Last Christmas, a young Muslim from Northern Nigeria, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to destroy Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit, ostensibly on behalf of al-Qaeda. If he had succeeded, the result would have been the greatest loss of life from a terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. For this pious, even fanatic Muslim, the discontinuity between revivalist preaching, Northern Nigeria's crushing poverty and the lavish lifestyle of the wealthy establishment that included his own family likely played a role in his radicalization.
Abdulmutallab's story provides a convincing reason for Americans to understand religion in Nigeria. What happens there can affect us here. And what is happening is the concurrent revival of both Islam and Christianity, albeit refracted through an African prism. Both 'world religions' include about half of Nigeria's population and the two faiths intersect in the middle, an area referred to as the Middle Belt. The fault line runs from East to West across the country and recalls other "10th parallel" demarcations between the two religions, though each religion also has substantial minorities in the heartland of the other. In addition, the country is divided among 250-350 ethnic groups. Especially in the Middle Belt, religious boundaries often correspond to ethnic and economic cleavages. For example, on-going bloody violence around the city of Jos in Plateau state in the Middle Belt involves a struggle between Muslim Hausa-Fulani pastoralists and Christian Berom agriculturalists.
Recognizing the potential tinderbox, the interlocking networks of competing and cooperating elites that run Nigeria have long sought to exclude religion and ethnicity from presidential politics. Since the restoration of civilian government in 1999, they have largely achieved this goal through informal power sharing within the ruling party, called "zoning." Every eight years the governing party nominee for the president shifts from the Christian South to the Muslim North and then back again. Hence, the southern Christian Olusegun Obasanjo served as president from 1999 to 2007, with his vice president Atiku Abubakar, a Muslim from the North. In 2007, Obasanjo was succeeded by Umaru Yar'Adua, a Muslim from the North; his vice president was Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian.
However, Yar'Adua's death in office in May 2010, which made Jonathan president, has upset this arrangement. For many in the North, it remains their region's turn at the presidency. Hence their chagrin that Goodluck Jonathan has decided to run for the presidency in 2011 rather than stepping aside and waiting until 2015. Since Jonathan's decision, northern powerbrokers have sought a consensus candidate to oppose him in the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) primaries. For the time being, at least, the most likely consensus candidate appears to be the former vice president, Atiku Abubakar.
The concern must be that a presidential contest between a southern Christian and a northern Muslim will let the ethnic and religious genie out of the bottle, as politicians compete for control of the state. There is already anecdotal evidence that a few of Jonathan's supporters are trying to rally support for his candidacy among the Christian minority in the North on the basis of shared religious identity. On the other hand, many northern Muslims fear marginalization by a Christian government drawn from the more prosperous South. This concern may translate into support for radical Islamic organizations, such as Boko Haram, a radical Islamic sect that has been attacking police, government officials and religious leaders in the North. Further, Pew Global Attitudes Project polling data released in December 2010 showed that about half of Nigeria's Muslims have a favorable view of Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda, though none of the three are significantly present.
Nigeria has held presidential elections in 2007, 2003 and 1999. Each was worse than its predecessor. The ruling party always ensures it wins at the presidential level, though small, opposition parties may be successful at the state and local levels. "Zoned" presidential elections combined with exclusion of religion and ethnicity--the two issues the Nigerian man in the street most cares about--resulted in declining electoral participation and indifference to their largely rigged outcomes.
The elections of 2011, absent "zoning" and with likely appeals to religion and ethnicity, are likely to generate more public excitement. An awakened electorate is also likely to be less tolerant of the rigging characteristic of the past. The stage is thus set for possible violence similar to that of Kenya following its 2007 elections. In Nigeria, the army likely will step in to prevent a threat to the fundamental integrity of the state. It will probably restore order quickly and with a heavy hand. However, it is unlikely to address Nigeria's deep-seated challenges associated with poverty and division. Indeed, under that scenario, reversion to military rule, even with a possible civilian "face," will be a major setback for African democracy.
John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. His new book, Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, published by Rowman & Littlefield, is out now. He blogs at CFR.org.
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