Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

June 10–17, 1999

pretzel logic

Amanda's Voice

by Howard Altman

"Last Saturday, we got democracy," says the woman from Nigeria matter-of-factly, in the same tone of voice as if she were talking about a new supermarket down the block.

Amanda Adichie is excited, really, about the prospect of no more military dictatorship. With good reason. Adichie remembers journalists and other dissenters tortured, killed and disappeared. All under the orders of Sani Abacha, the Clinton-endorsed despot who milked his country’s bank accounts while brutally suppressing anyone who questioned him.

Adichie is excited that on May 29, democracy once again was embraced in her land with the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as president. But she is not ready to celebrate just yet. Hence the half-hearted tone in her voice.

Adichie, now a 21-year-old communications student at Drexel University, has seen democracy come and go in her West African nation. She has seen OPEC’s fourth-largest oil producer struggle in rampant poverty and widespread hunger. So she has her doubts about this latest stab at democracy. And not just because Obasanjo used to be a military dictator.

"I think most Nigerians are resigned, prepared for the worst," says Adichie. "It breaks my heart when I look at my country. We have oil. We are the most populous nation in Africa. We are so smart. So proud. But we had dictators take all the money and put it in Swiss bank accounts."


Adichie, daughter of a noted university statistics professor, wants to go back to her country one day and shake things up.

"I want to go home and start a TV show and write," says Adichie, who is studying mass communications at Drexel to help her meet that goal. "I want to be a voice. A Nigerian voice."

Adichie is no stranger to shaking Nigerians up. She began with her parents, worrying them by publishing poetry in a church newsletter. Then she published Decisions, a book of poems about the need for change that garnered Nigeria-wide TV exposure.


"People stood there for hours in the hot sun, waiting to vote. That says something about their spirit."


"My dad would say, ‘Be careful. You are not too young to be put in jail,’" says Adichie. "People in Nigeria were reluctant to speak out. They were locked up or killed or disappeared."

Things have improved somewhat in Nigeria since Abacha’s death last year, says Adichie. But, as much as Adichie says she will miss Abacha’s terror, she does not know if life for the average Nigerian will be better under democracy. If it lasts.

"I can’t say I really believe that democracy will work," Adichie says skeptically. "When you know what Nigeria has been like you never know when a group of army generals will get together and do away with democracy. It has happened so many times."

Even if Obasanjo manages to keep the military at bay, Adichie says Nigerians cannot expect, or even hope for, a U.S.-style democracy with a Bill of Rights protecting individual freedoms.

"I believe in democracy," she says. "I believe in African democracy. We can’t practice a U.S.-style of democracy because of our past. We can’t afford the kind of freedom that is here."

In the United States, people "have so many rights," Adichie says. "Everyone has a right. Even a guy in prison has rights. That’s too much. Nigeria cannot handle that. We need something firmer. We are so used to a military government.

"I am idealistic," says Adichie. "But I am not stupid. Nigeria has to crawl before walking, then walk before flying. We can’t just fly away."

Though the concept of her becoming a voice of Nigeria still scares her parents, Adichie says that she is not as worried about her safety now.

"Before, I would worry that I would wind up disappeared," says Adichie. Her biggest concern now? "That people would not buy my book or come to my presentation because they don’t want to be seen as anti-government."


There is one aspect of democracy that Nigerians have mastered over Philadelphians hands down: voter fraud.

"In my village of less than 1,000 people, there were 10,000 votes," says Adichie of a phantom voting population that would make Philly’s most nefarious ward healers stew in envy.

No matter, she says. Even poll watcher Jimmy Carter admitted that Obasanjo would have won even without the fraud.

Still, for all the potential flaws in Nigeria’s latest fledgling democracy, at least people there care enough to vote.

"I was so proud to see the people come out," says Adichie. "The lines were so long. People waiting for hours in the hot sun, with no shade, nothing to shield them. They stood there for hours, waiting to vote. That says something about their spirit."

And something about our spirit as well, says Adichie.

"Americans with all their democracy do not even vote, though it is very convenient," she says.

Maybe that will change in November. Maybe more than 40 percent of registered voters will come out to choose a new mayor. Maybe there will even be lines.

Don’t count on it.

There is a better chance that democracy will thrive in Nigeria.

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