Ethnicity and religion inflame Nigerian politics

Three politicians have been killed recently in the run-up to next month's national elections.

Presidential hopeful Emeka Ojukwu arrived for his opening campaign rally waving from the open roof of a black car barely visible through a jubilant crowd of thousands.

Police officers had to beat the supporters back with whips and truncheons as the candidate approached the stage. "They will literally mob him," noted one bystander.

This enthusiastic response is not one the controversial candidate would likely get in other parts of Nigeria. Mr. Ojukwu is best known for his involvement in a secessionist war in the 1960s that left 1 million or more people dead.

But the magnitude of his appeal here is a revealing indicator of the challenge facing the winner of next month's presidential election: uniting disparate segments of a culture whose religious and ethnic diversity has long been exploited by opportunistic politicians, often with violent results. Some observers fear that the candidates in the election, or their supporters, could tap these undercurrents, exacerbating the existing unease and threatening the stability of the country's precarious federalist structure.

"There is a definite risk," says Beko Ransome-Kuti, a leading human rights campaigner. "It's not unexpected, because of the experiences we have been through."

Indeed, just last week, a high-ranking member of All Nigeria People's Party, the country's main opposition party, was shot in his home, the third politician killed in the past month. No one has been arrested for the murders.

Ojukwu's party, the All Progressives Grand Alliance, says it wants to close divisions that date back to 1914, when British colonialists fused the northern and southern halves of Nigeria into one country. A civil war, fought from 1967 to 1970, was the result of a horrific power struggle between the poor but populous north, and the south, where the country's oil wealth is located.

In the January issue of The Rooster, an Alliance party newsletter, Ojukwu attacked the continued "misgovernment" of the nation and said he does not "seek to rule but to heal" Nigeria's troubled polity.

Ojukwu's rhetoric is less confrontational than that of party supporters among the Ibo ethnic group that dominates in the east. Many Ibo speak of long-standing discrimination at an official level. The Ibo, along with the Yoruba of the west and the Hausa-Fulani of the north, are thought to account for more than half of Nigeria's estimated population of 120 million.

"We are not physically fighting, but the effect of the [civil] war is going administratively and politically against us," says Christian Obiesie, a preacher. "Employment, contracts, business - we are being suppressed."

Candidates' stump speeches are full of regional and religious rhetoric. At his January rally, Ojukwu spoke only in Ibo, even though other speakers used English. The candidate, educated at the Oxford University in England, reverted to his soft-spoken and precise English only later, during an interview with foreign reporters.

Alliance officials style their organization as "God's own party," an unsurprising sentiment in a country where religion plays a central role in public life. But the use of religion and ethnicity have been politically exploited since the return of civilian rule in 1999 after 15 years of military rule. As many as 10,000 people have been killed in riots with a sectarian dimension.

The spread of a severe form of Islamic law, called sharia, across the north over the past few years has contributed to appalling violence, including more than 200 deaths that drove the Miss World beauty contest out of the country late last year.

Newspapers define President Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari, the two main presidential candidates, less in terms of political positions than by their origins and ways of life. Mr. Obasanjo is a Christian southerner, while Mr. Buhari is a Muslim from the north.

Buhari accused Obasanjo's party of being behind last week's murder of Marshall Harry, a top official in Buhari's party. Obasanjo vehemently denied the accusation.

"It is the tragedy of our country that people don't think their citizenship can find full expression until one of their own is in charge," noted Bolaji Abdullahi in a column for the daily newspaper ThisDay.

The appeal of politics based on ethnicity and religion is seen by many as rooted in the enormous deprivation here. Most Ibo, Yoruba, and Hausa youths live in poverty that the International Monetary Fund says keeps getting worse despite earnings from oil totaling well over $250 billion since independence in 1960.

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