THE BLOG

Nigeria's Elder Statesman Is Still Centre Stage

02/12/2013 12:30 GMT | Updated 30/01/2014 10:59 GMT

By the standards of the grandiose mansions of Abuja, the planned city that became Nigeria's capital just two decades ago, Edwin Kiagbodo Clark's villa in a quiet, narrow, street is modest. The living room is dark and poky, and although large, portraits of Chief Clark, as he is known, are visible, most have yet to be hung up. Upstairs, in an office barely bigger than two parking spaces, Clark receives his visitors in Spartan attire: a plain grey robe, a tatty straw hat, and blue Crocs sandals.

But if the 86-year-old grand old man of Nigerian politics lives soberly, his discourse is brash. As befits a former Minister for Information, he boldly bats away whatever reputation Nigeria might have on the global stage as poverty stricken, ethnically divided, blighted by terrorism and corruption. And as mentor to Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan - and his loudest political ally - Clark is vociferous in his defence of the administration.

"I do not understand people who say we are a failed country. In what way?" he declares. "Some politicians believe that unless they rule, then Nigeria is a failed country. Nigeria is a great country. There is no African country other than South Africa that is more developed than Nigeria. What is wrong? Some corrupt politicians who want to be in power at all cost deride this country, abuse this country, plague this country."

Clark's own role has come under question, and some wonder whether he is Jonathan's unofficial spokesman. Although his most senior governmental position was as Minister for Information in 1975, he has remained an influential fixer behind the scenes since the 1960s. He is often seen as President Jonathan's éminence grise, his political godfather, the power behind the throne, but he denies it. "I was in government a long time ago. Today, I'm not in government."

His defences of the soft-spoken President can seem as over the top. In 2010, he placed full-page adverts in several newspapers lambasting one of Jonathan's critics, Malam Adamu Ciroma, as "an empty, narrow minded and self-centred bigot." In September, former President Olusegun Obsanjo said it was time for Clark quit from politics.

Both Clark and Jonathan are from the Ijaw community. "It is true that I call the President of Nigeria 'my son'," Clark says. "But in the first place, we are both from the Niger Delta, and I have known him since 1999. By our custom, I am his father, he is my son, and it has nothing to do with power."

Clark accepts that Nigeria has a big problem with terrorism, and the Islamist Boko Haram. President Jonathan has admitted his forces have lost control of parts of his country's Muslim north-east, and last May declared a state of emergency in three states that suffer most from terrorist attacks. Clark underlines that Boko Haram has not turned Nigeria in Somalia, as some had warned, yet that is hardly a reassuring recommendation. But he adds emphatically that the group is on its way out. "The President is dealing with Boko Haram as a terrorist group, and I can assure you that in the next six months, Boko Haram will be a thing of the past," he says.

Corruption is another issue afflicting Nigeria. A recent US State Department report cited "massive, widespread, and pervasive corruption affecting all levels of government." Some estimates say that up to $8 billion is stolen every year, with the country losing more than $380 billion since independence in 1960. Clark admits there is corruption, but points the finger at Jonathan's critics. "Corruption is a worm eating into the core of Nigeria. All those opposing Jonathan today, they are corrupt people," he ripostes. "There is corruption in every part of the world, but the ability to deal with it is the most important."

This relates to the country's economic mainstay, oil. Nigeria is Africa's biggest oil producer, but at least one tenth of production - or 300,000-400,000 barrels of oil per day - is thought to be lost through corruption and mismanagement, adding up to around more than $1 billion a month. This siphoning is linked to Nigeria's lack of refining capacity: despite its production, the country has to import more than three-quarters of its fuel.

"It disappoints me," Clark concedes. "I believe Nigerians should be able to refine their own products in Nigeria. There have been anti-Nigerians who have sabotaged this. How do they do it? They prefer importing oil. And the federal government has subsidised this." Indeed, the government was forced to abandon its plan last year to end the generous fuel subsidy - another source of corruption - in the face of nationwide protests. Clark says this will hurt the country. "If you do not allow free trade, where you can buy your oil at any price instead of controlling it, then no-one will invest in your country to build a refinery," he says.

While Nigeria's economy has averaged an impressive 7% annual growth since 2010, and has an enviable debt-to-GDP ratio of 18%, there are huge disparities of wealth, especially between the poor north and the more developed south. Overall, education and health care are feeble, electricity is unreliable, and transport infrastructure is awful. Yet Clark looks on the bright side, pointing to the 12 new federal universities set up since 2010, and the new 1,126km, $153 million railway linking the economic powerhouse of Lagos to Kanu in the north

In November, the World Bank country director for Nigeria, Marie-Francoise Marie-Nelly, said that 63% or 100 million Nigerians were living below the poverty line. Clark disputes this. "There are 160 million people in Nigeria. Are you telling me that only 60 million people live above the poverty line? Who is living below the poverty line in Abuja? In Lagos? That statement is untrue," he says.

Although Asian and Indian businesses are cautiously entering Nigeria, American are holding back. Clark says this is particularly sad since Nigeria and the United States have so much in common, as former British colonies that endured brutal civil wars. "And we have the same system of government, copied word for word from America," he says.

US President Barack Obama notably skipped Nigeria on a recent trip to Africa. "Other American presidents visited Nigeria. This is a particular decision by this administration," Clark says, with a pained expression. "If Obama, an African-American, is afraid of visiting his own continent, then there nothing anyone can say about it. Obama needs to be more educated." Ultimately, though, he accepts that Nigeria has an image problem. "We do hope very soon that Nigeria will be seen as a safe country, if we can educate the rest of the world," he says.

He seems more relaxed talking about football. He is thrilled Nigeria qualified for next year's World Cup, saying the team offers lessons for politics. "Football is a uniting factor in Nigeria, so the government should promote football. We should encourage it. When we win, the people of Nigeria will be happy," he says. But what happens when the team loses?