- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2001

LAGOS, Nigeria Africa's most populous country marked its 41st Independence Day this week, still mired in poverty and conflict and characterized as a "nation of survivors" by one newspaper as the head of state admitted his administration had not yet achieved much.

In its commercial capital and largest city, Lagos, millions of people availed of Monday's holiday, staying at home or heading for the beach.

But elsewhere in the country, celebrations were dampened by gloomy rainy-season weather and the depressed economic climate brought on by years of stagnation and misrule.

In a speech broadcast nationwide at dawn, President Olusegun Obasanjo said hope for a better future was rising, but he admitted that his administration has failed so far to lift most Nigerians out of poverty or end violence.

More than two years after taking power in May 1999, ending more than 15 years of military misrule, Mr. Obasanjo an ex-general and one of the former military rulers said his government was working hard to improve security and lift the economy for Nigeria's 126 million people.

But he conceded that "enormous" challenges remain.

"What still remains to be done is vast and enormous, eclipsing the modest achievements we have recorded so far," Mr. Obasanjo said.

"Far too many of our citizens still remain poor," the president added. Industry also remains weak, and inflation is a problem.

"I acknowledge that the response of the economy, especially the manufacturing sector, to our determined efforts at revitalization has been slower than expected," he said.

The president blamed in large part the "dismal reality" of Nigeria's rundown state in 1999 before he took over.

After years of bad government under military regimes, "everything, it seemed, had nearly collapsed: the economy, our physical infrastructure, the system of our social organisation together with our values and morals," he said.

But Mr. Obasanjo praised the changes he has initiated. He said the government is privatizing moribund state companies and improving the power and telecommunications systems, investing in upgrading the feeble power network, and liberalizing the telecom sector, allowing two foreign-owned mobile telephone companies to offer services here.

However, corruption remains, and violent social conflict, seen early last month in the central city, Jos, continues to erupt, he admitted.

For many people at home, however, the changes introduced by the Obasanjo administration, popular as they are internationally, are too small.

The Guardian, generally considered Nigeria's newspaper of record, said in an editorial Monday that "the country has just enough reason to celebrate as a nation of survivors and not as one of thrivers.

"That is why the debate is still on as to whether Nigeria can exist at all as a nation. Or if it would exist, in what form."

The Vanguard newspaper had a front-page cartoon showing Nigeria weighed down by foreign debt, corruption, a bad economy, communal violence and bad leadership.

A cartoon in the newspaper This Day showed the country as a sick man in a hospital bed, with its ailment diagnosed simply as "multidimensional."

A new newspaper, the Daily Independent, which published its first issue on Monday, noted the problems facing the country but said "happily, ours is a nation with an elastic capacity to absorb shocks and rebound."

However, the mood was generally downbeat, and it worsened after Nigerians woke to learn that the country's youth football team had been defeated by France during the early hours in Trinidad and Tobago in the final of the FIFA Under-17 World Championship.

"What a start to Independence Day," a caller to a Lagos radio station lamented.

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