Nigeria: cut across the middle?

The Muslim North votes one way and the mainly Christian South another.  Could Nigeria degenerate into civil war?

Tyre burning, rioting and "Only Buhari" slogans in Kaduna and Kano in Northern Nigeria as the BBC reports Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani Muslim from the North lost in the presidential vote to Goodluck Jonathan, a Southern Christian, by a two-to-one margin. 

Cobbled together by the British, Nigeria has always been prone to ethnic and religious divisions.  The South Sudan News Agency reported Chad's President Idriss Deby saying in April 2010 before the Sudanese secession referendum: "We all have a north and south, part Muslim and part Christian. If we accept the disintegration of the Sudan, how do we confront attempts to break the other countries?"

But Sudan split, and the South has gone its own way.

In the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo from the Christian South refused to accept the result of the presidential race last year when Alassane Ouattara from the predominately Muslim North of the country won by a margin.  Although now captured, Gbabgo's defeat is unlikely to be accepted by a majority of Akan southerners.  Ouattara will struggle to re-unite a country which was consumed for a time after 2002 in a nation-splitting civil war.

Nigeria survived the horrific war during the 1967-70 Biafra secession by the Igbo people in the south-east.  But ethnic and religious tensions resurface from time to time.  The imposition of Sharia law in several Northern Nigerian states has caused considerable discomfort to Christian residents.  And churches have been burnt, people murdered, and property destroyed.  Usually these fires have been stamped out swiftly.  But could the failure of Buhari to win - in a country with the unwritten convention that the presidency should alternate between Christian and Muslim - ignite such passions in the North that civil war erupts?  Jonathan was the candidate of the ruling PDP, which has dominated Nigerian politics since the return to democracy in 1999. 

I think it's unlikely that tempers could fray to such a level that a nation-dividing war starts.  But as a Kano-based contributor to a BBC news debate commented, "Elections were peaceful in Kano but money politics have played a significant role, with allegations from some quarters that the ruling PDP allocated three billion Niara to Kano alone in order to woo voters.   In Bichi, north of Kano city, there have been reports of two vehicles carrying ballot papers already thumb printed for the PDP, being burnt to ashes."

In Nigeria, despite the most democratic, expensive and fair elections for over a decade, corruption and ballot-rigging surfaces, it seems.

If the Northerners feel betrayed by the democratic process, these riots could escalate.  The Economist, and much of the media, have portrayed Jonathan as a reformer intent on stamping out corruption, distributing wealth and cementing democracy.  Nigeria will need all three if it is to realise its potential as a global economic powerhouse.  With oil, an abundance of entrepreneurial talent, around 155 million people and a rapidly returning educated diaspora, it has the capability.

Yet the question remains, can it remain peaceful as it carves out its future?  Good luck to Goodluck, who'll need it.  He's called for calm.  Let's hope the North heeds him.  The Kaduna home of Namadi Sambo, Jonathan's Vice President, has been torched.  As have numerous houses displaying Goodluck Jonathan posters.  Shots have been fired, churches set alight once again and some sixteen thousand people across the North have fled to safer districts.  

A fascinating map of Nigeria on the BBC news site aptly demonstrates the divisions between North and South, not merely in wealth terms but also in literacy, ethnicity and access to health facilities.  The North is desperately poor, and it seems the past procession of Northerners to hold the office of president have done nothing to alleviate that.

Religion in some parts of Nigeria is less attached to ethnicity.  The Yoruba, for example, are animist, Muslim and Christian.  And sometimes in families, siblings can adhere to one belief or another withour rancour.  So if there were to be war it would be less likely to be driven by religious divisions than by economic ones.

Perhaps Goodluck Jonathan, a Southerner with reformist zeal, can now deliver economic, educational and social advances to the entire population.  Rather than the priveledged few in the South (and very occasional family up North) as has been the case until now.  

But only if peace prevails and the country holds together.

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