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Nigeria: tottering on the tip of anarchy

Nigeria's "inexplicable capacity to totter on the tip of anarchy, but fall back into an unexpected order of sorts" is being tested in the run-up to elections
Caroline Wells
22 January 2011

On Tuesday 13 Jan. a Christian mob razed a mosque to the ground. They also killed an electoral worker and set his body alight in a bid to bar Muslim organisers from an electoral registration exercise in Jos, Nigeria. Two members of the mob were shot dead as soldiers protecting the electoral team opened fire on ‘shoot to kill’ orders as the group hurled stones. The killings are the latest in a surge of attacks as Nigerians work to register 70 million eligible voters ahead of the crucial general election in April.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous state, is a patchwork of more than 200 ethnic groups roughly divided equally between Christians and Muslims. Jos, in the mid-Nigerian Plateau state, sits in the Middle Belt, the country’s chief political fault line where the two faiths intersect. Clashes in the region have been attributed to the struggle for economic and political power between Christian and Muslim ethnic groups. Some 80% of Nigeria’s GDP flows through the state and local government system, so local elites will often resort to provoking ethnic or religious hatreds to counter political opposition. More than 2000 people have been killed in communal violence in Plateau state since 2001.

Recognising the potential dangers in the ethnic and religiously divided state, the Nigerian elites have long sought to exclude religion and ethnicity from Presidential politics. Informal arrangements at the national level known as ‘zoning’ have sought to balance power-sharing, shifting the governing party nominee for the president between the Christian South and the Muslim North every eight years. That the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the South, is standing for the Presidency this coming April has caused concern. The arrangement, which for the past decade has shared out the spoils of the oil-rich state, has been disrupted.

Jonathan became President by default in May 2010, ushered in to fill a vacuum following the death of Northerner Umaru Yar’Adua after only one term in office. He has now defeated his Northern opponent Atiku Abubakar winning 77% of the vote in Primaries held on 14 January and, as leader of the People’s Democratic Party (the PDP), can expect the party to use its political connections, money and muscle to propel him to victory. Such is the power of the PDP party that its leader has, since the end of military control more than a decade ago, always gone on to rule.

The danger remains that the North will regard a victory for the incumbent Southerner as the South having stolen the election. The majority Muslim region fears that a southerner in power will not meet the needs of the North, and are angered that they will not be able to fulfil their ‘rightful’ second term. At the Primaries Abubakar accused Jonathan of ripping up the rule-book and inviting ‘lawlessness and anarchy’ with his decision to stand for leadership of the party. Nigerian elites are fragmenting under the current political impasse. Campaigning is likely to generate significant public excitement, but should the fragmenting Nigerian elites appeal to religious and ethnic sentiments, they are in danger of igniting a tinder-box of rivalries that have simmered while zoning has remained in place. Commentators have also cited fears that Muslims in the North will turn to extremism should the government disregard their interests. The International Crisis Group has noted with concern the rise of radical Islamist sect Boko Haram, which sparked off the latest wave of violence on Christmas eve with bombings in the capital Abuja and fire bombings of churches in the north of the country.

Given the potentially explosive state of affairs, it is crucial that the forthcoming election is credible, but Nigeria’s electoral record is not promising. While civilian elections were held in 1999, 2003 and 2007, each was worse than its predecessor regarding transparency and standards of free and fair conduct with voting in 2007 the most poorly organised and massively rigged in the country’s history.

‘This election is one of the most important in Nigeria’s struggle to consolidate its fledgling democracy’ Dapo Oyewole, of the Centre for African Policy and Peace Strategy told Reuters. Jonathan has appointed Attahiru Jega to oversee the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), a respected academic who seems committed to pre-election preparations. But in a huge country with deteriorating infrastructure, a tentative amnesty with delta militants (who until recently attacked foreign oil companies’ pipelines and kidnapped their staff) and now stirrings of religious and ethnic sentiment, the challenges are enormous.

The situation ‘could lead to widespread violence serious enough to challenge an already very weak state’ argues John Campbell at the Council for Foreign Relations, ‘that scenario raises the potential for intervention by the military to “save the state”’. On the other hand the country has weathered numerous storms in its transition from military to democratic rule: few on the ground expect the country to tumble into chaos. ‘Nigeria has this inexplicable capacity to totter on the tip of anarchy, but fall back into an unexpected order of sorts’ stressed Oyewole, tempering concerns over the forthcoming months. ‘It’s a country where everything and anything can happen.’

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