Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Nigeria at a Crossroads

Nigeria is the world’s eighth largest oil exporter, the economic engine of West Africa and a major supplier of peacekeeping troops internationally. But despite its economic and military power, Nigeria has reached a crossroads in its history that could decide its future course. So precarious has the situation in Nigeria become that an African leader has openly called for splitting Africa’s most populous country in two – something that would not have happened publicly until now.

In the past, there were coups, a civil war, rigged elections and other crises, but Nigeria always managed to muddle through. Military men handed over to civilian control (even if another seized back power), the civil war was concluded, and complaints about elections faded into the background. Now, however, a leadership struggle has placed governance in this West African giant in question and delayed action needed to keep Nigeria functioning.

For more than three months, President Umaru Yar’Adua was in a Saudi Arabian hospital for treatment never made clear to his countrymen, and several delegations of government officials were turned away when they sought to see him. In his absence, concern grew, but his loyalists fought off efforts to replace him with Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.

The strong U.S. reaction to the so-called underwear bomber caused significant concern among official Nigeria, and there was no president to defend the country’s interests. Increasing violence that appeared to be due to religious disputes created gruesome headlines and rising body counts. Jos, the so-called city of peace, has been at the epicenter of the horrific events. Again, leadership was absent in either acting to prevent such violence or apprehend the perpetrators. The Federal Government issued a report condemning the role of the Nigeria Police Force in dealing with the situation.

Northerners wanted Yar’Adua to have his two full terms before a southerner took the reins of power; the unwritten political arrangement in Nigeria calls for regional “sharing” of the presidency. However, the long absence of the president finally led the National Assembly to pass a resolution calling for Jonathan to assume the role of acting president in early February, which he did shortly thereafter. A little more than two weeks later, Yar’Adua returned to Nigeria, but came back under the cover of darkness and retreated to seclusion, amid rumors that he is in a coma.

Nigerian activists were not satisfied with a caretaker President. Thousands marched to demand that the entire cabinet be fired and that President Yar’Adua appear in public. They got part of their wish. Acting President Jonathan at first fired the Attorney General and then let go the entire cabinet. As you would expect of politicians everywhere, many immediately began lobbying to get their jobs back through their state governors. Abubakar Muazu, Pioneer Youth leader of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, warned Jonathan that northern governors were not operating in his interest. There is continuing concern that Yar’Adua’s political allies want to subvert Jonathan.

When Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi stated that the conflict between Christians and Muslims could be solved only by dividing Nigeria into two nations, there was immediate outrage among Nigeria’s politicians, who immediately disparaged Ghadaffi for meddling in Nigeria’s affairs and recalled Nigeria’s ambassador to Libya. Yet the Libyan leader was voicing what some have suggested quietly for years. The unequal distribution of natural resources leaves the south in possession of the country’s oil resources. The atrophy of agriculture and mining would put the north at an immediate disadvantage if such a radical move were taken, which is extremely unlikely anyway.

Still, the reaction by religious leaders in Nigeria is interesting in their different takes on the situation. Ahmadiya Muslim Jama’at Nigeria labeled Ghadaffi’s statement uncalled for, while recommending true federalism for the country. Dr. Mashood Adenrale Fashola, head of the Islamic organization, said the bloody violence experienced in parts of Nigeria is more ethnic than religious. Meanwhile, some Christian leader supported Ghadaffi’s call for splitting the country. In fact, Bishop Joseph Ojo, the immediate past National Secretary of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, said the British amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914 has been a hindrance to the country and suggested that Nigeria be split not in two, but into six different nations. Other Christian leaders echoed his sentiment.

Too many Nigerians see themselves as members of regions or ethnic groups rather than truly accepting a national view. The supposed sectarian violence in the country reportedly is due to ethnic clashes and revenge raids, reportedly instigated by politicians using the violence for political purposes. Nevertheless, if you allow people to believe a thing is true, it can become so even if it doesn’t begin that way.

Nigerian leaders must act to resolve this disparity between their countrymen soon, or Nigeria will be de facto split if not in law. President Jonathan faces some difficult decisions, and the Yar’Adua faction can either cooperate to save their country’s future or act in their own selfish interests as so many other Nigerian leaders have done before them.

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