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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 17:04 GMT

World: Africa

Africa's ailing giant

By Antony Goldman

Easily the most populous country in Africa, with a powerful army and an oil-rich economy, Nigeria has long aspired to a leadership position in the continent. But in more recent times it has appeared increasingly incapable of fulfilling it.

Since independence in 1960, civilian and military governments alike have played a prominent role on a host of issues.

[ image: Poverty on the streets of Nigeria]
Poverty on the streets of Nigeria
These have included the struggle against apartheid, demands for a permanent seat for Africa at the UN Security Council, reparations from the US, Britain and others for the Slave Trade and, more recently, leading peace-keeping initiatives in regional trouble spots like Liberia and Sierra Leone.

But with an economy in abject decay, an incoming civilian government may prefer to focus priorities on Nigeria's many pressing domestic problems.

Military commitments

Barnaby Phillips looks at the task the new president will take on
Officially, Nigeria's political parties have said little about plans for foreign policy. But privately, there is anger at a legacy of commitments that army officers entered into when they must have known they would be costly.

The commitments had been adopted at least partly to curry favour with Western powers critical of the military's record on human rights and democracy inside Nigeria, but anxious to avoid involvement in solving Africa's messy civil wars themselves.

[ image: Peacekeeping comes at a great cost]
Peacekeeping comes at a great cost
Anticipating a change in direction, the current head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, has pledged to do all he can to end costly military commitments beyond the country's borders before the scheduled installation of a civilian government in May. That might not prove so easy.

Nigeria elections
Nigeria's biggest problem is Sierra Leone, where troops were first despatched in 1991 and something approaching a quarter of the army is presently deployed. After massive international pressure, the protagonists in the conflict there have, with ill-concealed reluctance, hinted at peace talks.

But if that initiative fails, a new government will have to choose between remaining to fight a war that most concede cannot be won, with the political risk associated with forcing a still politically powerful military to accept the humiliation of defeat.

Border disputes

Other problems loom as well. Nigeria is embroiled in border disputes with three neighbouring states in areas thought to be rich in oil reserves.

[ image: Abacha's death concerned central African neighbours]
Abacha's death concerned central African neighbours
Its influence extends to half a dozen countries in the region where increasingly shaky and impoverished governments were helped to power by the late dictator, General Sani Abacha.

The flurry of visits to Abuja following his death last June by leaders from across West and Central Africa was testament to the pivotal role Nigeria still plays in the region's affairs.

But after decades of mismanagement and corruption, there are limits to what a nation that once had pretensions of superpower status within the continent can deliver.

And with the move to majority rule in South Africa, its claims on moral leadership have equally been eclipsed.

Many in Nigeria hanker back to the good old days of the 1970s, when the oil wealth flowed in abundance and the country seemed a major player on the world stage, with aspirations to influence events not just in Africa, but much further afield.

The challenge for a new government will be to adapt to the much more modest contributions that Nigeria can afford to deliver.

Antony Goldman is a specialist on the region and a former West Africa correspondent for the Financial Times

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