Thursday, February 26, 2004

Nigeria expels The Economist (Subs. Reqd.)

Typical nonsense from Obasanjo's government. I thoroughly despair for that hopeless excuse of a country.

SINCE Nigeria stopped being a military dictatorship in 1999, its government has grown more gentle. The immigration officials who escorted your correspondent to the airport to be deported last week were quite charming. But it was still unpleasant to be thrown out of the country, prevented from doing one's job, separated from one's Nigerian husband, and so on. And baffling: last month, in Davos, the president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, was heard expressing dismay that The Economist did not write more about his great country.

According to the information ministry, your correspondent was advised to leave because of her “flagrant disregard” for Nigeria's immigration laws. The rap sheet is confusing, but includes the allegation that she worked despite only holding a tourist visa (which is untrue), and the insinuation that she is not really a proper journalist (you decide). The trouble began after your correspondent refused to pay a rather excessive sum of money to an official in the information ministry. The information minister said last week he would consider a fresh application for press credentials, but that “a lot depends on whether she says something that would make it more difficult for her to come back, like accusing people of bribery.”

A foreign correspondent's woes are trivial, of course, when compared with the effect Nigeria's dysfunctional public administration has on ordinary Nigerians. The civil service absorbs most of the budget but delivers little in the way of services. Needless duplication breeds waste. Embezzlement is rife. And perhaps most dispiriting is a tendency among some bureaucrats to be pointlessly obstructive in the hope that someone will bribe them to lay off. A small example: a retired school teacher recently tried to renew his Nigerian passport, but was told that he had first to learn Yoruba, the indigenous tongue of the South West, even though he was born in Nigeria, his parents were Nigerian and the country's official language is English.

The only sure way to get things done is to go straight to the top. The president rules on important issues by decree, sometimes bypassing his profligate parliament. He is effectively his own oil minister (having left the post vacant), and does much of the foreign minister's job, too. Even rural folk have learnt to appeal to him when local authorities do not deliver. Delegations from the countryside beat a path to his office in Abuja, the capital, hoping to win his support for projects as small as drilling a bore hole in their village.

That's Obasanjo for you - Micromanager in Chief. In a sane country in which politics was actually about policies, rather than about endless rounds of ethnic squabbling over oil rents, a man with administrative talents as limited as the Nigerian president's would never have been allowed near power. Seeing Nigerian rulers and bureaucrats abuse their powers to frustrate all attempts at individual initiative has soured me for life on the notion that one ought to look on government as the solution to most problems, rather than their cause.