NPR Reporter’s Notebook: Nigeria Update

Nigeria is one of several African countries marking the 50th anniversary of independence from colonial rule. But in Nigeria, the celebrating is tempered by ongoing political turmoil. NPR West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist Arcton joins host Michel Martin to discuss the latest news from that nation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

NPR, as you know, has an extensive roster of correspondents reporting from around the world, but every now and again they find there way back here to the mothership and we try to check in with them about the stories theyve been following.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's West Africa correspondent. Today we're going to her to tell us more about Nigeria. It's one of a handful of African nations marking its 50th year of independence in 2010. But the celebration comes at a time of great turmoil for the country and Ofeibea's going to tell us more.

Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: So Nigeria's been going through a leadership crisis. Would you just tell us a little bit more about it?

QUIST-ARCTON: The president, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, took off on - was it the 23rd of November last year? He went off to Saudi Arabia and he was receiving medical treatment there for acute pericarditis, which is an inflammation, I understand, of the lining of heart, for three months. Now, he has chronic kidney problems anyway and he is an ailing president, but I mean he was gone for so long and, you know, let's put Nigeria in focus; it is the West African giant. It supplies the U.S. with a fifth of all its crude oil. It is the continental big hitter, and the president in this country was just not around, so Nigerians were in flux.

The country was in limbo. And then people started saying, hey, this is not good enough. There were demonstrations. There were challenges - legal challenges. Is the president still the president? He should've written a proper note through parliament to inform us he was going to be away. Finally, the National Assembly made the then-vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, acting president, and that calmed things down a little. But a lot was going on around that time in Nigeria, Michel.

MARTIN: Have Nigerians accepted Goodluck Jonathan's leadership as legitimate?

QUIST-ARCTON: Legitimate, probably I'd say yes. But have Nigerians accepted Goodluck Jonathan? I'd say many people yes and many people no. And you know, Michel, the problem is, it's not like just being president of the U.S., where youre president, youre influential and youre powerful. In Nigeria there's a culture of political patronage, so those in very senior political positions, and number one being the president, you know, a lot of people are riding on their coattails. So whether youre acting president, acting vice president, acting - it is really important, and there has been a lot of factional political fighting. But many ordinary Nigerians say, hey, stop this, we need to have our country governed.

MARTIN: And Goodluck Jonathan seemed to be imparting the same message. In fact, a number of Americans got to see him for a little bit when he came to Washington for President Obama's summit on nuclear security in April. He actually had a number of meetings. He met with journalists and other interested people while he was here. so he did make the rounds.

But you were in Nigeria and were there when the acting president swore in the new cabinet, and he was another who sounded the message - you know, cut the nonsense.

I'll just play a short clip from what he said. Here it is.

(Soundbite of recording)

Acting President GOODLUCK JONATHAN (Nigeria): You must hit the ground running. Time is of fundamental essence and no distraction in our mission will be tolerated. This is the perfect(ph) call to service and this rare privilege must not be abused.�

MARTIN: Well, hit the ground running to do what?

QUIST-ARCTON: To govern. To do your jobs. You know, there's an oil minister. There's a finance minister. Nigeria has had problems. You know, there have been militants in the Niger Delta oil-producing area who were waiting for people to come and talk to them. So I think he's saying, hey, enough. And Nigeria, unfortunately, because its rebranding slogan Michel, is great nation, good people, great nation - and that's absolutely true - but a lot of Nigerians feel that they have to live up to that slogan. They have to live up to the potential of their country and that it's not happening, because there's too much political in-fighting, there's too much corruption, and then before you know it, it's time for the next elections and the politicians are campaigning.

MARTIN: Speaking of corruption, one of the ongoing issues of concern both to Nigeria and internationally centers on oil. As youve told us, it's a major oil-producing country. But a number of groups have been sabotaging oil pipelines and facilities, taking people hostage, arguing that oil-producing regions are not seeing enough benefit from this natural resource in their midst. And I'd like to ask, there had been an amnesty program directed at getting these people to put down their arms. What's the status of that? Can you tell us?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, it was working very well, and that's the ailing president -the actual president, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, put that - he was praised for that because it's been happening since 2006. But the militants and those around them, the boys, as they're called, are saying, hey, what about this peace process? If people dont come to us and we were promised all sorts of things, retraining and so on, if it doesnt happen, we'll go back to our guns. Because they were asked to lay down their guns, which theyve done. So those are the sorts of challenges that the acting president of Nigeria and the new government are facing. Huge challenges.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're visiting with NPR's West Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She's here in town and she was kind enough to stop by and she's emptying her notebook, as it were, telling us about the stories she's been covering. We're focusing on Nigeria.

Nigeria's also dealt with sectarian violence. Weve reported on a number of these stories and youve been reporting with us and telling us more about it. But attacks and retaliations have cost hundreds of people - men, women and children - their lives since January. Heres a clip from one of your stories about a massacre of Christians in March in the village of Dogo Nahawa. And here it is.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Ms. ELIZABETH BULUS: Around 3:00 we heard the sound of the gun - pow, pow, pow. My in-law, she just wake up and said, auntie, auntie, auntie, see, they are shooting, they are shooting.

MARTIN: Weve been seeing this as primarily a sectarian or religious conflict. Is that the truth of it?

QUIST-ARCTON: Those are the overturns and it's very easy to divide Nigerians along political and ethnic lines. It's very easy to do. Now, I've spoke to religious leaders from the Muslim community, the (unintelligible) archbishop of Jos and he said, you know, weve got to stop this. People are saying this is religious violence but its much more basic than that. It's a case of inequalities and grievances that go back generations.

The Jos area, which is in central Nigeria, there are those who are called the indigents, those who come from the area and those considered settlers, but theyve been living there for generations. They mainly come from the north. They're mainly Muslims. They're saying, look, no we come from here now. We're not settlers anymore. We want equal rights. We want to have the same identity. You can't tell us that we can't be part of government or that our young people cannot have certain government jobs and so on.

And that is what all those who are concerned about what's going on in the Jos area are saying. Weve got to deal with the fundamental problems because people say this is Christians versus Muslims, Muslims versus Christians, but it goes much deeper than that and we must dig deeper.

MARTIN: And who are the key players in resolving these conflicts?

QUIST-ARCTON: Very much religious leaders, local leaders, and the young people, because as one analyst said to me, you know, life is so cheap here. For 200 naira - $2 or whatever - you can give it to a young person who is - may be on drugs or may need food, whatever, they go pick up a jerrycan, fill it with petrol, and unscrupulous politicians say to them, you know, go and attack that person. That's the reason why you dont have a job. Theyve got nothing to lose, so they go ahead and do that, so especially getting the young people involved.

MARTIN: I want to raise one other story. I know it was a very painful episode both for Americans and for Nigerians. At the end of 2009 it ended with this very shocking incident, a young Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with attempting to bomb a U.S. plane on Christmas Day. That whole incident was very shocking for a number of reasons. And I just want to play a short clip from a piece you did in February. We're hearing from Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa. He's the former governor Kaduna. And he was expressing, I think, some of the resentment that many Nigerians felt at the U.S. reaction to this incident. Here it is.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. UMAR FAROUK ABDULMUTALLAB: America is misusing its power dangerously. If America sees this as evidence of the existence of al-Qaida, they're making a terrible mistake which will eventually create al-Qaida here.

QUIST-ARCTON: There's a real feeling in northern Nigeria, which is predominately Muslim, and this young man is Muslim, that Muslims feel that they're under attack. It doesnt matter whether they're in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or where, in northern Nigeria. And Nigerians were furious. And I think they still feel insulted because they said Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is one young man amongst 150 million Nigerians, so that why should the actions of one misguided young man - and they say misguided where, where did he go and learn all this? In the West.

Nigerians are very proud people and they feel that they were harm(ph) done by by the U.S. But I think there's also people now looking a little closer, watching out for your children. What are they doing on Internet?

MARTIN: Speaking of following closely, we can't let you go without talking about World Cup.

QUIST-ARCTON: Man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUIST-ARCTON: And you know my own team, I have the Black Stars from Ghana as well as the Elephants from Ivory Coast, the Super Eagles from Nigeria, Cameroonian indomitable Lions, and of course the Algerians will be there plus the host nation, South Africa.

MARTIN: How many teams are you claiming, Ofeibea?

QUIST-ARCTON: Any African team is mine. I feel the continent is actually really excited. Not only about the soccer but the fact that this will really be a showcase for Africa to show that, you know, yes, we have troubles, but we also have a very joyous side and very talented side when it comes to sport, music, culture and so on, and that is what will be on display.

MARTIN: So I really can't imagine how youre going to paint your face, since youre rooting for five teams.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What you going to paint, Ofeibea? Dont answer that.

QUIST-ARCTON: The black star here.

MARTIN: Okay.

QUIST-ARCTON: You know, an elephant here. I shall look very, very good, I should think.

MARTIN: Very fetching. Okay, as usual. Ofeibea Quist Arcton is NPR's West Africa correspondent. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios on her way back to her assignment. And hopefully we'll hear from you about World Cup.

Thanks so much for joining us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you.

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