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Last Updated:6/6/11

The Mark

Finally, a Legitimate Nigerian Election

By Michael J Watts and Paul Lubeck
The Mark
13 June 2011

For the vast majority of Nigeria’s 73 million voters, cynicism and resignation are the trademarks of Nigerian politics. A brutal civil war, three decades of often ugly military government, and, since the return to civilian rule in 1999, three violent and fraudulent elections have left a dark stain on Nigerian democratic aspirations. The 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence, held on Oct. 1, 2010, had little to celebrate: an oil-rich state of 150 million with 70 per cent of the population living in poverty and life expectancy stalled at 47 years.

The celebrations were marked by a massive explosion in the capital city of Abuja, allegedly set by militants from President Goodluck Jonathan’s own oil-producing region. Jonathan, a bookish, modest leader whose political capacities are easily underestimated, came to power on the back of considerable controversy following the death of then-president Umaru Yar'Adua, after only three years in office.

To compensate for their economic and educational marginalization since the return to democracy, politicians from the Muslim north demanded that the rotation principle of “zoning” be respected by insisting that the presidential candidate be selected from their region, since southerners have held the presidency since 1999. A bitter and acrimonious battle ensued, which the north lost. It all adds up to what Nigerian journalist Ike Okonta has described as Nigeria’s “boiling cauldron.”

On this pessimistic canvas, the presidential, National Assembly, and gubernatorial elections held in April can only be read as a major step forward – indeed, something of a milestone. For the first time in Nigerian history, a man from a southern minority group was declared the president on April 18 and inaugurated on May 29. In winning 25 per cent of the votes in 31 of the 36 states in the federation, Goodluck Jonathan easily passed the constitutional requirement for victory in what was uniformly recognized by all reputable monitors as peaceful, credible, and orderly elections.

One mark of this deepening political maturity was that the stranglehold of Jonathan’s ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), was broken. Of the four main opposition parties that fielded candidates for the 469 parliamentary seats, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) took the bulk of the votes in the southwest of the country, defeating a number of ruling party stalwarts. The Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), led by Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim, won the north in the presidential voting and took almost 15 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly.

As expected, the PDP took the oil-producing Niger Delta, the Igbo southeast, and the ethnically diverse middle belt. But clearly the monopoly powers of the ruling PDP are in retreat. The electoral outcome can only be read as a victory for Nigerians demanding a more legitimate and representative system of government.

Inevitably there were irregularities. Intra-party elections and primaries were marked by breaches of due process and manipulative machine-party politics. The national elections were marred by logistical and procedural problems, and, in some – though by no means all – states, by ballot-box stuffing, underage voters, intimidation, and the purchase of votes.

And yet when Jonathan met on June 8 with U.S. President Barack Obama, he could claim that the electoral process has laid a strong foundation for a renewal of democratic reform and popular participation in Nigeria.

Much of the success must be attributed to the director of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC), Attahiru Jega, a brilliant, tireless, and principled academic. He inherited an organization riddled with patronage, corruption, and incompetence. Despite hostility from certain sectors of the military and political class, Jega made INEC into a credible organization, putting in place a reliable voting register, a retooled staff, and 120,000 revamped polling stations across a vast country in barely six months.

Despite this progress, 800 people died in post-election rioting across 12 northern states, and 65,000 people have been displaced, according to Human Rights Watch. The protest degenerated into riots and sectarian killings in some states. Some American observers, most notably former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, sees this political violence as a mark of religious polarization, of Nigeria “dancing on the brink,” because the Muslim north voted overwhelmingly for CPC leader Buhari.

The challenges facing the new administration are truly daunting and the consequences of failure would be grave. Nigeria is typically held up as the worst exemplar of virtually every species of developmental failure: official corruption, corporate bribery, decaying social and physical infrastructure, military indiscipline, ethnic and religious insurgencies, to say little of the country’s criminal economy, its industrial and agricultural decay, and deplorable health indicators: 3.3 million people in Nigeria are infected with HIV/AIDS – 10 per cent of the world’s total.

Nigeria’s failure to effectively produce any industrial good, even electric power, which is one of the scarcest resources in the country, has yet to stimulate demand for an industrial recovery strategy in the seventh-most populous country in the world. An often venal and rickety political economy is held together by the struggles of powerful constituencies to acquire, by fair means or foul, their share of Nigeria’s vast oil and gas revenues. Some $400 billion of these revenues have simply disappeared over the last four decades.

Jonathan has to immediately confront two home-grown insurgencies, driven by a rising and deeply frustrated population of youth confronting limited job prospects and an insecure future. In the Muslim north, rising inequality and poor governance have nurtured a popular Islamist insurrection movement, labelled Boko Haram (e.g. western education is forbidden) by its detractors, which has become more brazen, better organized, and more proficient in launching assaults against security forces.

Assassinations are carried out by motorcycle riders who target representatives of the state who they believe have cheated or failed them: politicians, officials, rival religious scholars, and members of the dreaded police and security forces who routinely engage in extra-judicial killings, according to international human rights groups.

Boko Haram’s carefully executed jailbreaks or calls for imposing Sharia law throughout Nigeria gather most of the media attention, but the movement’s greatest power arises from energy generated by the demographic time bomb ticking within the region: a gigantic youth bulge driven by high fertility (7.3 children per woman), a low adult literacy rate (45 per cent), and the collapse of textiles, once the region’s largest employer.

Impoverished and uneducated, the rural poor are leaving their homesteads and choking the streets of northern cities, often arriving as Qur’anic students who, for the first time, are sharing common urban religious spaces with unemployed secondary and university graduates.

This convergence is important because the students have learned to use the digital tools of Islamist insurrectionary tactics now downloadable from global media sources. Indeed, the fusion of these two groups into the Boko Haram movement, and the recent electoral results that reproduce the marginalization of the Muslim north for another eight years, constitute a destabilizing trend that Jonathan would be wise to engage with as soon as possible.

While millions of peasants, workers, and unemployed suffer in the north, life in the oil-producing Niger Delta is not much better. The oil fields have been crippled by the gradual emergence of a welter of militant groups operating under the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), clamouring for what they call resource control and local self-determination.

A counter-insurgency by federal forces in May 2009 led to a truce and an amnesty involving 20,192 militants and their so-called commanders. A post-amnesty training and rehabilitation program has been largely ineffective and has become a new source of frustration for unemployed youth. The situation remains tense. In the last weeks, federal military forces have resumed their operations in the creeks of the Niger Delta. Insurgents in the Delta inevitably have very high expectations from "their president," born and raised in the Niger Delta.

The social problems driving these insurgencies can only be resolved if Nigeria drastically restructures economic and social policies. Boosted by oil and gas prices, the economy grows at about seven per cent a year. But this figure masks deep stagnation within the agricultural, manufacturing, and small-scale industrial sectors. Industrial employment alone has shrunk by 90 per cent over the last decade. Despite half of the population living in rural areas, Nigeria can no longer feed itself. This means at least a billion dollars worth of rice must be imported annually.

What is needed is an “alliance of oil and corn” in which each region develops linkage industries from their regionally based resources. For the oil- and gas-producing regions like the Niger Delta, this means passing and implementing the petroleum reform bill, encouraging private firms to develop downstream industries, and rationalizing the natural gas collection system.

For the north, the alliance of oil and corn means encouraging agricultural processing industries and supporting agro-industrial linkages between commercial farmers and resource-based urban industries. The northern cities of Kano and Kaduna are capable of reviving their industrial sectors so as to restore hope for their youth. To do so will require the creation of regional industrial authorities working closely with manufacturers to expand employment, upgrade skills, and foster linkages with small and intermediate industries. Substantial capital resources remain uninvested in this region because of the lack of a regional mobilization for recovery.

The industries of both regions will benefit from a thorough reform of the dispirited public service. The state must reassert control over its custom area or else industrial recovery will not be possible due to a flood of illegal foreign imports that are off-loaded from neighbouring countries.

If an academic and civil society activist like Attahiru Jega can reorganize the election commission in six months to manage the best election in Nigeria’s history, a new generation can begin the economic reforms that will make the alliance of oil and corn work for the benefit of all Nigerians.

Michel J Watts is director of development studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Paul Lubeck is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a senior fellow of the Center for International Policy.

Copyright, The Mark, 2011. Original article available here.

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