ABUJA – Nigerians like political theater, particularly if it is loud, colorful, and has a rich cast of “good” and “bad” characters. Such melodrama abounded from November 2009, when ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua was flown out of the country for treatment, until the just-concluded general elections, Nigeria ’s fourth since military rule ended in 1999. According to the official results, Goodluck Jonathan, who succeeded Yar’Adua upon his death and became the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, was sworn in as President on May 29.
Jonathan was the unlikeliest of candidates in Nigeria ’s take-no-prisoners presidential power game. He is an Ijaw, an ethnic minority in the South-South, one of Nigeria ’s six political regions, whereas the country’s governance had historically been dominated by the three largest ethnic groups – the Hausa-Fulani, found mainly in the North-West and North-East, the Igbo in the South-East, and the Yoruba in the South-West. Complex ethnic bargaining had made Jonathan Yar’Adua’s running mate in the fraudulent 2007 election.
Jonathan entered the election campaign fighting off powerful conservative northern politicians who insisted that the PDP’s informal agreement to rotate power periodically between north and south implied that their region was entitled to five years more in office. After all, they argued, Olusegun Obasanjo, Yar’Adua’s predecessor from the largely Christian south, had wielded presidential power for eight uninterrupted years.
But an often-unacknowledged feature of Nigerian politics is that citizens usually back underdogs. The PDP, which had been in power since 1999 and had failed to tackle the country’s pressing economic and political problems, was not a favorite at the polls. Moreover, the consensus countrywide was that the revamped Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), under the leadership of Attahiru Jega, a respected university teacher, would help cut the PDP down to size by ensuring free and fair elections at long last.
In the legislative elections on April 9, the presidential contest on April 16, and state elections ten days later, the PDP’s dominance was indeed reduced. But its losses were not significant enough to enable any of the four main opposition parties – the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), or the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) – to take its place. The PDP is still in firm control of the central and state legislatures, and has retained the majority of the state governorships.
Jonathan not only won a popular majority in the presidential contest, beating Muhammadu Buhari of the CPC, who enjoyed broad support in the north; he also fulfilled the additional constitutional requirement of gaining one-quarter of the votes in two-thirds of the 36 states.
Some local journalists and civil-society groups are challenging the credibility of some of the results, and the CPC is challenging the outcome of the presidential vote at the INEC. But there is no doubt that the image of Jonathan as a political underdog, harried by “bad guys” within and outside his party, played a role in improving the PDP’s fortunes.
Nigeria’s main challenge now is to maintain peace and unity between the country’s fractious ethnic groups while implementing policy, political, and constitutional reforms aimed at quickening the pace of democratization, delivering shared prosperity, and firmly binding Nigeria ’s constituent parts into a “more perfect union.” Biafra ’s attempted secession in 1967, and the subsequent civil war in which millions died, was triggered by rigged elections, massive official corruption, and the cynical use of ethnicity to achieve political ends. The PDP has re-introduced all of these practices since taking power, with the backing of the retreating generals, in 1999.
Not surprisingly, secessionist sentiment remains strong. The Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), a youth-led militia in the Igbo region that campaigns for the peaceful dissolution of Nigeria , emerged in late 1999, shortly after Obasanjo, an ethnic Yoruba, took office. MASSOB, rightly aggrieved that no real effort has been made by successive Nigerian leaders to tackle the Igbo region’s economic and political problems, is still challenging the central government’s authority in the region.
The political violence that engulfed several northern states after Buhari’s defeat is part of an emerging trend: narrow ethnic and religious sentiment, fed by feelings of perceived political marginalization and deepening poverty, is increasingly displacing the civic consciousness and active citizen participation that democratic politics should nurture.
Buhari polled strongly in his home region, and Jonathan did well in southern Nigeria , creating the impression that the country’s dormant fissures are about to erupt. Even so, the violence, driven by impoverished northern youth, first targeted the region’s own idle and self-serving rich before degenerating into tit-for-tat attacks between northern Muslims and their Christian counterparts. Nor did the violence find purchase in the central North, nominally a part of the “greater” North, whose leaders are now pursuing an independent political project.
The far-North, some of whose leaders responded, like MASSOB, to Obasanjo’s ascendancy in 1999 by embracing Islamic Sharia law, also needs to be watched carefully. Indeed, The Economist drew attention recently to the region’s volatility, with militancy on the rise among the young and attacks on civilians and security forces increasingly common.
Growing calls by southern political leaders for “true federalism,” if implemented, would significantly reduce the North’s share of the country’s oil revenues, further destabilizing the country unless Jonathan pursues it in a bipartisan and disinterested manner. Meanwhile, restive armed youth in the oil-producing delta, Jonathan’s native region, are waiting to see what dividends “our son” will bring to his long-neglected home.
On the face of it, there is little reason to expect that another four years of incompetent PDP rule will make Nigeria a more stable and prosperous federal state. Still, the fact that the post-presidential-election violence was contained, and that the opposition, particularly in the ACN-led Yoruba South-West, is now finding its feet, amounts to a sliver of hope. Nations, like democratic politics, take time to form and consolidate. Perhaps Nigeria ’s just-concluded elections gained for it a small slice of that better future.
Ike Okonta, an Abuja-based policy analyst and writer, is currently a fellow of the Open Society Institute, New York .
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.