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Nigerians brace for elections amid north-south rift and Boko Haram

'Africa's Giant' may face its most volatile period since civil war in the 1960s, as a united opposition bloc challenges for power. Can wise leaders carry off free and fair elections next February?

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    Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan attends the Africa Union Peace and Security Council Summit on Terrorism at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi, Sept. 2.
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Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and largest economy. Yet the nation known as “Africa’s Giant” has only a brief democratic history and a host of serious rifts, ranging from a bloody insurgency to corruption and deep divisions between a poorer Muslim north and a richer Christian south.

So Nigeria’s elections early next year are already building into its most hotly contested, with a united opposition challenging President Goodluck Jonathan's ruling party. 

Current dynamics could push Nigeria into its most volatile moment since a civil war in the late 1960s. However, optimists say that carrying off free and fair elections could help build a more mature democracy.

“The security environment in Nigeria is likely to deteriorate in connection with the elections due to an increased risk of terrorism, political tensions and localized electoral violence,” warns Thomas Hansen, a senior analyst for Africa at Control Risks, a UK-based security-consulting firm. 

Unlike the 1960s, when Nigeria was a fragile newly-independent state, instability in 2015 could shake Africa and shock the world economy. The country boasts the continent’s largest oil output, mostly in the south, and previous conflicts there have raised oil prices worldwide. The extremist group Boko Haram is grabbing land in the chaotic northeast, conducting attacks in neighboring countries, intensifying religious tensions, and draining national resources.

Nigeria’s economy is already in turmoil with enormous oil wealth in a place where most people live in abject poverty, says E.J. Hogendoorn at the International Crisis Group in Washington, who adds that a serious crisis would ripple outwards. “Large scale civil strife would decimate the economy of the entire region,” he says.

To be sure, civil war is not a “likely scenario,” Mr. Hansen argues, since Nigeria’s elites have an interest in keeping the oil flowing and the nation muddling through. But tensions between the north and south are already intensifying and no one is quite sure how bad it will get.

'One good term deserves another'

Technically, no one is yet campaigning for the 2015 elections. But already Nigerian parks and public spaces are filling with posters and banners for what could be the country's first real contest since the restoration of democracy in 1999. 

In Abuja where President Jonathan is in power, signs say things like “One good term deserves another” and show pictures of the president looking pensive or grinning under his signature hat.

On the other side of the political ledger, opposition groups that once competed with each other have joined forces to form the All Progressive Congress. That party will challenge the ruling People’s Democratic Party that has been in power for the past 14 years.

If the new combined opposition party chooses a single candidate it has a chance of defeating the ruling party, according to University of Abuja political science lecturer Abubakar Umar Kari.

Yet with potential candidates long regarded as powerful “Big Men” in their backyards, they may not stick with the party if not chosen. “It’s not clear if they lose the primaries [whether they] leave the party or help the party,” Dr. Kari says.

The All Progressive Congress candidates list in coming primaries is not settled. But former military head of state General Muhammadu Buhari and current governor of Kano State, Rabi'u Musa Kwankwaso, are expected to contest. In early September, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar announced plans to run.

North-south divide

While there is overlap, the two rival blocs roughly represent northern and southern leadership, with the ruling party under the southern-based Jonathan and the opposition led by northerners.

Tensions between the north and the south in Nigeria are old and complex. After the 2011 elections riots broke out in the so-called “Middle Belt” between the two. Some 1,000 people were killed in clashes between Muslims who generally support northern leadership and Christians who generally support southern leadership.

The founders of Nigeria’s democracy saw this coming and arranged what they called a “gentlemen’s agreement” in which power and the presidency would rotate between north and south every eight years. 

The arrangement broke down after northern president Umaru Yar'Adua died in office in 2010, leaving then Vice President Jonathan from the south in charge. As a result, northerners have only held the presidency for three of the last 15 years. 

Northerners blame southern politicians for neglecting their region, while southerners complain the northern elites take oil profits from the south, bank them, and leave ordinary people in the north impoverished.

Here in the Middle Belt, many say that 2015 will be a bloodbath no matter who wins, according to Hafsat Baba, a local opposition politician in the city of Kaduna.

But the election, she says, must go forward despite the danger of violence. “The government, we are holding them accountable,” she says. “They must conduct free, fair and credible elections. That is what they promised us and that is what we are looking for.”

Emergency rule

Three northern states have been under emergency rule for more than a year even as the Boko Haram insurgency continues to grow. Thousands have been killed and hundreds are missing this year alone. It's unclear if free elections can take place in war zones, with the risk of even deeper tension over northern representation in the political process. 

In the south, Nigeria is losing as much as $1 billion a month to oil theft, and Nigerian oil elites are accused of paying tens of thousands of former militants not to fight.

Transparency International ranks Nigeria as the 33rd  most corrupt country in the world. The situation angers ordinary Nigerians and creates pervasive distrust – and public discontent is the most dangerous issue in the 2015 election, says Kari, the lecturer. The result is "an army of youths who are jobless, illiterate, poor and who have nothing to lose.”

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