Is Nigeria Really “Dancing On the Brink”?

Yesterday I attended a Council on Foreign Relations teleconference featuring former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell. Ambassador Campbell is now the director of the Office of the Historian at the United States Department of State and the author of Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.

Our conversation was of course largely focused on the (hopefully) upcoming parliamentarian, presidential, and gubernatorial elections in Nigeria. The ambassador talked at length about the 1999, 2003, and 2007 elections as a series of ever more corrupt elections that led to an ever more disenchanted population of Nigerians. Royal African Society’s Mark Dearn agrees, stating,

“Nigerian elections held since re-democratization in 1999 have shown a progressive degeneration of the electoral process characterised by rigging, vote-buying and intimidation.”

However, Ambassador Campbell urged that this election was different, that Nigerians saw this election as an opportunity for real change and the delay and any obviously rigged results could lead to widespread civil unrest.

How did the ambassador arrive at this assumption? I found it difficult to connect the dots between the 2007 election and the 2011 election. What has changed in Nigeria that would suddenly lift the population out of apathy and into action – enough action for 70 million Nigerians to register to vote? Ambassador Campbell wasn’t clear in our discussion how the shift in mentality occurred, but in a recent article he wrote for Foreign Affairs, he states,

“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.”

Dearn argues the opposite,

“Jonathan is the overwhelming favourite for the presidency. The PDP’s financial muscle has helped return presidents in every election since 1999, while Nigerian elections historically favour incumbent presidents.”

Dearn finds that increased tensions along ethnic and religious lines have led to the surge in interest in this particular election. In large part, the issue stems from the “zoning pact” which was created to alternate Southern Christian and Northern Muslim presidents. Incumbent, Goodluck Johnathan, a Christian, replaced Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a Muslim, after his death in 2010. According to some, this should mean that Nigeria’s next president should be a Northern Muslim.

So, is Nigeria really “dancing on the brink”? Could these elections lead to widespread violence and civil unrest? Ambassador Campbell’s assessment might be a bit hyperbolic – aimed at selling copies of his book and his particular policy recommendations. But there could be some truth to the warning that Nigeria is heading toward civil unrest. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.

The BBC has an awesome story with maps on Nigeria’s fractionalization: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12893448

For an audio recording of the conference call with Ambassador Campbell: http://www.cfr.org/nigeria/nigeria-brink-audio/p24580

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