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Thursday, November 26, 1998 Published at 23:01 GMT

Parting thoughts from Nigeria

Many people struggle against poverty

By Hilary Andersson in Lagos

An experience I had during my first few weeks in Lagos in 1996 - in the dark days of General Abacha's repressive regime - sticks with me.

Two plain-clothes security men came up to me on the streets and told me I was going to be taken somewhere unspecified for questioning.

The dreaded state security services drove me off to their headquarters, where I sat with the company of a few rats and mosquitoes.

Mental torture

I was not charged with anything and for most of the time I was left in a small room with some damp old chairs to look at and only four walls. There was a tiny window with light coming through it. The outside world seemed so close but so far.

During that time I lived a whole life. What if they didn't release me? How would I cope with the uncertainty if I had to stay there for a long time? Most importantly, what would I think about all day - and all night?

I was given only a Bible and, rather disturbingly, a cheap novel about the Spanish Inquisition for comfort. The lack of freedom was suffocating.

Chief Abiola

[ image: Nigeria rioted after Chief Abiola's death]
Nigeria rioted after Chief Abiola's death
For me the mental torture only went on for 24 hours, but for hundreds of Nigeria's political prisoners this went on for years. Chief Abiola's plight was perhaps the worst.

Chief Abiola was widely seen to be the most vibrant character, thoroughly corrupt, but also generous and full of life and energy - a bit like his country. Perhaps that's why he was so popular.

He sat in solitary confinement for four years. The hell he must have gone through I can only imagine in my nightmares. He had, as he said himself to his family, been buried alive.

He died in July from a heart attack, which surely resulted from the stress. What he went through is what Nigeria went through under General Abacha.

Held to ransom

People here in Africa's most politically vibrant nation were stifled, often afraid to criticise General Abacha even to their neighbours. Security men were everywhere.

Nigerians knew what was happening: one man was holding 100 million people to ransom whilst stealing the country's riches.

[ image: Buildings are crumbling]
Buildings are crumbling
The schools fell apart, the hospitals closed, the refineries broke down. It is thought that about $2bn went missing in all.

There's a man at the bottom of my road who spends all day filling potholes with stones and begging drivers for a few naira. I watch him sweating and working intensely in the scorching sun everyday.

Like so many Nigerians he's a survivor. You can see that he holds out a real hope that one day things will be better.

When General Abacha died it was as if the prison doors had been thrown open and there was an unforgettable euphoria.

Elections were promised. Now political parties have formed and the repression has stopped.

'A peasants' revolution'

But the euphoria has now died away, because the reality is that those years of immense corruption, of injustice and of repression have taken their toll.

[ image: The oil industry has damaged the environment]
The oil industry has damaged the environment
Over the last month, the whole south-east of the country has descended into a state of mayhem. Armed youths, fed up with being neglected by the government, have put a stop to the production of hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day.

Most residents of the area support them. Their villages don't have schools, hospitals or electricity. Government to them means nothing. Their bottled-up emotions have exploded.

When I asked residents of the oil-rich Niger Delta if elections might appease the tensions, they just laughed. And I felt stupid for even asking.

It's a sort of peasants' revolution that's underway amongst Nigeria's minority tribes of the south-east. They are demanding a form of self-government.

Calls for autonomy

Far more worrying is that years of General Abacha's northern-dominated government have left two of the bigger tribes, the Yorubas and the Ibos, feeling just as disgruntled.

They're pinning all their hopes on their own presidential candidates winning elections, but because everyone knows there is only going to be one president, they have been calling for greater regional autonomy too. At least then, the logic goes, each area is guaranteed control over its own affairs.

The last time there were such calls for regional autonomy, Nigeria descended into the Biafran Civil War. An estimated 1 million people died in the tragic aftermath.

Hopes for the future

I would like to be optimistic about Nigeria's future; after all, the government is doing so many good things.

But apart from the freer political atmosphere, what has actually changed since General Abacha died?

Supposing elections go calmly. Supposing there is no crisis. Who is to say that there won't be another military coup a year or two down the line?

This is what always happens when Nigeria has elections. The army needs to be restructured if this is to be avoided, but nobody has pledged to do this yet.

The new government has recovered lots of the stolen money - or so they say. But there's a mysterious silence surrounding it.

One big deja vu

The biggest thieves aren't even in jail. Why? Probably because the current government is made up of many senior men who worked under General Abacha.

In the capital, Abuja, there is talk that General Abubakar's family are now giving out government contracts, and it all sounds so familiar.

Events in Nigeria are always so dramatic you wonder that the country doesn't just go up like a series of fireworks in a huge explosion. Abacha's death, a new government, elections.

But the longer you live here the more you come to realise that so far it's all been one big deja vu.

The elite gets the money, whilst the diligent survivor, the honest, energetic Nigerian, the man on my street, dreams his dreams in vain as he keeps filling his pothole with broken stones.

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