Thug Democracy

Thug Democracy

KANO, Nigeria—Brandishing wooden planks and lighter fuel, young men and boys — some hardly taller than the makeshift clubs they were wielding — took to the streets of several northern Nigerian cities Monday, April 18, to protest the emerging results of Saturday’s presidential election. As they waved their clubs, they shouted "Only Buhari! We want change!" echoing the campaign slogans of their fallen candidate, the onetime military ruler of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, who battled the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan in the April 16 election. 

Saturday’s vote marked a first for Africa’s most populous country in its latest chapter of democratic rule. Nigerian and international observers praised it as the only election since 1999 — when the country transitioned to civilian rule after decades of military dictatorship — to break away from a history of chaotic, rigged, and violent polls. Unlike previous occasions, on Saturday there was no ballot stuffing, no "Elvis Presleys" or other fake names on the voters list, no hired thugs stealing ballot boxes from polling stations. Everything was on track — right up to the moment when widespread, deadly violence broke out.

The first rioters flooded the streets Monday morning, as soon as word had spread that the results were expected to favor Jonathan. By the time the electoral commission certified his victory on Monday evening, the protests had calmed slightly, but by Tuesday morning, fighting had erupted once again in Kaduna and the Associated Press reported by midday that "charred bodies" lined the road on the southern outskirts of the city. Violence spread to some 13 northern states throughout the day Monday. The Nigerian Red Cross reported that 16,000 people had fled their homes, afraid that the violence would continue.

Quickly, what was meant to be Nigeria’s first truly legitimate election has begun to look a lot like the clouded ones of the past, even if the votes themselves add up the way they’re supposed to. And it’s not at all clear that the protesters in the north who torched churches, looted vehicles, and smashed billboards are entirely to blame, given the behavior of their leaders in Abuja. More importantly, if Jonathan does not manage to address the broader issues raised by this violence — notably the discontent among northerners with the status quo that includes a huge class of unemployed and marginalized youth — he may find his term as president focused largely on putting out brush fires rather than initiating badly needed reforms.

Security forces in Kaduna, Kano, and smaller northern cities such as Sokoto and Zaria managed to restore calm on Monday by firing live rounds into the air to disperse angry crowds, but not before the youth rioters had torched the homes and vehicles of some actual or perceived supporters of Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party — including the emir’s residence in Kano. In Kaduna, rioters set fire to the electoral commission’s state offices. As the sun set on April 18 in Kano, an ancient Muslim trading center that’s now Nigeria’s second-largest city after Lagos, an eerie calm had settled, but heaps of burned tires and wood remained on the streets.

But it’s far from clear that the police can keep the protesters quiet for long, and indeed protests picked up again on Tuesday. Nor, for that matter, will Nigeria’s politicians be able to quell the discontent. In a country where political elites have so often run roughshod over elections by paying young, uneducated, and unemployed men to do their dirty work at the ballot box and in the streets, those same elites now have little credibility when appealing for calm.

Instead of urging his young supporters to put down their clubs on Monday morning, Buhari and his opposition party, the Congress for Progressive Change, first accused the ruling party of massive vote-rigging in its stronghold in the south. (He has since appealed for calm.) Claims of irregularities may hold some truth, for example in the president’s native Bayelsa state in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Buhari’s camp also alleged, in a letter sent to the Independent National Electoral Commission on Monday, that computer software used for totaling results had been manipulated in northern states. In the 2007 polls, such challenges took some two years in the Nigerian court system to be addressed; it is unclear how long the process could drag on this time.

More than anything, this week’s events offer a potent reminder that elections are merely a first step to democracy. During his short time in office so far, Jonathan — who took power last year after former President Umaru Yar’Adua died in office — staked his reputation on holding a credible vote. But ending corruption at the ballot box was just part of the equation. Clean elections won’t bring an end to local violence unless the country’s leaders fundamentally change course. 

This will be Jonathan’s primary challenge as he begins his first full term in office: to start changing a culture of thuggery and corruption that pervades the political elite. Many of the country’s leaders have built their rule on a simple equation: steal money, pay off the most troublesome constituencies, and when it comes time for elections, buy votes. Threats are put down using "divide and rule" tactics learned from Nigeria’s former colonial power, Britain. Ethnicities, religions, and even regions are pitted against one another, elites blaming the poverty of one group on the alleged state benefits garnered by another. This approach has been used on countless occasions to whip up anger among rival communities in the country’s Middle Belt, where reports of sporadic violence have killed thousands over the last decade. 

After this latest north-south rupture, Nigeria’s divisions are likely to seem all the more stubborn. Jonathan’s victory essentially signaled the death of the ruling party’s "zoning" agreement, which called for presidential power to rotate between a northerner and a southerner every eight years. When Jonathan, a southerner, took over after Yar’Ardua’s death last year, northerners expected his reign as president to last only until the 2011 elections. Now that Jonathan has been elected for a four-year term, the north feels it has been dealt the bum lot once more. It’s not as though ordinary southerners enjoy many benefits from their regional affiliation, but the perception among millions of northerners that they are second-class citizens will likely continue, if only because northerners do not view Jonathan as an ally.

Many northern voters who waited for hours on Saturday to cast their ballots for Buhari told me they just wanted "change." Their reasons for this were transparently clear; polling stations were set up in run-down primary schools and next to fetid open sewers. "Where is the money?" asked a 43-year old unemployed father of four, Mohammed Issa Jamal, who holds a linguistics degree and spoke eloquently about the nexus of patronage, politics, and violence in his country. For voters like Jamal, a Muslim man from Kaduna, Buhari’s reputation as a former president who employed sometimes ruthless tactics to rout out corruption from the ranks of his military government is also appealing.

The sheer number of unemployed secondary school and even university graduates in this region also means that the angry young men I saw in the streets on Monday have little to lose. Their leaders have given them no good reason to wait for politics to bring about the change they seek. Nigeria’s big men have rarely proved worthy of ruling their vibrant and intelligent populace, the vast majority of whom hustle every day to get food on the table for their families.

It remains to be seen whether Jonathan can mollify this angry class, but for now he is at least making an effort. Writing on his Facebook page on Saturday, the president vowed that "Do or die" — the frighteningly literal campaign slogan of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, notorious for leading a crony republic — "is dead forever." In his acceptance speech, he called his political opponents "partners" instead of speaking of them as enemies. But it may still be a stretch for many to see him as a reformer. Jonathan has not been personally accused of involvement in electoral (or other) misdeeds, but many of those around him have. And even as the new president was talking about national unity, Nigerian security forces, deployed to put down the unrest, relied on abusive measures, including public humiliation of those arrested, to quell violence. Such behavior may do little more than create a spark for future uprisings.

Perhaps Nigeria’s greatest hope is that its youth, a new generation far more cosmopolitan, tech-savvy, and quicker to grow frustrated by business as usual in Nigerian politics, will take a stand against corruption. There are plenty of reasons to hope and believe that the younger generation has had enough of being manipulated and used by its politicians and leaders.

In the meantime, perseverance is not a unique quality in Nigeria, as I was reminded on Monday morning by the motorcycle taxi driver who had the misfortune of transporting me to Kano’s main hospital while bonfires blazed around us. Passing me his handkerchief and covering his own mouth with his left hand, he revved his engine and drove into the black smoke, as democracy in Nigeria sputtered along for another day.