a Caesarean myself, by the roadside,'' was his only comment.

Nigeria, after South Africa, is black Africa's most developed and wealthy nation, yet it struggles, not very successfully, to adapt the values of centuries-old village life to the impersonality of the four-lane highway.

Mr. Obasanjo sees a three- or four-generation timetable. ''The improvement of living standards and the wealth of nations are more of a journey and less of a destination,'' he once told me.

''Within our traditional society there are lots of things that we can pick, improve and develop into our own political concept. What, pTC for example, is wrong with our traditional society, which respects age, experience and authority? Or the norm that everybody is his brother's keeper? Or the practice of stigmatizing and ostracizing evil-doers and the indolent?''

Asked to predict which way Nigeria's scales will tip, Mr. Obasanjo is cautious. He has hopes for the future, but at the same time he is awed by the demands upon the average Nigerian. Oil, he believes, has not helped. Much of its wealth has been wasted and ''the people put in a pressure cooker.''

The generals, by locking this man up and then detaining him, may have turned up the pressure cooker to the blow-off point.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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