Last updated: April 14, 2012 12:06 am

Twelve days in west Africa

The editor of the FT takes a personal journey from Nigeria to Ghana and glimpses the region’s future
West Africa map

This is the first in a series of reports from west Africa by the editor of the FT, who has travelled through Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone, from the oil-contaminated Niger delta to teeming Lagos and a new rice farm project on Ghana’s Volta river. Further instalments from these three countries will follow over the coming days, along with slideshows and a chance to pose your own questions on the future of the region through a Q&A with Lionel Barber.

Abuja, Nigeria

Saturday

The godfather of modern Nigeria sweeps in on time for our appointment at the Hilton Hotel at 7.30am. He is wearing traditional Yoruba attire: tilted red gobi cotton cap; burgundy buba shirt with pyjama-style trousers; and blue crocodile shoes. Olusegun Obasanjo, 75, former president and army chief, embodies the African Big Man.

I am pop-eyed after the overnight flight from London but exhilarated to be in Nigeria, first stop on a maiden visit to west Africa. During the 1960s my father – then a commentator at the BBC World Service in London – regularly interviewed leaders of the newly independent African states: Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika, Hastings Banda of Malawi. He even named the family cat Kwame after Ghana’s Nkrumah. Half a century later, I want to experience Nigeria first hand.

Obasanjo, known as OBJ, is sometimes described by Nigerians as “the Mandela we never had”. He fought on the winning side in the Biafran civil war, served as military ruler between 1976 and 1979, spent three years in jail as a political prisoner in the 1990s, and won two successive elections, both marred by fraud. Today he is experiencing a renaissance. His drive and decisiveness compare favourably with his underpowered successor but one, Goodluck Jonathan, a Chauncey Gardiner figure with no obvious vision for his presidency beyond holding office.

Former president and army chief of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999©Reuters

Former president and army chief of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999

Obasanjo offers token support for Goodluck, whom he plucked out of Niger delta politics. When OBJ ran for president in 1999, the first elections after the end of military rule, he had a lifetime’s preparation. “I had my training as an army officer. I participated in war, I had a period managing the affairs of the country, then I had 20 years networking with international figures like Jim Callaghan and Helmut Schmidt, and I concentrated on farming and being close to nature.” Still the largest chicken farmer in the country, OBJ recounts Nelson Mandela’s endorsement on his ascent to the presidency. “To solve problems you need age and prison experience. You have them both.”

Nigeria is still grappling with endemic corruption, 100 million citizens living on less than $2 a day, and a growing radical Muslim insurgency known as Boko Haram, roughly translated as “western education is forbidden”. “It is not enough to talk about leadership,” says the general in a warning to Goodluck about Boko Haram’s threat to the state. He cites an earthy Nigerian village adage: “When you have no latrine, you go into the bush and do it. But don’t stay long over your faeces or else the flies will come.”

Olusegun Obasanjo and Lionel Barber©Xan Rice

Olusegun Obasanjo and Lionel Barber

The man known as “Baba” (father) checks a fat wristwatch and signals time is running short. He arrived late last night from Senegal; there’s a party convention to manage here at the Hilton, whose top floor usually contains the highest density of tycoons and power brokers in Africa; and later today he’s off to Dakar again to pressure the octogenarian leader Abdoulaye Wade to respect free and fair elections. “I’ll deal with him tomorrow morning.” (Sure enough, he did. Wade stood down within minutes of the general’s démarche.)

Father Kukah©Xan Rice

Father Kukah, the Bishop of Sokoto

There’s something inspiring about OBJ and his “Nigeria First” slogan. The same goes for the young technocratic agriculture minister, Akinkunmi Adesina, who preaches reform from a ramshackle ministry that is part building site. His analysis of what is needed to revive Nigeria’s chronically underperforming food sector is Harvard textbook stuff: fix infrastructure, cut state subsidies and unleash the private sector. Over dinner, a guest offers a more sobering observation. Of course the state stifles private enterprise, but the state will never get out of the way: “In Nigeria, business is the business of the state.”

Sokoto

Sunday-Monday

It’s 36C and the tail end of the Harmattan is blowing dust down from the Sahara. We have flown north to see the Sultan of Sokoto, spiritual leader of Nigeria’s roughly 80 million Muslims and a former brigadier general in the federal army. Sokoto is a sleepy Muslim town near the Niger border and scene of a botched Anglo-Nigerian mission in March to rescue a British and an Italian hostage held by Boko Haram.

Sultan of Sokoto©Corbis

Sultan of Sokoto, spiritual leader of Nigeria’s Muslims

The Sultan, it turns out, is in Kano 500km further east. So we switch schedule and visit the Bishop of Sokoto, a feisty priest called Father Kukah. He is visibly worried about the insurgency. Inter-ethnic tensions are rising, as well as between Evangelicals and Muslims. The Nigerian state is “at best a eunuch”. But he disputes that disaffected northern governors are tacit Boko Haram supporters. “Boko Haram is a franchise” that has attracted criminals, college graduates turned activists angered by police and army brutality, as well as radicalised Muslims. Western intelligence agencies and the Nigerian government are less sanguine: they believe Boko Haram has been penetrated by al-Qaeda and northern Nigeria is the new theatre for global jihad. OBJ’s verdict on external influence: not much yet.

Throughout our two-hour conversation the bishop’s widescreen TV is showing the US Crime and Investigations network and a special segment on Mexican border mobsters. The TV – as I will learn – invariably features in private and government offices, with sports the channel of choice for this soccer-crazy nation. Father Kukah is a courageous figure, unflinching in his criticism of the country’s governance and leadership but passionate in his defence of Nigerian unity.

Next morning we catch up with the Sultan, magnificently attired in white turban and flowing robes. He rises reluctantly from his throne to greet us. A cardinal from the Vatican booked an appointment with His Eminence six weeks ago; we called up three days ago. Minor FT grovelling follows. The Sultan talks about his role as moral and spiritual leader. Then he turns serious, as if to recognise the mortal threat that the insurgency poses to the northern ruling class. Boko Haram must be “nipped in the bud”. Of course there must be a political settlement. He cites the British and the IRA, the Spanish and Eta, and the Americans with the Taliban. The Sultan offers himself as an interlocutor between the federal government and the rebels: “There is nothing that cannot be achieved with dialogue.”

As wizened Muslim elders look on cross-legged on the floor, the Sultan signs a copy of Principles on Leadership, written by the founding fathers of the Sokoto Caliphate. You might find it useful in London, he says, with half a smile.

Lionel Barber is editor of the FT

Read a Q&A on the future of west Africa with Lionel Barber

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