Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has ended months of speculation and confirmed he will contest January’s elections. By announcing his decision via Facebook, Jonathan is sending a message to Nigeria’s media that he will go around them, if he thinks by speaking directly he can get a fairer deal.
Jonathan is the first Nigerian president from the country’s oil-rich Delta region. He took office because of the death of his predecessor. He’s been dismissed as a caretaker by Nigerian heavyweights. While he may lack the political machinery of such past presidents as Olusegun Obasanjo, Jonathan is perhaps in the right place at the right time. The unrest in the Delta might be reason enough for voters to elect Jonathan, a reform-minded native of the region.
Nigeria’s elections are in January. Jonathan might help his cause greatly by moving to reduce tensions in the Delta. His failure to do so during the few months left in his term might help to persuade voters that he is not deserving of re-election. The best indication of his chances will come in late October when the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chooses its own presidential candidate. The party, which came to power under Obasanjo, suffered a big setback when his handpicked successor, Yar’Adua, a northerner and a Muslim, died in office. Jonathan is a southerner and a Christian.
The religious divide in Nigeria appears to be growing. Muslims in the north appear more open to fundamentalist messages. The radical Boko Haram group this month successfully led a prison break in northern Nigeria, freeing jailed members. Despite the murder of Boko Haram’s chief last year, the group appears to remain a force in the region. In the Kaduna and Plateau states, meanwhile, Muslim extremists have murdered Christians, with disputes over land and resources often taking the form of religious violence.
Christians in Nigeria’s densely-populated southern cities, meanwhile, are themselves subject to waves of religious extremism, often igniting Muslim backlash with their own militant assertions of Christian superiority.
The space for religious tolerance in Nigeria – never large – seems to have narrowed in recent years, fueled partly by a zealous Christianity that seeks to roll back ordinary intimacies between Christians and Muslims that have long been a part of Nigerian society.
Eliza Griswold’s new book, The Tenth Parallel, offers fresh documentation on the sources of the religious divide in Nigeria; the book includes the reportage that appeared in her important Atlantic monthly article of 2008 on Muslim-Christian contention in the country (a subject which remains relatively ignored by the world media). Yet Nigeria is the largest country in the world – and the only one of any size – where Muslims and Christians are roughly equal in the population. Which makes Nigeria a kind of living laboratory experiment for the possibility of Muslim-Christian understanding.
Such understanding is of course possible — and has even existed in Nigeria for centuries. Two of my own wife’s sisters have married Muslim men, though they are Christian. Inter-marriage is often a misleading path towards the elusive goal of religious tolerance. Yet my personal point highlights that the interaction between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria is deep and profound.
In next year’s presidential election, the religious orientation of the candidates is sure to become a major issue in the minds of voters. By past practice, Muslims can rightly say that it is their turn to hold the presidency. In the logic of Nigeria, they are most likely correct. The cost – in terms of civil unrest – of a Christian presidency is simply too high, unless some new factors come into play.