Nigeria, a president challenged
Q&A WITH ZAIN VERJEE
Q&A Aired September 17, 2002 -12:30:00 ET / Rush transcript
RALITSA VASSILEVA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to Q&A.
I'm Ralitsa Vassileva. Today, a president challenged. Next spring, Nigeria hopes to see the first transfer of power in more than 40 years from one civilian president to another, but Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who wants to get reelected, has to battle impeachment charges in parliament to complete his first term in office.
As CNN's Jeff Koinange reports, a lot can go wrong between now and next
JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's the stuff of headlines these days. Africa's most populous nation is fast living up to its reputation as one of the continent's most trouble democracies.
In the latest move, the country's law makers are clamoring for President
Olusegun Obasanjo's impeachment barely 3-1/2 years into his term of office.
They've compiled a list of 17 charges ranging from gross misconduct of power to misuse of government funds.
The president's men say the claims are baseless.
JERRY GANA, MINISTER OF INFORMATION: A few months to general elections is not the time you want to impeach a president on charges that really cannot be regarded as gross misconduct.
The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria makes it abundantly
clear that impeachment is really the last resort.
KOINANGE: What's surprising is that most of the lawmakers calling for
Obasanjo's resignation are from his own party. What's not surprising is that
life for the ordinary Nigerian has not improved much since the restoration
of democracy over three years ago.
TIMI, AUSTEN-PETERS, Ph.D, MINISTRY OF INFORMATION: Democracy is typically a
long-term process. Perhaps we haven't given it enough time. But having said
that, of course, the ordinary man on the street is concerned, he is hungry.
He does want changes that he hasn't necessarily seen. So perhaps he is not
unreasonable in his demands that things should happen.
KOINANGE: So far, the man at the center of the storm seems to be taking it
all in stride, deflecting these latest accusations as politics as usual.
OLUSEGUN OBASANJO, NIGERIAN PRESIDENT: Well, it's all about democracy, as
some people will see it, and it's probably a test of the child of democracy.
Of course, by the end of it, you will see that democracy is alive and
kicking and strong.
KOINANGE: It may be alive and kicking, but perhaps not quite out of the
woods just yet. Some, though, are quick to agree this latest move does at
least show a sense of political maturity.
AUSTEN-PETERS: To the extent that the system seems to be, quote/unquote,
"working" and that people are thinking about impeachment rather than a coup,
then certainly, yes, that suggests that the democratic experiment seems to
However, as I say, whether we need to be going through this process of
impeachment at all is something that many of us question.
KOINANGE: As the country prepares for its first voter registration exercise
since the restoration of democracy, some are worried an impeachment could
derail an already fragile democracy.
GANA: It's likely to set in motion processes that may undermine democracy in
Nigeria, that may affect the stability and unity of the nation.
KOINANGE: A storm the incumbent is confident he can weather.
(on camera): With barely six months to go between now and election day, even
Obasanjo's toughest critics will be the first to tell you these are early
days yet, and a lot can happen between now and polling day.
Jeff Koinange, CNN, Abeokuta, Nigeria.
VASSILEVA: Recently Zain Verjee spoke with President Obasanjo, who was at
the United Nations.
She started by asking him about the latest attempt by the Nigerian
parliament to impeach him.
OBASANJO: What they have tried to do in the democratic way, which is not
easy, would probably have been done by taking arms or by -- with bullets.
So, but with democracy, of course, some people feel that this is the way
this should be, and then I have an opportunity to defend myself. There is
discussion. There is dialogue. There is a decision. There is fairness.
To me, if is the fact that democracy is alive, is being tested, and being
tried, and it will (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with democracy being strengthened.
VERJEE: Certainly, a democratic process, as you point out, but the
accusations are harsh and damaging. The accusation centers around you twice
having ordered soldiers to massacre civilians.
OBASANJO: Well, the accusation, that you take only one, that they gave me 17
accusation, and I did not order soldiers to massacre civilians. I ordered
soldiers in aid of civil authority. And there is a constitutional provision
for that, and I have followed the constitution to do what is right to
maintain law and order. And that is my defense.
So if, of course, the police are overpowered and you have to send soldiers
in aid of civil authority, the constitution lays down when and how this
should be done, and this is what was done.
VERJEE: The lawmakers, though, haven't dropped their accusations. They still
plan on trying to impeach you. Are you worried that this is going to damage
OBASANJO: No, not at all. As I said, they are exercising their political
right and I.
VERJEE: But they're making you look bad.
OBASANJO: . their constitutional right. Now, it's not what they say that
matters. It's what -- because those who make allegations are not going to be
the judge, you should know that. And those who judge will be more objective,
I believe. And even you can say that there is already some form of judgment
on the side of the public, which does not damage my reputation or damage my
political career or damage me in any form or shape whatsoever.
VERJEE: Let's talk about Sharia law in Nigeria. Do you believe that state
governments in Nigeria should have the right to impose Sharia law?
OBASANJO: Of course. We have Sharia law in the constitution. Sharia has
always been part of our life in Nigeria, and we have a federal form of
government where you have the state governments being able to make their own
laws. That's why they have their own executive. They have their own
legislative. And they even have their own judiciary.
That is what we have, and within the constitution they have the power to
make law and to sustain their law.
VERJEE: As you say, a key element is Sharia law embodied in the constitution
of Nigeria, but the imposition of that law, many say, is creating divisions
within the country, causing thousands of Christians, for example, to flee.
We've seen cases of sentencing of women to death by stoning, really dividing
the country, creating religious strife.
OBASANJO: Well, the point really is this: one thing is to say that a
particular judgment has been given. Another thing is to say that that
particular judgment has been carried out.
Since I know, and for all I know, nobody has been stoned to death in
Nigeria. And so far, I believe that if all the provisions of our
constitution and our law will be followed, maybe nobody will ever be stoned
to death in Nigeria.
VERJEE: But one woman, Amina Lawal, has been sentenced to death by stoning,
convicted of having sex out of wedlock. Is the federal government going to
intervene in this case?
OBASANJO: Well, it's not Amina Lawal. You probably forgot that there is
Safiya Husaini who has become the celebrity in the world now who was
sentenced to death by stoning in Sokoto state.
VERJEE: But they want the government to do the same thing in this case, with
OBASANJO: And I believe that what happened to Safiya may or will invariably
happen to Amina Lawal.
I know what people feel and I know how I feel, that these judgments are even
given at all. But that is the situation of the federal constitution that we
have in our country, and I do hope that sooner than later that these cases
will get to the Supreme Court, and maybe the Supreme Court will be able to
make a definite pronouncement on these cases. And that is our -- the highest
court in our land.
And when the Supreme Court makes a pronouncement to postpone any
(UNINTELLIGIBLE) it is as high as it can go, and anybody who is dissatisfied
is either leaving it to God or, of course, unless there is a change of law.
VERJEE: Nigeria has earned the second worst spot in Transparency
International's latest ranking on corruption. What's going on there?
OBASANJO: Well, when you have a deeply rooted cancer, you don't get rid of
it over night. You are fighting it on a daily basis. You are putting the
drug or in fact applying other means of dealing with it or treating it.
And this is the case with corruption in Nigeria. We have made the law. The
law itself is in position. But it's not -- corruption is not just a matter
of law alone. It's also a matter of morality. It's a matter of decency. It's
a matter of what people -- what I would call the way of live.
And we have to change our attitude. Attitudinal change doesn't come over
night. So we have the law, and I believe that the law is doing its best.
Then the attitudinal change will take some time, and I believe that too is
coming, through religious training, through schools, letting our children
imbibe a new attitude, a new value, orientation, and that sort of thing.
So the totality of this is that if we move from number one to number two in
perception, maybe as time goes on we will move to number three and to number
four, and in the course of time, we will soon not be seen as a corrupt
nation in perception, because the reality is one thing, perception is
VERJEE: You talked earlier about law and order in your country. As many as
10,000 people, it's being reported, have been killed in Nigeria with
communal rivalries, and the number is believed to be increasing. And people
are saying that although President Obasanjo has done a lot of good for
Nigeria, you're accused of not -- accused of failing to halt that spiraling
OBASANJO: I thank you that you even say that some people say I have done
some good. Some may not -- may even say that I haven't done any good at all.
It depends on who you are quoting.
But let me say this to you, when you put the question of 10,000 -- 10,000
people dying in Nigeria, of course, for a population of over 120 million
people. I don't know.
VERJEE: But these are communal rivalries, ethnic divisions.
OBASANJO: Please. Now, whose figures are you quoting and where did they get
these figures from?
VERJEE: The Nigerian press.
OBASANJO: Well, where do they tally the figures. Who gives them the
My dear sister, if you are going to give this type of figure, for God's sake
let's have a figure that we can all agree upon.
Now, how do they get their 10,000? I will not say -- I will say yes, we have
lost people through conflicts and clashes and (UNINTELLIGIBLE). When we
brought the democratic dispensation, the heavy military pull that has been
put on people being able to express their views or being able to show their
displeasure was removed, and that of course will come in one form of
agitation or the other.
VASSILEVA: As the Nigerian president faces off with the country's
parliament, we take a closer look at whether impeachment could really happen
this time around, and why.
That's next so stay with Q&A.
VASSILEVA: Welcome back.
We're talking about the struggle between Nigeria's president and parliament.
President Obasanjo said the impeachment threat is a joke that had gone too
far, but will parliament really vote for impeachment? And, if so, why?
Joining us now from Houston, Texas is Chido Nwangwu. He's the founder of the
USAfricaOnline.com and a Nigerian analyst.
Mr. Nwangwu, thank you very much for joining us.
CHIDO NWANGWU, USAfricaonline.com: Thank you.
VASSILEVA: First to parliament's charges against the president, specifically
the one stating that he ordered troops to carry out deadly punishment raids
against villages. Is it justified?
NWANGWU: Obviously he is not justified. The retired Gen. Obasanjo has done
quite some good work in fighting areas, but as you would have noticed, when
he answered that in a country of 100 million that 10,000 people are said to
have died, as if that was a small number, that in itself reflects a
disconnect with the concerns of Nigerians.
The second one is that when the risk is civil disagreement, the police are
required to intervene in the country. And the deployment of the armed forces
of Nigeria requires at least some consultation, however modest, with the
The third factor that is equally important to underscore is that the armed
forces of Nigeria moved in for a punitive action rather than just containing
a civil disagreement.
VASSILEVA: So you're saying that parliament also played a role in this, and
yet they are trying to impeach the president on that particular charge.
NWANGWU: No, that is part of the problem. The president is saying that he
need not consult with the parliament before deploying Nigeria's armed
forces, and I am suggesting that the issue is that there is a necessary
oversight and a consultative constitutional role for the parliament when the
armed forces of Nigeria is deployed.
So that is part of what the charges of the impeachment include.
VASSILEVA: I wanted to ask you about another major charge, that is the
misuse of government funds, specifically using funds for a stadium that
cost, what, $300 million. That is more than the annual health budget of the
country. How justified is that? We heard the president say that the decision
to hold the games in his country was taken before he came into office. That
stadium needed to be built.
NWANGWU: It is entirely not accurate for two reasons.
The fact of the matter is that once a president takes over, just as he has
done, it is entirely his mandate to give Nigerians what he has called
accurately the dividends of democracy.
Nigerians need healthcare. Nigerians need to go to school. Nigerians need
power supply. The international businesses are pulling away from Nigeria
because there are no infrastructural basis to do business, and building a
stadium of that magnitude reflects monumental mishandling of the fundamental
interests of the welfare concerns of Nigerians.
There are no power supplies that run for 24 hours. How, if you lack the
capacity to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) base to run a country, how are you going to
move the country forward? Stadiums are not what compels the needs of
VASSILEVA: On the other side of the coin, there are those analysts who say
that these impeachment charges are brought up by some people in the
president's own party who don't want him to get reelected. There is
political motivation behind them.
NWANGWU: As someone who studied political science myself and having lived in
Nigeria, politics is not a boy scout activity, as you know. There are groups
and dissensions, conflicting interests in the PDP, the People's Democratic
Party, which the president belongs. And I must say there are those who
disagree with him.
But it is also important to note that those people did not send the soldiers
to Oddi (ph) or to Zakidia (ph) in Benue state. Those persons did not decide
on their own to, as the president has stated in his defense of making, if
you will, law, an enactment, on budgetary terms. They didn't ask him to do
that. You know, they did not ask that the revenue allocation as regards the
oil producing states in Nigeria be changed according to what he called good
I mean, there are questions of constitutional and presidential
responsibility which lies only at one door, the doors of President Ret. Gen.
Olusegun Obasanjo. Politics will always be played in Nigeria.
VASSILEVA: Yet there are some who point out that the timing of one of those
impeachment efforts, the threat to impeach him, occurred right after he
tried to implement some anti-corruption matters, specifically trying to ask
lawmakers to account for the money that they make.
NWANGWU: See, again, the issue is that there are corrupt legislators in
Nigeria. The president is right in that regard. There are legislators who have squandered Nigeria's funds for matters and projects that are entirely frivolous.
Yet saying that someone has done something wrong is not an answer to the
question did you, for instance, not account for funds that came in into
Nigeria's central bank accounts? Or did you, for instance, not account fully for funds that were taken from the former dictator's family, the late Sani
I mean, those questions -- Nigeria is one of the beautiful places where a question is answered by a question, and there is this story about an European journalist who came into Nigeria and wanted to ask one key
question: is it true that you Nigerians answer questions with questions? And
he was (asked) at the airport, "who told you?"
(....Laughter/Vassileva and Chido)
VASSILEVA: In our remaining moments, on a
more serious note, in your
opinion, is this the growing -- are these the growing pains of democracy for
a country that has seen very little of that? Has seen a lot of, as President
Obasanjo has said, a lot of things were resolved by coups and bloodshed. Is
this growing pains? And how serious is this, in your opinion?
NWANGWU: They are growing pains that are equally serious. I was making a few
notes as the president was speaking.
Part of the challenge is a disconnect and a misunderstanding of who performs what constitutional duty. The president stated specifically that it is not what they say at the legislature that matters, that those who make the allegations are not going to be the judge. It is the public that are judging. That is not what the charge, or what the duty calls for.
It is entirely (largely) a legislative process to ask for an impeachment.
VASSILEVA: Unfortunately, we are out of time. Thank you so much for speaking with us. That's all the time we have for Q&A today.
Chido Nwangwu, recipient of the Journalism Excellence award (1997), appears as an analyst on CNN's Inside Africa and will be on live at 3:30 EST on CNN International (with Jim Clancy) to provide insight on Nigeria, and Africa issues on Wednesday August 28, 2002. He is Founder and Publisher of the first African-owned U.S.-based professional newspaper to be published on the internet, USAfricaonline.com. He publishes Houston-based USAfrica The Newspaper, NigeriaCentral.com and The Black Business Journal.
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