Friday, 20 April 2007

20 April 2007

Kano/Abuja, Nigeria

Have you ever wondered what kind of life you’d have without a reliable supply of electricity? No guaranteed light after sunset, no computers, no TV. That’s what life is like for most Nigerians.

It was shortly before sunset when I arrived at the home of Mohammed in Kano, the impoverished, sprawling city in northern Nigeria where I’ve been spending the past few days. The light was rapidly fading and inside his house, it was sweltering. For much of the day, the temperature outside had been close to 40 degrees Celsius. Not surprisingly, his three young children were restive.

Mohammed and his family are not rural peasants eking out a living in a mud hut in the bush. He runs a successful timber business, and he lives in a major city, yet like everyone in Kano – and nearly everywhere else in Nigeria – he has had to learn how to make do with only the most sporadic of power supplies.

At the Kano hotel I was staying in, the power went off about twice an hour. Every hour. Then the diesel generators started up, but diesel is expensive, and most people can afford to run generators, if at all, only for a couple of hours a day. (Not like the huge hotel where I’m staying here in the capital, Abuja – here, they’re running generators 24 hours a day.)

This should be one of the richest countries in Africa. It is, after all, one of the world’s biggest producers of oil. Yet every time the government plans to build a new power station, somehow the money seems to disappear. The assumption is it’s going into someone’s pocket. Nigeria may not be one of the richest countries in Africa, but it is certainly one of the most corrupt.

So every time I ask a Nigerian what they want from the country’s next President, the answer is the same: electricity, and an end to corruption. To be fair, both the main candidates in tomorrow’s election – the ruling party’s candidate Umaru Yar-Adua, and the main opposition candidate, former military strongman General Muhammadu Buhari – have clean reputations. And many local State governors facing serious corruption allegations were disqualified from standing again.

Nigerians are good at fatalism. The Muslims say “Insha’allah”. The Christians say: “As God wishes”. They don’t have high hopes from tomorrow’s election, so they’re unlikely to be disappointed or angry when nothing much changes. They’re an ebullient people, and they are good at word play. So it’s not politics, it’s poli-tricks. Not an election, but a selection. And my favourite, coined by the late Afro-rock star Fela Kuti: not democracy, but dem-all-crazy.

The most touching thing I’ve heard since I’ve been here was when I was chatting a couple of days ago to a local journalist in Kano. We were discussing tomorrow’s election when suddenly he said: “By the way, when are you going to be able to get Alan out?” I knew exactly who and what he was referring to – it’s now nearly six weeks since our colleague Alan Johnston was kidnapped in Gaza and we are still desperately worried about him. But it’s good to know that even here in Nigeria, he is missed. Please keep him in your thoughts too.

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