Nigeria: Ripe for a WikiLeaks revolution?

Leaked cables helped expose high-level corruption, but will those revelations impact upcoming elections?

Some analysts believe that Nigerians disillusioned with their leaders will simply not vote [Reuters]

It is only months since the US diplomatic cables released by whistleblowing website WikiLeaks made headlines around the world with their revelations about Nigeria.

Among them, allegations that Nigeria’s government dropped legal action against pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which is accused of running a clinical trial that killed and disabled children, after the drugs company threatened to investigate the attorney-general.

Others revealed that oil firm Shell had infiltrated every level of government and alleged that it was politicians, rather than fighters in the oil-rich Niger Delta, who stole oil wealth and used it to fund arms deals.

Despite attempts by Nigerian leaders and state-run media to discredit WikiLeaks, the cables have been a powerful reminder for residents and the international community on the extent of corruption in the country and how deep its problems go.

But as voters head to the polls for presidential and regional elections, how many will be influenced by the material published over the last few months, and could such revelations bring about real change?

‘WikiLeaks revolution’

In other nations, WikiLeaks has claimed credit for naming corrupt administrations, empowering voters by releasing secret government documents, and helping to topple governments.

Julian Assange, the website’s founder, said last year that WikiLeaks had “changed the result of the Kenyan general election” in 2007 when it released a secret report into corruption perpetrated by the family of the country’s former leader, that the-then government had done nothing to tackle.

A stronger claim was made for Tunisia, which some, to the annoyance of many protesters, called the first “WikiLeaks revolution”. The release of a June 2009 cable that spelt out the corruption present in the country’s ruling family appeared to act as one catalyst for change in a country struggling with rising inflation, unemployment and repression.

Surely then Nigeria, which has suffered corruption and sporadic violence for decades and now benefits from relatively high levels of internet and mobile access, is ripe for a reaction to these latest revelations.

Dele Olojede, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, set up his newspaper Next several years ago in an attempt to provide a lone independent and credible voice in Nigeria. Through a third party, his publication has obtained US cables from WikiLeaks, and used them to show the “truth” about the politicians Nigerians are set to elect. 

“We believe we are doing a public service [by releasing these documents],” he said. “They had a public interest … revealing things that were closer to the truth.”

The releases include one cable in which a state governor reports to US diplomats that Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent president, had voted four times in elections in 2007, although his government strongly denies the claim.

Despite being an advocate for releases such as these, Olojede is more sceptical about the change they will bring.

“We have published stories over the past two years that were absolutely explosive in the sense that a rational person reading them would think that heads must roll, but nothing happened!” he said, adding that at other times, a seemingly insignificant story would have repercussions.

“It’s not clear at this stage what impact these releases will have. A voter takes many things into consideration. I think what the WikiLeaks documents show is what most people already knew about their leaders. However the cables do have the advantage of being specific and naming individuals.”

Ethnic divisions

Olojede’s view, that most Nigerians are aware of their leaders’ faults, may be one of the reasons that while people around the world felt a sense of shock and outrage from the US diplomatic cables, they did little to provoke anger in Africa’s most populous nation.

“I don’t think WikiLeaks will have much influence. People already know that Nigeria is corrupt and that politicians don’t work in their interests,” Dr Patrick Wilmot, a London-based commentator on Nigerian affairs and former lecturer there, said.

“They know through the grapevine, the bush telegraph, that their leaders are completely corrupt, that they don’t spend their money on schools or public hospitals … or anything of benefit to the public.”

He believes that Nigerians will respond to claims of corruption by simply not taking part in elections, rather than casting a protest vote, and so such revelations will having no bearing on the poll.

The divisions within Nigeria are also a factor in the country’s failure to galvanise popular support against a government, he says.

The United Nations estimates there are between 250 to 400 ethnic groups in Nigeria, and two major religions, Christianity and Islam. It is this diversity, Wilmot says, that prevents a situation similar to the one in Tunisia from arising.

Peter Cunliffe-Jones, head of AFP online in London and author of My Nigeria: Five Decades of Independence says Nigeria’s long history of corruption has meant people have learnt to have low expectations of their leaders.

“This is a country that has been ruled by the military for years. Many leaders stole billions during their presidencies. It’s very difficult to shock a Nigerian of the baseness of their government.”

Feeding the status quo

So why then, in a mineral rich nation with around 150m people, is there not a greater fight against endemic poverty, inequality and injustice?

Nearly one third of the population has access to the internet, the highest rate in the region. The majority of people are under the age of 35. These are two factors that have helped spark protest movements elsewhere.

“There are a very large number of reasons,” Cunliffe-Jones says, as to why Nigerians are not out on the streets.

“Most people around the world concentrate on their daily struggle – finding food and shelter. It’s a lot easier in the UK for example to stage a protest, but in Nigeria there’s a reasonable chance police will shoot you.”

“These elections have shown some signs of change. There’s been a move against the ruling party and some support for Nuhu Ribadu,” the country’s former head of the anti-corruption agency.

“But in Nigeria it can’t be the shock of revelations that makes the change. I think there is a fair bit of evidence that WikiLeaks had an impact in Tunisia, but in Nigeria people have been writing about high level corruption since the 1960s.

“The Tunisian press were very tightly controlled, with not a hint of criticism. The Nigeria press is vastly different. They have been howling outrage about their leaders but that’s where the belief that it’s not possible to change comes from.

“The WikiLeaks revelations only feed into the status quo. It needs to be a revelation coming from the other way – such as ‘here’s a good governor doing a good job’,” Cunliffe-Jones says.

Olojede says that no one can predict the outcomes of news reports, and Nigeria does not tend to take cues from movements sweeping other nations.

“I would have been the happiest person if WikiLeaks revelations had caused people to rise up.

“But in Tunisia how does one know that one person’s decision to self immolate would spark something that would consume the whole region?”

“It cannot be guaranteed ahead of time … it can’t be WikiLeaks itself [influencing these events].”

Prospects for change

There have been some small indications, however, that change could be on its way.

An online social movement, called Enough is Enough, has held demonstrations over the past year calling for electoral reform and solutions to ongoing violence and power shortages.

Olojede says social media, such as text messaging, has created a more level playing field for information dissemination.

“Social movements probably do have a certain appeal to the young generation because they have a shared experience: they grew up in the internet age.

“They think in a certain type of way that over time will bring about change.

“It’s a good start.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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