Nigeria is in the midst of its cleanest election ever. Ironic, then, that it should also be one of its most violent – with hundreds dead in the run-up to this month’s vote, and scores more in its aftermath.
Opposition claims that the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan rigged the polls to ensure his overwhelmingly victory in the presidential race are, according to initial reports from international observers, wide of the mark. But Jonathan’s party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has such a history of stealing elections and Nigerian politics has such a dirty name that when the northern Muslim candidate Muhammadu Buhari lost, Muslims across cities the north reacted by burning churches, lynching Christians and leaving their bodies in the streets. By Wednesday, rescue workers and witnesses were speaking of more than 50 dead while thousands had fled their homes.
By the Western way of thinking, free and fair elections are a lynchpin of a stable, vibrant, proseperous nation – and there is something to be said for that. But in Nigeria, a credible election shone a light on how different Nigerians have very different aspirations – and how a north-south, Muslim-Christian divide might tear the country apart.
It’s hardly an issue that affects Nigeria alone. Across the Sahel, trouble occurs wherever North African Islam rubs up against southern African Christianity: think Sudan, or the kidnapping of Western tourists in Mali, or Islamist attacks in Kenya and Uganda. But the bloodshed in Nigeria is far more severe than elsewhere: in some Muslim-on-Christian pogroms in northern Nigeria in the last decade, thousands have died in days.
Some otherwise antagonistic observers agree Nigeria, ultimately, has little choice. The most prominent advocate of Nigeria splitting into two has been Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Meanwhile here‘s the former US ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, presciently predicting post-election violence as long ago as September and, while not encouraging separation, advising how to deal with it.