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NIGERIA ON THE BRINK – WHAT HAPPENS IF THE 2011 ELECTIONS FAIL?

PHOTO: L-R: FORMER MILITARY DICTATOR, GENERAL IBRAHIM BABANGIDA AND FORMER VICE PRESIDENT, ALHAJI ATIKU ABUBAKAR HAVE ANNOUNCED THEIR INTENTIONS TO CONTEST IN THE 2011 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.
PHOTO: L-R: FORMER MILITARY DICTATOR, GENERAL IBRAHIM BABANGIDA AND FORMER VICE PRESIDENT, ALHAJI ATIKU ABUBAKAR HAVE ANNOUNCED THEIR INTENTIONS TO CONTEST IN THE 2011 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.


The 2011 elections in Nigeria, scheduled for January 22, pose a threat to the stability of the United States’ most important partner in West Africa. The end of a power-sharing arrangement between the Muslim North and the Christian South, as now seems likely, could lead to postelection sectarian violence, paralysis of the executive branch, and even a coup.

The Obama administration has little leverage over the conduct and outcome of the elections -- and if the vote does lead to chaos, Washington may no longer be able to count on Nigerian partnership in addressing African regional and security issues such as the conflicts in Darfur, Southern Sudan, and Somalia.

Nigeria’s current political drama dates to November 2009, when its president, Umaru Yar’Adua, was hospitalized for a kidney condition in Saudi Arabia. Yar’Adua refused to comply with the Nigerian constitution and hand over executive authority to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. The result was a power vacuum until February 2010, when the National Assembly extralegally designated Jonathan the "acting president" by resolution, even though there is no constitutional provision for doing so.

In April, Acting President Jonathan attended the nuclear safety summit in Washington, where U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden warmly embraced him, not least because his designation forestalled a possible military coup. In May 2010, the first act of Nigeria’s political tragedy ended when Yar’Adua died and Jonathan became the constitutional president. Now, Washington may be tempted to move its attention away from Nigeria -- but that would be a mistake.

Nigeria has held three national elections since the end of military dictatorship in 1998. In 1999, active and retired military officers, along with a few civilian allies, oversaw the transition from military to civilian rule. They established the nonideological People’s Democratic Party (PDP); selected Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian from the South, as the presidential candidate; and placed him in office with a northern Muslim vice president. An elite consensus formed around an unwritten power-sharing agreement, which dictated that presidential candidates would henceforth alternate between the Christian South and the Muslim North -- a system designed to avoid presidential contests that could exacerbate hostility between the regions and religions.

With the advantages of presidential incumbency, and access to unlimited oil money, Obasanjo secured elite support for a second presidential term in 2003. Northerners reluctantly acquiesced to a rotation cycle of two terms rather than the one they had foreseen in 1999. Once re-elected, however, Obasanjo reneged on his two-term promise by attempting to run again in 2007. This bid was defeated due to public anger and northern leaders’ insistence on power sharing. Nevertheless, Obasanjo remained powerful enough to impose his handpicked candidates on the ruling party in 2007: Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, for president and Jonathan, a Christian southerner, for vice president. Obasanjo’s chosen candidates fit the terms of the power-sharing convention, and accordingly, they took office after the 2007 election, which was marred by fraud and irregularities. However, Yar’Adua’s subsequent death and Jonathan’s presidency upended the power-sharing arrangement.

Unlike in every previous election since 1999, no elite consensus exists for the 2011 poll, nor is there an Obasanjo-like figure strong enough to impose one. Although it is still dominated by elites and their patronage networks, the Nigerian political sphere is wide open.

Many in the North believe it is still their turn for the presidency, but the northern power brokers do not agree on who should be their presidential candidate. Several northern politicians, including Ibrahim Babangida and Muhammadu Buhari, both former military dictators, are running for the presidency. Other potential candidates are Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, the national security adviser under Obasanjo and Jonathan, and several northern governors. Nigerian democrats are advocating the candidacies of Nasir El-Rufai, the former minister of the Federal Capital Territory, and Nuhu Ribadu, formerly the head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the anticorruption agency. Both are seen as having the potential to restore public faith in the political system. But so long as the current elites remain the country’s political power brokers, candidates operating outside the PDP will be long shots at best.

Jonathan, with the advantages of presidential incumbency, has also announced that he will run. This could mean the presidential contest will feature one or more northern Muslim candidates opposing Jonathan against the backdrop of ethnic and religious violence in the Middle Belt, Muslim extremism in the North, and an ongoing insurrection in the oil-rich Niger Delta. In such a fraught environment, supporters of candidates might exploit religious and ethnic identities, a dangerous and potentially explosive dynamic that until now has largely been avoided.

JOHN CAMPBELL, the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book, Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in November.

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