By NBF News
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Nigeria is in trouble. National elections scheduled for 2011 have the potential to undermine the country's current precarious stability by exacerbating its serious internal ethnic, regional and religious divisions. Since 1999, national presidential elections have adhered to an informal power sharing arrangement between the Muslim North and the Christian South, thereby avoiding regional and religious conflict.

But, in 2011, there is the risk that power sharing will be abandoned, with the presidential incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a Southern Christian, contesting against a Northern Muslim candidate. The fact that credible elections are unlikely may tilt the balance of power in favor of the incumbent president and open the door to protests – perhaps violent – from the losing candidates and ethnic groups. This potential crisis is germinating within the context of ongoing ethnic and religious violence in the Middle Belt and a simmering insurrection in the Delta.

Even in the best of times, governance faces challenges in Nigeria. The country is home to approximately 250 different ethnic groups, each with its own language.  The three largest, the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba and Igbo, together are less than two-thirds of all Nigerians.  Estimated at 150 million, about the size of the Russian Federation's, the population is growing and urbanizing rapidly.  Lagos, with a population of perhaps 17 million, is already one of the largest cities in the world.  In terms of income, most Nigerians are very poor, with wealth from oil concentrated among a small number of the elite.  With the exception of civil aviation and cellular communication, the country's physical infrastructure is decaying.

The country is also evenly divided between Christianity and Islam. As in other African states bordering the Sahel, the South is the former, the North the latter. The South is more developed than the North, which is among the poorest predominantly Muslim regions in the world. However, Christianity is expanding in the North, probably the result of people moving from other parts of the country and conversions from formerly animist minority ethnic groups hostile to the historically dominant Muslim Hausa-Fulani.

In the Middle Belt, an area in the North where Islam and Christianity meet, there has been an upsurge of communal violence between Christian farmers and Muslim herdsmen and between the Muslim Hausa-Fulani and the newly arrived smaller Christian ethnic groups. Local conflicts that long were seen as predominately ethnic or economic in character are acquiring a more overt religious cast.  Given these harsh realities, a principle of Nigerian governance has been to minimize electoral confrontation among the country's regions, religions and ethnic groups.

However, control of the federal government is the prize for electoral victory because it means access to Nigeria's oil reserve, so immense that if fully developed it could serve as a partial alternative to Middle Eastern petroleum for the American market. Beyond a certain threshold, more than 90 per cent of oil profits go to the state and whoever controls the state controls the oil revenue.

While this access encourages the elite to hang together, it also breeds among them competition that sometimes turns violent and plays off long-standing ethnic, religious and regional divisions. This contributes to the inability of any single Nigerian elite or coalition of elite thus far to impose a direction on governance. That, in turn, results in the chronic inability of the political system to address Nigeria's problems or promote sustainable development as well as the progressive alienation of non-elite Nigerians from the current political system.

At present, there are two flash points threatening Nigeria's stability.  In the oil-rich Niger Delta, there is a deep sense of grievance against the Nigerian elite and the government they control.  The local population has benefited little from the billions of dollars produced by the region's oil. The environment is degraded, with some non-governmental organizations claiming that oil spills are the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez per year.

Delta residents resent the federal government's insensitivity to its traditions of local governance and its failure to take into account the differences among its myriad ethnic groups. The result is a low-level insurrection that can paralyze oil production for short periods of time. And politicians are not above facilitating and exploiting Delta grievances for their own, narrow interests.

In the other flash point, the North, there is growing impoverishment, the result of population pressure, de-industrialization and under-investment in agriculture.  The North appears increasingly alienated from the government in Abuja, and popular respect for traditional Islamic institutions may be eroding.  Some of the Muslim population has become receptive to more radical influences, mostly of indigenous origin, as evidenced by the bloody Boko Haram insurrection in Kano in July 2009, which the Nigerian military only suppressed with difficulty. There is, however, little evidence of successful activity by organizations such as Al-Qaeda that are based outside of Nigeria.

Given Nigeria's divisions and its current challenges, an unwritten principle for most of the elite and embraced by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is regional power sharing, which should translate into the alternation every eight years of the party's presidential candidate between the Christian South and the Muslim North.  A corollary is that if the presidential candidate is Christian, then the vice presidential candidate is Muslim, and vice versa.

Nigerian conventional wisdom, since the restoration of civilian governance in 1999, is that this rotation, often called 'zoning,' helps keep the country together.

Furthermore, by law, no political party may have a confessional dimension, and a successful presidential candidate must win a certain minimum percentage of votes in all of the country's regions.

This form of elite power sharing has maintained, by and large, political stability at the national level.  After the 1998 death of the last dictator, Sani Abacha, there was an elite consensus that after years of military rule in which successive heads of state had been Muslims from the North, it was the Christian South's turn. In the 1999 elections, the first under the new civilian regime, the two principal candidates, Olusegun Obasanjo and Olu Falae, were Yoruba Christians.

In 2003, the principal presidential candidates were the incumbent Obasanjo and the Northern Muslim Muhammadu Buhari. However, following prolonged horse-trading, the largely united elite from all regions rallied around Obasanjo, who the Independent National Electoral Commission declared re-elected.

In 2007, after Obasanjo's eight years in office, the elite agreed that the presidency should revert to the North. Accordingly, all three major presidential candidates -Umaru Yar'Adua, Muhammadu Buhari, and Atiku Abubakar – were Northern Muslims.  The elite consensus, strong-armed by the still powerful Obasanjo, ensured that Yar'Adua was declared the winner by a fictitious margin.

In all three elections, most of the elite, both Christian and Muslim, were united in support of a single PDP candidate whom the electoral commission accordingly declared to be the victor. Cooperating elite made power-sharing work. But elite cohesion and the power sharing that it mandated may be coming to an end, raising the specter of increased regional, ethnic and religious competition.

President Yar'Adua's 2009 illness and hospitalization in Jeddah and his subsequent death after his 2010 return to Nigeria interrupted the power sharing rhythm by making the vice president, the Christian Southerner Goodluck Jonathan, the president for the remainder of the four-year term.  Jonathan's presidency appeared acceptable to the Northern political powerbrokers so long as it was understood that the presidency would revert to the North in 2011 when the current presidential term ends.  That arrangement would preserve power sharing.

During Yar'Adua's last days, the widespread supposition had been that the country's elite would reach a consensus on a Northern Muslim as Jonathan's vice president who would then become president through the 2011 elections when the incumbent president would decline to run. But, no such Northern consensus in favor of a vice presidential candidate formed.  Taking advantage of the opportunity, Jonathan successfully nominated a relative unknown Kaduna State Governor, Namadi Sambo, as vice president, apparently without the acquiescence or support of at least some of the North's most powerful political figures.

The Northern elite still appear divided, leaving the presidential candidacy field wide open, as of now.  A former military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, a Northern Muslim, has already said that he will run for president, and the Nigerian press is reporting that Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, at present Jonathan's national security advisor and the head of the security services, will resign soon so that he, too, can run.  Other potential Northern candidates may be waiting in the wings.

Though he remains coy about the possibility, Jonathan is likely to run for the presidency in 2011 in violation of the PDP principle of 'zoning.'  If he runs, he will be a strong candidate. Jonathan would benefit from the tremendous power of the presidential incumbency, including nearly unlimited access to state funds. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) remains under the control of the president, and it plays a crucial role in rigged elections. There is legislation before the National Assembly that would establish INEC's independence from the presidency, but it is moving slowly. Jonathan has replaced the INEC chairman with an academic of sterling reputation for non-partisanship, but it remains to be seen whether he wants to make INEC truly independent of the presidency, which still provides its funding. If he runs, he is unlikely to want an independent INEC.

Furthermore, Jonathan may have little personal choice about whether to run because of pressure from his Southern constituencies to retain the presidency in 2011 at any cost. He is the first from the Ijaw ethnic group that dominates the oil-rich Delta and the first person from his specific region to become chief of the Nigerian state. Though they claim to be the country's fourth largest ethnic group, the Ijaws have long believed themselves to be marginalized in Nigeria. From their perspective, 'it's our turn to eat,' that Ijaw accumulated grievances trump the North's right to the presidency through 'zoning.' A member of his inner circle has already said to the press that Jonathan will run.

A number of commentators are floating trial balloons to the effect that Nigeria no longer requires presidential zoning. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, still powerful, appears to support Jonathan. Yet, many of the Northern elite, recalling Obasanjo's eight years in office, continue to see their region as entitled to the presidency for two, four-year terms, with Jonathan's year in office merely an interruption. They want a Northern presidency until 2016. In principle, the PDP should nominate its 2011 presidential and vice presidential candidates at its party convention, likely to be held in October, but with a date subject to change.

At present, the most likely outcome is that the elite in Nigeria will not coalesce around a single PDP presidential candidate in 2011. Instead, the contest could be between a Muslim Northern candidate and Jonathan who would likely enjoy Christian elite support from around the country. In effect, the PDP would split, reflecting divisions within the Nigerian ruling elite no longer managed through power sharing. The elections themselves then risk becoming an arena for regional and religious rivalries and conflict, thereby engaging the public to a much greater extent than in 2007, 2003 or 1999.

Jonathan has said that credible elections are a priority of his government. Yet, at present, there is no credible voters roll and little movement toward the creation of one.  And the constitution requires that the constituency boundaries be redrawn to reflect the census of 2006. These are formidable tasks, particularly in a huge, developing country with poor infrastructure and generally weak institutions of government that do not command popular confidence. Given these challenges, the likelihood of free, fair and credible elections is not high.

Nigeria's previous elections ratified elite decisions already made. They lacked credibility as a reflection of popular will, and public interest in them waned. By contrast, if the currently fragmented elite do not control the 2011 elections, regional, ethnic and religious questions are likely to become salient. If the elections lack credibility, the losers – as individuals or as an ethnic group – could turn to public protest and violence, as happened in Kenya in 2007.

Especially if turmoil associated with the elections intensifies in the Middle Belt and the Niger Delta, Nigeria could itself become unstable. 2011 and 2012 will be difficult years in Africa. Elections in Zimbabwe are likely in 2011, in Kenya in 2012. There is the referendum in the Southern Sudan on independence in 2011. All three involve serious, unresolved political issues related to regional, ethnic or religious differences with a serious potential for violence. Africa's friends must hope that Nigeria does not join them.

•Ambassador John Campbell, former US Ambassador to Nigeria (1990-1998 and 2004-2007), is Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the United States Council on Foreign Relations. His book, 'Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink,' will be published by Roman & Littlefield in the fall.