The just-concluded Nigerian elections are being hailed as the most credible since the restoration of civilian governance in 1999. International observers and governments have congratulated the Nigerian people on their conduct and Goodluck Jonathan on his presidential election. They have also expressed satisfaction that Nigeria is resuming its role as the beacon of democracy in Africa.
Not so fast.
The elections have polarized Nigeria and resulted in likely underreported bloodshed in the northern parts of the country. The traditional northern Islamic establishment, which might have moderated the religious and sectarian conflict, has come under attack, and the North’s perceived marginalization from national politics could potentially radicalize an Islamic population that already views the United States as a partisan supporter of southern Christian president Goodluck Jonathan.
The predominately Christian South sees the elections as credible. However, many in the North view the presidency and the elections as having been stolen from their region and their candidate, the northern Muslim Muhammadu Buhari. While many northerners believed it would be their “turn to eat” until 2015, Jonathan’s presidential nomination by the governing People’s Democratic Party earlier this year essentially ended the informal powersharing arrangement under which the presidency alternated between the South and the North.
Later, while international and domestic observers signed off on the quality of the elections, many in the North believe the ballot counting was rigged to spare Jonathan a runoff. The subsequent announcement of his victory two days after the election set off widespread violence in the North against those perceived to be supporters of the P.D.P., including Christians. Revenge killings of Muslims and the burning of mosques followed. The bloodshed was greater than that of Nigeria’s three preceding elections, and victims numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands. Fortunately, the pattern of revenge killings has not spread to other parts of the country, though there have been threats from some marginal groups to do so.
Many northerners “on the street” see parts of the northern Islamic establishment, traditionally pro-American, as complicit in the P.D.P.’s theft of the election and the presidency. Hence, they burned the private houses of the sultan of Sokoto (the premier Muslim traditional ruler), the emir of Kano (Nigeria’s second largest city) and the emir of Zaria. All three traditional rulers went into hiding temporarily. Northern popular rage against the P.D.P. establishment, which is widely seen as corrupt and responsible for Nigeria’s poor governance, recalls aspects of the “democratic wave” in parts of the Middle East, though it does not appear to have been as coherent or well organized. Heavy military and police patrols have, for the time being, ended northern rioting.
The North has long feared domination by the more developed South and therefore was not enthusiastic about independence from the British in 1960. Northerners expected their political and religious leaders to prevent southern domination and balance the Christian South’s economic preponderance by controlling the federal government. In fact, during the generation following the 1967-1970 civil war, northerners dominated the string of military dictatorships that ended only in 1998.
With the restoration of civilian government in 1999, elites from around the country developed a form of presidential power-sharing in which the civilian presidency would alternate every eight years between the South and the North. This arrangement — created in part to allay northern anxieties — was informal, and existed only within the governing party, which always won the presidential elections. But since winning the election, Jonathan himself has showed a tin ear to the North’s concerns. His now notorious “Enough is Enough” speech recalling the horrors of the civil war was particularly poorly received, demonstrating his lack of sensitivity to northern concerns.
As measured by polling data, the North is much less sympathetic to the United States than the South. And, whether justified or not, many in the North see Jonathan as the American candidate. Northern rage against the Nigerian political system and the Jonathan presidency may increase hostility toward the United States, providing space for anti-Western movements to gain a foothold. Up to now, extremist groups such as Boko Haram have remained domestically focused and Al Qaeda has had little success in its efforts to penetrate the North. That might change.
It is therefore imperative for the United States and its Western allies to reach out to the North. Speedy opening of the planned U.S. consulate in Kano would be a step in the right direction.
By John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.