- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based Deca journalist.
Let’s start with the good news. After more than a decade of violent, fraudulent polls, Africa’s most-populous country held a presidential election yesterday that was largely peaceful, fair, and calm. For anyone who remembers the 2007 presidential vote, the pleasantness of this surprise can’t be understated. Then, thugs bought votes, snatched polling boxes, and rigged the counting. This time, violence was limited and observers were impressed. Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan was annouced the winner this afternoon (evening time in Nigeria). But in other contests, for example parliamentary seats, his ruling People’s Democratic Party lost ground — a welcome signal that its political monopoly may be opening up, ever so slightly, to competition.
Then there’s the bad news: The results helped reveal just how fractured Nigeria’s regions have become. As soon as word spread that Jonathan — a southerner — had won, rioting broke out in the North of the country, where voters largely favored his opponent, a former military leader, the northerner, Muhammadu Buhari.
Of course, Nigeria’s regional splits are nothing new, and they go back far. When Britain ruled the country during colonial times it literally split the country in two, with one administration ruling the largely Muslim North and another ruling the largely Christian South. The military draws largely from the north, and many southerners still believe that the state is jiggered to favor the north, particularly since its territory lacks any oil wealth — but still recieved the same share of revenue until just several years ago (now the oil-producing regions do recieve a larger share.) Parts of the north, meanwhile, fed up with the corruption of the state and frustrated that the rule of law was so corroded by graft, retreated into sharia law as a more disciplined alternative. Religion was instrumentalized to rally grievances, particularly among the youth.
So the fear is that the regional fractures are growing, rather than shrinking as democracy consolidates. To be sure, the Nigerian government hasn’t really helped; in fact, its political leaders have time and time again played off the regional divide as a tool to rally voters. Even when a southerner like Jonathan desperately needed to court the north to win the election, he ventured into regional scare-mongering, as FP contributor Maggie Fick explained.
But the true test comes now that a winner has been announced. If Jonathan wants to unite the country under his leadership, the government response to violence in the north will have to be restrained and humane — not qualities that the Nigerian security services are particularly known for.