Is Nigeria Heading Toward a Second Civil War?

Is Nigeria Heading Toward a Second Civil War?

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The signs are ominous, and strangely familiar: communal warfare raging in the politically volatile Muslim Northern regions, with supporters of the ruling party stabbed, hacked or shot; churches, mosques and homes burned; and hundreds believed dead and tens of thousands more displaced. That's the scene so far in parts of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, following its latest round of presidential elections.

Gubernatorial elections in at least three Northern states this week were postponed because of the violence.

The incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, of the ruling People's Democratic Party, has appealed for calm after being declared the winner April 18 with 57 percent of the vote -- thus avoiding an expected second round of balloting with his main rival, former Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who received 31 percent. Buhari is a Fulani from the predominantly Muslim North; Jonathan is an Ijaw from the predominantly Christian South.

In his recent address, Jonathan harked back to the bloody events that set off the country's North vs. South civil war almost 45 years ago. "If anything at all, these acts of mayhem are sad reminders of the events which plunged our country into 30 months of an unfortunate civil war," said Jonathan.

Today as many as 40,000 people have been displaced, according to the Red Cross, with many of them seeking refuge at police and military barracks. Even the home of Nigeria's vice president, Namadi Sambo, in Zaria in Northern Nigeria, was torched, forcing him to flee. Many supporters of the PDP have met a similar fate.

The scenes are reminiscent of the events that began in January 1966. Back then, in the country's first unsuccessful military coup, mostly Ibo junior officers murdered Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and much of the country's Northern civilian and military leadership. A July countercoup reinstalled Northern leadership, ushered in military government and eventually sparked pogroms in the North in May, July and September -- carried out in part by government troops -- that left as many as 40,000 people dead, many of them Christian Ibos.

Nearly 2 million people soon became refugees. The Ibo-led breakaway Republic of Biafra was declared a year later before a Northern-dominated federal government crushed the rebellion in January 1970. More than 1 million people died in the war. Can this country of an estimated 125 million people be brought back from the brink?

In evoking Nigeria's civil war, Jonathan may have done more than sound an alarm about the West African nation's political instability. He may unintentionally have made a bad situation worse.

"It's as incendiary a thing as he could say," says Jean Herskovits, a retired academic and a longtime Nigeria analyst. "To say this is about the same grievances as '66 is an insult."

Yes, Herskovits said, the present crisis has taken on ethnic, regional and religious dimensions, much like the Biafran War. But more important, she said, today's unrest is a reaction to the pervasive culture of corruption that has long gripped the country, "a rejection of 12 years of PDP" government malfeasance. According to Herskovits, young people in the North pinned their hopes on Buhari as an agent of change, a presidential candidate who could end corruption.

Instead, she says, "we are heading toward exactly what we don't want, which is civil war. People up North are already talking about it."

Already, the Nigerian Independent Electoral Commission has had to postpone balloting in three Northern states because of the tenuous security situation. Buhari has been barred from traveling to one of the states.

How much worse will things get?

A lot will depend on legal challenges to the election results. The United States and much of the international community declared the balloting free and fair. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a speech congratulating President Jonathan, said, "this election represents a positive beginning for Nigeria." But pronouncements from outside have done little to calm the situation.

But almost from the beginning, many have been skeptical of the election results, even in a country where allegations of electioneering -- real or imagined -- are routine. Despite the widespread use of social media to monitor the balloting and track results, there is a general belief among many Nigerians that elections are won and lost not at the polling station but as the votes are tabulated -- a process that remains secretive.

The ruling PDP was defeated in the first two rounds of elections for Nigeria's parliament. And although many polls picked Jonathan to win the presidential polls, few predicted that he'd win with a large-enough margin to avoid a second-round runoff.

Buhari supporters with the Congress for Progressive Change are launching challenges in 11 Northern states, where Jonathan received a quarter of the vote in constituencies that already voted heavily against the ruling PDP in the parliamentary rounds.

Jonathan's apparent re-election upsets the unspoken "rotation," in which Northern and Southern leaders alternate terms as president. Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba from the West, was elected and served two full terms as president. Umaru Yar'Adua was elected amid charges of fraud in 2007. He had not served a full term before he died of pericarditis in May 2010 after a lengthy illness.

"Nigeria has depended on a tacit political balance between the North and the South its entire postcolonial existence," says Mark Quarterman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "When this has broken down, we've seen the worst excesses. A ticket balancer has now become president, but regional allegiance has always trumped party allegiance. The question is: Wouldn't the supporters of the party, with Jonathan at the bottom of the ticket, support the ticket with Jonathan at the top of the ticket?"

The Nigerian media have been filled with vitriol from both the winners and the losers, replete with charges of tribalism, regionalism and religious chauvinism. The army, perhaps the country's most vital institution, has shown no signs of splintering. And the national police, with a reputation for brutality and corruption, have so far not been accused of abuses in controlling postelection violence.

The future of the nation may lie in the hands of the Supreme Court in the capital, Abuja, which will be the final arbiter in deciding the validity of the results of the presidential elections. This eventuality may bring back other memories from another time and another country -- the aftermath of the 2000 presidential elections in the United States.

Both supporters of Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush immediately decided to accept the court verdict that put Bush in the White House. So did their supporters. Now Nigerians may face the same situation of abiding by a result with which they may not agree.

"If we are serious about preventing collapse there, the politics of bargaining and compromise are most important," says Sulayman Nyang, the former chairman of Howard University's department of African studies. "Both sides have to be willing to accept a ruling of the Supreme Court, as we did in this country in 2000. We're on the brink. If Nigerians don't get their act together, we're facing a serious problem. Nigeria exploding is the worst thing that could happen to the Africans."

Sunni M. Khalid is the managing news editor at WYPR. A former foreign correspondent, he has traveled and reported widely in Africa and the Middle East.