Originally Published 2011-05-02 00:00:00 Published on May 02, 2011
Nigeria voted on April 16th, 2011 for a new president. The result: political violence killing over 500 with the number only increasing and thousands of Nigerians injured and internally displaced.
Nigeria: Of Votes and Violence
Nigeria voted on April 16th, 2011 for a new president. The result - political violence killing over 500 with the number only increasing and thousands of Nigerians injured and internally displaced. The continuous clashes of violence between Muslim and Christians in the states of Kaduna, Kano, Jos, the capital city of Abuja, and all over Nigeria have essentially marred the recent presidential and present gubernatorial elections as one of the most violent in history. After logistical restraints delaying elections and the high fervour of expectations placed on their subsequent legitimacy, the Independent National Electoral Commission announced the victory of incumbent leader, Goodluck Jonathan. Jonathan, of the People’s Democratic Party, won with a 57 percent to 31 percent margin against his contender, Mohammadu Buhari, the presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) party. 

Since its inception as an independent state following the departure of the British in 1960, Nigeria became subject to a violent start with the assassination of its first leader, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and thereafter was submerged in successive military coups for the next 33 years. With the arrival of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, Nigeria once again flirted with the idea of democracy and since then has held three elections, all of which have had a very violent backlash. In a nation with a population of 150 million, over 250 diverse ethnic groups, a nearly 50-50% divide between Muslims and Christians, and vast socio-economic variations within different regions, irrefutably governing Nigeria is a challenge. The unwritten agreement within the PDP, that of power-sharing for the presidential candidacy through the election of a Northerner (mainly Muslim) and Southerner (mainly Christian) for a maximum of two consecutive terms, was to ensure that there would be appropriate representation from both ends.

However, after the 8-year term of Obasanjo (Christian from South) and the untimely death of his successor, Umaru Yar’Adua (Muslim from North), the presidential seat was filled for an interim by Jonathan, Yar’Adua’s Vice President. Thus, the defeat of Muhammadu Buhari, from the Islamic North, ignited anger and riot among the Muslims as they claimed the elections as being fraudulent. As the map of Nigeria depicts, the south of Nigeria voted for PDP, whereas the north mainly voted for Buhari’s CPC. The violence is mainly taking place in the northern region, with a sizeable Christian minority being attacked and Churches being burned, killings perpetuated with their further retaliation.


The imposition of an artificial administrative boundary upon the Niger River region by the British administration left behind a colonial legacy of a thoroughly divided nation. The premise behind the creation of a nationality in many post-colonial nations, or the orchestration of an imagined community, as Benedict Anderson puts it, is that a citizen of a nation will take precedence in imagining himself/herself as a Nigerian first, and then Christian, or a Muslim, or an Igbo, a Yoruba, or a Hausa second. The creation of a nationalistic vernacular and a consciousness within set boundaries constructs a citizen who will pay allegiance to the country as a whole, or at least, theoretically. However, when the supposed ’creation’ of a state is as nascent as half a century, in comparison to the centuries of cultural and linguistic bounds by which various tribes have governed as separate units, the notion of an identity becomes invariably local. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, award-winning writer of Half of a Yellow Sun, most aptly wrote: "the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe. I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came."


It would be simplistic to assume that Nigeria could simply be divided into a North and South. However, what has been made evident through recent political killings is the extent to which political leaders have been successful in exploiting religious antagonism as a means to mobilize to power. Despite the fact that there exists layers of cultural identities within Nigeria, with socio-economic differences within the north, southeast and southwest1, a certain religious façade taints most of the clashes that take place. Take for example the riots that took place in the northern city of Kano in 2001, after a peaceful anti-US demonstration by local Muslims (opposing the bombing in Afghanistan) local political rivalries propelled it as an inter-faith conflict and degenerated into devastating riots that put the Muslim against the Christian. The present clashes were perpetuated once Buhari claimed the elections to be rigged prompting northern Muslims to fight for their supposed stolen mandate.

The duality of the nation, of a northern region that has imposed Sharia law in some of its governed states versus the oil-rich South that comprises of the Niger Delta (where approximately 2.5 million barrels of oil is extracted each day) becomes further problematic when the quality of governance is highly compromised for kleptocratic ends. The rampant corruption and institutionalised extortion that permeates through every level of the state in Nigeria has been damaging to the growth and stability of the nation, and greatly detrimental in maintaining the Nigerian’s faith in the legitimacy of the state. What William Reno defines as the ’shadow state’ whereby a ruler’s personal rule does not conform to a set of rules and undermines formal government institutions, is highly applicable in much of Nigeria’s war-torn history and specifically in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The Nigerian polity has been steadily undermined by political criminality, organized violence, and the deformation of social norms in a region, which is solely based on the expropriation of oil through the corrupt transaction between government officials and private speculators.

There are a series of problems that the new leadership needs to tackle. As a nation still finding its place in the realm of democracy it needs to create certain safeguards, one of the most important being the establishment of a credible and legitimate election process. As a nation that gives a fair amount of autonomy to its states and has its own budget and agenda, positions for governorship are quite important, what is crucial to ensure here is that there is no ballot stuffing and that political leaders do not exploit religious sentiments for political gains. It must be noted that the sheer ability to organize elections - with a lack of appropriate infrastructure and logistical capabilities, providing election booths to 36 states for a nation that ranks in the top ten most populated in the world - is no easy task. Once appropriate steps are taken to curb the violence post-elections, and aid is provided to the needy, Nigerian leadership needs to take it upon them to reflect upon a very important question - what went wrong? As Africa’s largest crude oil producer, Nigeria’s economy has great potential. Yet, its politics are beyond dirty, they are violent and vindictive. Goodluck Jonathan needs to focus on delivering the basic dividends of democracy that he has promised to his people. He needs to leave in place the democratic mechanism that will be self-sustaining, something that has been damaged by years of military coups. He needs to reform the judiciary and legal framework of the state, provide the appropriate political balance so that Muslims, Christians, and ethnic minorities are reassured of their political representation. And most importantly, he needs to build the reassurance among people that they can walk to the local election booth and vote without violent consequences. Despite everything, there is a speck of hope as international observers have hailed these elections as being largely free and fair and perhaps the best Nigeria has seen. It appears that Nigeria may have taken a credible step in the right direction. Let’s hope this initiative started by the new president continues.

< class="text10verdana">1There was a secessionist movement that led to the creation of the Biafra republic in the southeast part of Nigeria from 1967 to 1970, which was heavily motivated by the Igbo people’s will to separate due to economic, ethnic and cultural tensions. Great conflict ensued, as oil, the main resource in Nigeria was mainly located in this region, the Niger Delta and was also the means through which the Igbo people aspired for upward socio-economic mobility. The movement was suppressed and the new nation was seized by the Nigerian government in the very bloody Nigerian Civil War. 

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