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State of strife

Published : May 20, 2011 00:00 IST


Goodluck Jonathan after being officially declared the winner, in Abuja on April 19.-FELIX ONIGBINDE/AP

Goodluck Jonathan after being officially declared the winner, in Abuja on April 19.-FELIX ONIGBINDE/AP

Goodluck Jonathan, from southern Nigeria, wins another four-year term, but bloody clashes follow his re-election.

THE month-long elections held in Nigeria to the posts of President and State Governors and to Parliament were generally hailed as the most peaceful in the country's history. Incidents of violence and attempted booth-capturing were reported. The elections held four years ago were marred by widespread vote-rigging and mismanagement. President Goodluck Jonathan had promised the Nigerian people and the international community that this time around the elections would be transparent and clean. Despite some initial hiccups, which included the postponement of the parliamentary elections by a week because of the non-arrival of ballot papers in the capital, Abuja, the democratic process was given the thumbs up by the international observer groups that were present in strength in the country, Africa's most populous.

But things have taken a bloody turn after the result of the presidential election was declared. Jonathan, a Christian from the south of the country, won a decisive victory, polling more than 57 per cent of the votes, over his closest rival, Muhamaddu Buhari, a former military man who was briefly President in the mid-1980s. General Buhari got only 31 per cent of the votes. The rest of the votes were divided among other candidates. Jonathan polled heavily in the southern, Christian-dominated States. In his native Delta region, Nigeria's oil-producing area, the turnout was over 80 per cent, giving the incumbent President a huge majority. In the southern States, Jonathan got more than 90 per cent of the votes polled. In Abwa-Ikom State, his home base, his vote share was cent per cent.

In the Muslim-dominated north of the country, the turnout was much lower. Although Buhari swept the polls in the north, that did not boost his overall tally significantly. Buhari and his party, the Congress for Progressive Change, were quick to allege fraud despite the endorsement of the elections as clean by international observers. Days after the announcement of the election results, northern Nigeria erupted in flames.

By the end of the third week of April, more than 200 people were killed in the cities of Kano and Kaduna. Houses and shops owned by southerners and places of worship were randomly attacked. In recent years, Nigeria, which has a population of 150 million, has been routinely wracked by communal and sectarian strife. Radical Islam has struck root in the northern part of the country, while evangelical Christianity is fast displacing the traditional churches in the south. A radical Islamist group called the Boko Haram has been held responsible for many acts of terror in the past year and a half. In the central Nigerian city of Jos, a melting pot of Muslims and Christians, communal riots have increased in frequency in the past decade and claimed hundreds of lives.

In the eyes of many northern Nigerian politicians, Jonathan broke the unwritten understanding that the presidency should rotate every eight years between the north and the south. According to them, a candidate from the north should have been the candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP). They view Jonathan as an accidental politician. He was picked up from virtual obscurity to be the running mate of Umaru Yar'Adua, who won the presidency in the 2007 elections. A WikiLeaks report quoted an American diplomat as saying that Jonathan had an underwhelming personality. WikiLeaks also quoted a Nigerian Governor as claiming that Jonathan voted four times in the much maligned 2007 elections when he was the candidate for Vice-President.

Buhari carved out a niche for himself in Nigerian politics when he presided over a military government. At that time, he launched a war against corruption. Unlike previous military rulers, Buhari is not known to have enriched himself at the expense of the country's exchequer. Another presidential hopeful, the anti-corruption crusader Nuhur Ribadu, who had taken on the previous government and exposed high-level corruption, won only around 5 per cent of the votes.

The Nigerian people, despite being mired in poverty, seem to have taken corruption among their politicians for granted. A significant chunk of Nigeria's huge oil revenues has since independence found its way into the pockets of politicians, the military and bureaucrats. Unemployment is rife. The majority of the people are under 35, and most of them live on less than $1 a day. Nigeria has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. It ranks 88 out of 108 countries listed in the United Nations human development scale. Nigeria pumps out oil worth $2.2 million a day, yet many parts of the country are bereft of basic educational or medical infrastructure. Since independence, the country has had a serious shortfall in electricity supply. The promise of a proper electricity grid was, in fact, Jonathan's main poll plank.

Four years ago, he would not have dreamt of becoming the first Ijaw (his ethnic group) from the Delta region to hold the country's highest office. Even when President Yar'Adua became incapacitated soon after taking over the presidency, Jonathan was not given any meaningful role. It was only last year, when Yar'Adua was on his deathbed, that Jonathan was allowed to exercise the powers of the President. After Yar'Adua's death in May, Jonathan formally assumed the presidency. Many in his party had expected him to make way for a politician from the north in deference to the unwritten rule in Nigerian politics. Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian from the south, was in power for two terms before Yar'Adua. (As a concession to the political heavyweights from the north, Jonathan has pledged not to run again after his new term ends four years from now.)

Once in power, Jonathan did not waste much time in consolidating his hold over his party. The burgeoning price of oil in the international market had filled up the government's coffers. (Around $150 million from the government's surplus oil revenues was unaccounted for in recent months.) President Jonathan was in a position to dole out many favours to the regional satraps and power brokers of the PDP. He easily won his party's endorsement in the primaries to run for the presidency. In the run-up to the elections, all opinion polls pointed to a sweeping victory for Jonathan and the PDP. Therefore, the election results should not have come as a surprise for the opposition. But the highly polarised nature of Nigerian politics seems to have ensured a new conflagration, something the country cannot afford. Nigeria is already battling a serious insurgency in the Delta region, where the indigenous people have been demanding a greater slice of the country's oil wealth, along with autonomy. Nigeria was among the first independent African countries to witness a long and bloody civil war: the Biafra war (1966-70), fought when the south attempted to secede, left more than a million dead. Jonathan said that the post-election violence brought back memories of that war.

Buhari took his own time to condemn the riots that have swept across the States of Katsina, Kaduna and Zamfara. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Buhari initially stated that the people had just reacted to the results and that he was not aware of the other factors that ignited the widespread violence. He has now issued a statement calling on people to desist from violence, especially the burning of churches and mosques. Needless to say, this act is worse than the rigging of elections, he said.

No one's political ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian, President Jonathan said in a statement immediately after the post-election riots broke out.

Buhari and his party keep harping on the rigging that they say marred the elections. What is being exhibited to the world is not collated from polling units but from the state headquarters where we believe a lot of manipulations had taken place, the party said in a statement. Buhari, who contested the 2003 and 2007 elections, had repeatedly stated that Nigerians would not accept the results of rigged elections this time around. He said that he would not personally challenge the results of the elections. All the same, his party has gone to court challenging them.

Jonathan had appointed a well-known, non-partisan figure, Attahiru Jega, to head the Independent National Electoral Commission. An open secret ballot system was adopted, which encouraged voters to register at polling booths on election day and remain outside until the counting was over. He also got the ballot papers printed outside Nigeria. The electoral rolls, according to reports, have only 15-20 per cent ghost voters. In the last elections, the majority of the votes cast for the ruling party were of dubious origin. Ballot boxes were stuffed with impunity.

With the international community wholeheartedly supporting the electoral outcome, President Jonathan is all set for another four years in office. The Nigerian military, which has a well-known propensity to stage coups, is for the moment solidly behind the civilian government. More importantly, the Obama administration and the big oil companies had indicated before the elections that Jonathan was their preferred candidate. A WikiLeaks cable said that the Shell oil company had penetrated every level of government and that oil from the Delta region was stolen by gangs financed by politicians rather than the rebels fighting there. United States Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson, who was in Nigeria when the election results were announced, was quick to congratulate Jonathan and the Independent National Electoral Commission.

The Obama administration wants Nigeria to play a more robust role as the regional peacekeeper in coordination with AFRICOM (the United States Africa Command). Though Nigeria remains opposed to the establishment of U.S. military bases on the continent, it remains receptive to the idea of cooperation with Washington in so-called counterterrorism missions. Only five African countries have been resolutely opposing AFRICOM. One of them is Libya.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 20, 2011.)



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