The gym is the last place to look for an impassioned discussion of global politics in Nigeria, a country that is currently pre-occupied with gasoline scarcity, rising political and ethnic violence, and anxiety over the April general elections. But early on March 20, a fitness center in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, was transformed into a venue for strongly expressed views. The lone television set in the cramped gym was tuned to Sky News, a British cable news network, beaming footage of the bombardment that confirmed that the US-led war against Iraq had started. Dripping with sweat, a group of mostly middle-class fitness buffs gravitated toward the TV and worked up the heat in the room. Except for a lone voice that was soon crowded out, the consensus was that there was no justification for this war. “I don’t understand this war. This is American terrorism,” one said.
The war started at 3:30 am Nigerian time. Caller after caller to the early morning call-in radio programs railed about America’s disdain for the rest of the world, its arrogance and its desperation for oil. In homes, buses and offices, the war upstaged Nigeria’s myriad problems as the topic of discussion of choice. Most Nigerians are angry at the United States, even while they unabashedly covet the American way of life. Some are so angry they don’t want to hear any news on the war. A leading politician asked that all the TV sets in his house be turned off.
But the Nigerian media continue to buzz with the story of the moment. Television stations flash updates. Even radio disc jockeys talk about the war. Four national dailies delayed their presses by at least four hours in order to include the story on Thursday morning. Punch, This Day, the Guardian and the Daily Champion led with stories and pictures of the bombardment of Iraq. Since then, the war story continues to dominate the front pages. In their editorial pages, Nigerian newspapers don’t disguise their contempt for America’s arrogance and aggression.
The Guardian wrote that “the civilized world is shocked and perplexed that at this day and age, the unilateral and irresponsible use of power and brute force can happen,” while This Day said that “this war has proven that although America is strong in hard power of bombs and cruise missiles, it is indisputably a weakling in soft power of diplomacy and moral authority.”
The war is already sparking a diplomatic row between Nigeria and the United States. President Olusegun Obasanjo had teamed up with President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal to write letters to George W. Bush, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Saddam Hussein on the need to avert war. The US State Department reportedly expressed displeasure to President Obasanjo on the tone of the letter and asked him to join Wade, who withdrew his letter. Obasanjo, however, stood his ground.
On Friday the United States closed its embassy in Abuja and its consulate in Lagos and withdrew support for the Nigerian police because of what US officials here called “human rights abuses.” But Nigerian officials refused to be cowed. The minister of state for foreign affairs told the American ambassador that Nigeria is a sovereign nation entitled to its positions on global affairs. If the United States withdrew its support on account of this, Nigeria was not concerned. “So be it,” the minister said.