BOSTON — The unprecedented terror bombing that killed eight people today in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on the country’s 50th anniversary of independence, has forced many to ask "what is there to celebrate?"
"There is nothing worth celebrating after 50 years of failure," said rebels of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), when they issued a warning that explosions would disrupt the capital's ceremonies. "For 50 years, the people of the Niger Delta have had their land and resources stolen from them."
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with 150 million people, and it is one of the continent’s biggest oil producers, with a total GDP of $173 billion and GDP per capita of $2,000.
The oil wealth is badly distributed. Most Nigerians are impoverished with a majority of people living on less than $1 per day, according to U.N. statistics. Nigeria’s roads, electricity and water systems are crumbling and insufficient. The business center, Lagos, is marked by crime and traffic jams, and the Niger Delta area remains impoverished and its environment badly damaged by the effects of the oil pumping.
The country is marked by considerable ethnic and religious strife. Hundreds die in bitter fighting between Christians and Muslims in northern Nigeria, around the city of Jos, almost every year.
Corruption is rampant, costing Nigerians about 40 percent of its oil wealth, according to surveys.
Throughout its 50 years of independence from Britain, Nigeria has suffered a devastating civil war and numerous military coups.
This array of problems has caused many Nigerians to become cynical and critical, yet not all have given up on the country’s democracy.
Wole Soyinka, the Nobel winning author, has written many searing satires of Nigeria’s politics. Yet Soyinka has not given up. Last week he launched a new political party, the Democratic Front for a People's Federation.
Soyinka, 76, with a striking white shock of hair, said he will not run as a candidate in the upcoming 2011 presidential election. Instead he will use the power of persuasion to influence the election that many worry will be tainted by political thuggery, violence and ballot-box stuffing.
He said his new party is "an experiment ... that directly challenges those who grumble that there is no platform, no springboard from which they can propose the political arena fresh and innovative ideas."
Nigeria has had a democracy for more than 10 years. Its 2011 election, scheduled to be held in January, likely will be moved back over concerns about having enough time to register an estimated 70 million voters. The National Assembly is considering postponing the election.
Since the handover in 1999 from military rule to a civilian government, Nigerian politics have been dominated by the People's Democratic Party, which rules over the unruly and corrupt electoral system.
Soyinka described his new venture as a "zero resource" party that would take in no money. It is clearly a jab at Nigeria's culture of government graft and corruption.
"The nation is comprehensively sucked dry by a minority that is so lubricated that they slip out of grasp when their hands are caught in the till," Soyinka said. "This party resolves to overturn the lugubrious arrangement by which the national cake is swallowed entire by those whose appointed task is to serve their employer, which is the sovereign electorate."
Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the first African honored with the award. The essayist and playwright has a penchant for the dramatic. He once single-handedly stormed a Nigerian radio station with a pistol to try to prevent a corrupt politician from claiming an election victory. But he also served as a staunch critic of the excesses of the military dictators who pilfered Nigeria's oil money for years after the nation's gained its independence from Britain in 1960.
More recently, Soyinka led a protest in Nigeria's capital Abuja over the long-term hospitalization of late President Umaru Yar'Adua, whose absence ground government to a halt for months.
Another leader who has not given up on Nigeria is the country’s “accidental president” Goodluck Jonathan. The genial Jonathan was a little-known politician selected to be vice president to Yar’Adua. But since becoming president when Yar’Adua died, Jonathan has set out to reform Nigeria’s political system and has vowed to stamp out high-level corruption. Not surprisingly many in Nigeria’s political ruling class are opposed to Jonathan’s efforts to change the deeply entrenched system.
Jonathan was nearby in Abuja when the deadly bombs exploded. The political violence may well strengthen the president’s hand so that voters support his efforts to clean up Nigeria’s politics and economics.
That would give Nigerians something to celebrate.