By John Campbell
The breakdown of an elite power-sharing agreement in the run-up to the Nigeria’s 2011 presidential elections increases the risk of regional and ethnic confrontation. The key to avoiding this tragic outcome is for the country’s political elites to forswear self-serving appeals to ethnic, religious, or regional identities and to ensure credible elections.
Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria was created by the British in 1914 by cobbling together people never before part of the same entity, including some 350 ethnic groups, each with its own language. Despite an Islamic presence since the Middle Ages, the country is also now roughly divided between the two religions, causing tension in some regions, especially where religious and ethnic boundaries coincide.
After the 1998 death of the last military dictator, the ruling elites operating within the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) developed an unwritten power-sharing understanding, called “zoning,” to manage these divisions. The PDP presidential candidate came to rotate between elites from the predominately Christian South and the predominately Muslim North. If the presidential candidate was Christian, then the vice-presidential candidate was Muslim, and vice versa. The elites ensured that their candidates always won elections, and the Nigerian public increasingly stayed home.
Zoning has been challenged before. Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian Yoruba from the southwest and president from 1999 to 2007, tried twice to change the rules. In 2003, when the presidency was first to revert to a Northern Muslim, he used the powers of the presidency to “renegotiate” the terms of zoning to every eight years instead of every four. In 2006, he tried again to set aside zoning and retain the presidency. Although this time he was blocked by the elites, he managed to impose on the PDP his chosen presidential candidate, Umaru Yar’Adua, a sickly Hausa-Fulani Muslim from Katsina in the North. He also selected Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the South, to be the PDP’s vice-presidential candidate. The PDP rigged them into office in 2007, leaving indifferent a public already largely alienated from the political process.
However, in May 2010, Yar’Adua died, making Jonathan the president. Under zoning the North should hold the presidency until 2015. Many expected Jonathan to fill out the rest of Yar’adua’s term and then stand aside for a Northern candidate.
Instead, Jonathan is running in 2011, making it an electoral race of one or more Northern Muslims against a Southern Christian, dividing the elites. Unlike in 2007 when all of the principal presidential candidates were Northern Muslims, voting and election results will matter to a population for whom ethnicity and religion—not national identity—are paramount, and there will be a choice.
Thus, it is imperative that the elections be credible. The new chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission commands respect, and following his recommendations, Election Day will likely be postponed to April to allow for more preparation. But, in a huge country with a deteriorating infrastructure where elites—not voters—usually determine political outcomes, there are enormous challenges. With the end of zoning, the elites are fragmenting and their behavior is harder to predict in a country where politics can be violent. Yet if political figures appeal to ethnic and religious identities for their own short-term advantage, they risk igniting a tinderbox of rivalries that could lead to widespread violence serious enough to challenge an already very weak state. That scenario raises the potential for intervention by the military “to save the state.”
John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He entered service twice in Nigeria, from 1988–1990 as political counselor and from 2004–2007 as U.S. ambassador. He is the author of Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).