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Nigeria: Closer to the Brink?

Author: John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies
November 12, 2010
Rowman & Littlefield


The breakdown of an elite power-sharing agreement in the run-up to the Nigeria's 2011 presidential elections increases the risk of regional and ethnic confrontation. The key to avoiding this tragic outcome is for the country's political elites to forswear self-serving appeals to ethnic, religious, or regional identities and to ensure credible elections.

Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria was created by the British in 1914 by cobbling together people never before part of the same entity, including some 350 ethnic groups, each with its own language. Despite an Islamic presence since the Middle Ages, the country is also now roughly divided between the two religions, causing tension in some regions, especially where religious and ethnic boundaries coincide.

After the 1998 death of the last military dictator, the ruling elites operating within the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) developed an unwritten power-sharing understanding, called “zoning,” to manage these divisions. The PDP presidential candidate came to rotate between elites from the predominately Christian South and the predominately Muslim North. If the presidential candidate was Christian, then the vice-presidential candidate was Muslim, and vice versa. The elites ensured that their candidates always won elections, and the Nigerian public increasingly stayed home.

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