Elections and Violence in Nigeria

KANO, Nigeria–The most peaceful and credible presidential elections Nigeria has held since it abandoned military rule in 1999 took place over the weekend to much praise from local and international observers, who said the polls represented the will of the enthusiastic and hopeful voters who turned out en masse to cast ballots.

Regardless of which candidate these voters backed, everyone I spoke with at polling stations on Saturday wanted change of some sort: change from patronage politics and elite-driven “political thuggery”; an end to electoral violence and voter intimidation; a free and fair vote that broke from Nigeria’s recent history of chaotic and fraudulent polls.

But as the Economist noted last week after the parliamentary elections were held on April 9, “violence is an integral part of Nigerian politics”–even in this potentially new dawn of actual, not rigged, democratic processes, in the country.

This axiom was proved true on Monday morning when young men and boys took to the streets in several Nigerian cities, determined to protest the emerging results of Saturday’s vote, which–though not yet made official at that time–indicated the victory of “accidental incumbent” president Goodluck Jonathan.

It was obvious on Sunday evening when I spoke to some residents of the northern city of Kano that Jonathan’s defeat over the most popular opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim and a brief, one-time military ruler of the country in the 1980s, was not going to sit well with northerners, who turned out in large numbers to vote for him on Saturday.

The conversations I have had here in the northern cities of Kaduna and Kano, and the results of the vote, made official last night on live television by electoral commission chief Attahiru Jega, indicate a country deeply divided along a regional fault line. The north-south divide frequently takes on a sectarian hue, as did yesterday’s violence, which eventually spread to 13 northern states and resulted in the burning of churches and destruction of the property of known or perceived supporters of the ruling People’s Democratic Party.

It may be too early to tell if the post-elections riots will tarnish the largely successful elections process as a whole, but one thing is clear: Nigeria’s newly elected leaders will need to take the lead in putting an end to “do or die” politics in their country. Such reform must entail actual outreach to the tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of unemployed young Nigerian men, some of the university graduates, across the country. Politicians must cease manipulating this “ready army” of disenfranchised and disenchanted men, who have so little to lose that they will take to the street with clubs or lighter fuel to wreak havoc that benefits no one but opportunistic politicians, who use local violence to distract attention from their own failings.

Failure to bring reliable electricity and running water to the population of Africa’s largest oil and gas producer. Failure to provide education and health care for ordinary citizens not wealthy enough to send their children abroad, as many politicians do. Failure to show citizens the benefits of democracy 12 years into the latest attempt at it in Nigeria.

In Nigeria, democracy and violence still mix, with grievous consequences. This historical trend won’t die easily, unless Nigerian leaders step up to the plate to address the fundamental issues plaguing their country and keeping its people locked in poverty despite the enormous wealth it holds in abundant natural and human resources.

President Goodluck Jonathan, congrats on your victory. Now it’s time to step up to the plate.