Divided nation

Published : Apr 23, 2010 00:00 IST

On March 8, at the funeral for victims of communal attacks, near Jos city in Plateau State.-AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE/REUTERS

On March 8, at the funeral for victims of communal attacks, near Jos city in Plateau State.-AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE/REUTERS

Nigeria, Africas most populous nation, is going through one of its periodic bouts of communal bloodletting and political instability. The Vice-President, Goodluck Jonathan, was formally named as the acting President by the countrys Parliament owing to the prolonged absence without leave of the elected President, Umaru YarAdua.

YarAdua had gone to Saudi Arabia in November 2009 for treatment of undisclosed ailments. Even before assuming the presidency three years ago he had a history of heart- and kidney-related ailments. YarAdua, who hails from the predominantly Muslim north of the country, did not bother to nominate his Vice-President, who comes from the mainly Christian south, to take over his duties when he left for Saudi Arabia. The Cabinet, Parliament and the country were not taken into confidence about the Presidents medical condition. There was a virtual constitutional vacuum at the top, with close political associates of YarAdua running the government on his behalf for the last couple of months.

The Vice-President became a virtual bystander despite a constitutional provision that requires him to step in if the President is incapacitated or unable to fulfil the obligations of his office. During Yar Aduas prolonged absence, there were serious incidents of violence in the country. The situation in the volatile Niger delta, which produces most of the countrys oil, was threatening to once again get out of hand.

The city of Jos in central Nigeria witnessed two horrific incidents early this year. More than 1,000 people were killed in clashes between Muslim and Christian groups. The fight was mainly over land and the diminishing resources. A prolonged drought has forced nomadic Fulani herdsmen to graze their cattle in areas inhabited by ethnic groups that have embraced Christianity. This led to tensions. The city itself is divided along communal lines. The chiefly Hausa-speaking Muslims from the north, who had settled in the city from colonial times, felt discriminated against. They were classified as outsiders by the State government.

Jos, the capital of Plateau State, gets its name from an abbreviation of the words Jesus our Saviour. It is situated on the line dividing the Christian south and the Muslim north. In the riots in January, it was the Muslim population that bore the brunt of the casualties as mosques and shops were torched. In March, in what was evidently a retaliatory attack, Christian houses were targeted in the night. As many as 500 people, including women and children, died in the massacre. Another 200 were injured seriously. The attack took place despite the city and the areas surrounding it being under a curfew.

The authorities were caught napping despite the citys terrible legacy of internecine violence. When this correspondent was in Jos in the mid-1980s, the city was the pride of Nigeria. The tin-producing centre is blessed with a salubrious climate. Christians and Muslims coexisted amicably. The polarisation along religious lines began manifesting itself in the 1990s.

The riots in 1994 were the first communal clashes in the city. The trouble that erupted in September 2001 was more serious as it had acquired a more overt religious colour. The bloodletting went on uninterrupted for four days. In November 2008, large-scale violence erupted after a disputed election, consuming a large number of lives and destroying property. The spark that started the January killings was the attempt by one of the victims of the 2008 riots to rebuild his house.

Thousands more have died in the last 10 years in different parts of Nigeria as a result of communal violence. After the recent carnage in Jos, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who is known for his outspokenness, said that the time had come for Nigeria to be divided into a Christian south and a Muslim north. Nigeria was quick to recall its Ambassador from Libya because of the irresponsible utterances of the Libyan leader. Last year Gaddafi had called for the dismantling of Switzerland, which he described as a money-laundering hub.

Even before the latest communal carnage, the government had come in for strong criticism from the opposition and citizens groups for inaction. There were demonstrations in many cities demanding that YarAdua either show up for work or resign. There were calls for Jonathan to step in and steer the ship of state. Some of the constructive initiatives taken by YarAdua before his absence are threatening to unravel. The most important among these is the initiative to end the rebellion in the oil-rich Niger delta region.

The rebels in the delta, finding that they had no one to talk to at the federal level after the President went incommunicado from November last year, threatened to launch another uprising. They complained that the benefits YarAdua had promised, which included massive infrastructure development in the region and payments for demobilised fighters, had not materialised. The Nigerian economy is almost totally dependent on the oil pumped from the Niger delta. Last year, following stepped-up attacks by militants on oil facilities, Nigerian oil production went down substantially. The country was overtaken by Angola as the top oil producer in the continent.

By the beginning of the year, senior Cabinet Ministers also started demanding speedy action to end the political and constitutional crisis. Dora Akunyili, Nigerias Minister of Information, told the Cabinet that it would be better for the country if YarAdua formally stepped down, noting that important legislation and appointments to key bureaucratic posts had been stalled because of the prolonged absence of the President. He said that the looming crisis was a threat to democracy in the country.

There were reports that some sections of the armed forces were toying with the idea of once again meddling in politics. Senior Army officers, however, have given public assurances that there will not be any military intervention and have restricted troop movements.

The military in Nigeria has been alternately in power with civilians since independence in 1960. The military ceded power only in the late 1990s, that too reluctantly, after seizing it from an elected government in 1983. The last civilian President, General Olusegun Obasanjo, had a military background. He was in fact the military ruler of Nigeria during 1976-79 and had voluntarily ceded power.

President YarAduas elder brother, Gen. Shehu Musa YarAdua, was the Vice-President at the time. He died of a heart attack in prison in 1997. He was arrested after he demanded the restoration of democracy during the draconian rule of Gen. Sani Abacha. Many believe that if not for his early death he would have gone on to become President. His son, Murtala, has been drafted into the new Cabinet announced by Jonathan.

The reluctance of those around YarAdua to allow the Vice-President to officiate as President could also be due to his perceived inexperience. Jonathan was not a major political figure before his selection as a running mate of YarAduas in the last general elections. He was a late entrant to politics. His first important political assignment was that of Governor of Bayesla, his home State in 1999. He was elevated to the post after the elected Governor was impeached for corruption. He was selected to run as YarAduas running mate by Obasanjo. As Vice-President, he maintained a low profile. However, he has been credited with playing an important role in bringing about a tenuous ceasefire with the Niger delta rebels.

The unwritten law in Nigerian politics is that power rotates between the north and the south. The last President, Obasanjo, was from the south and served two four-year terms in office. It was expected that YarAdua would also do the same. But things did not go according to the script after YarAdua fell seriously ill last year. Even before that, various illnesses had forced the 58-year-old President to curtail his working hours to a bare minimum. He has remained incommunicado since his equally abrupt return to Nigeria in the last week of February. Even his close political associates have been denied access to him. The last time Nigerians heard their President speaking was in a brief interview given to the BBC in January when he promised to come back and resume his duties.

A powerful coterie around the YarAdua family did not want Jonathan, who hails from the Niger delta, even to act as a caretaker President. General elections are due next year. After he was appointed President, many northern politicians are saying that they have been short-changed as a Christian leader from the south has taken the top job even before their leader could complete his term. YarAduas supporters organised a few meetings in support of their leader. But the Presidents inability to resurface in public has taken the fizz out of their campaign.

To assuage the influential northern Nigerian politicians, the chairman of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has clarified that the acting President would not be a nominee for the top job in the coming elections. This could be an assurance that the candidate would be someone acceptable to the Hausa-Fulani-dominated north. Jonathan started his tenure by sacking the influential National Security Adviser, Maj. Gen. Sarki Mukhtiar, and replacing him with Lt. Gen. Aliyu Gusau. Mukhtiar was close to YarAdua. He also sacked the Attorney-General, Michael Aondoakaa. The official had argued that YarAdua had the power under the constitution to rule from his hospital bed. His next step was to dissolve the Cabinet. In the last week of March, he reappointed 18 of the Ministers, most of them his supporters.

Ruling a fractious nation like Nigeria even for a year is going to be a tough challenge for Goodluck Jonathan. The joke in Nigeria is that he will need not only good luck but also a lot of patience. His wifes name is Patience.

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