Apr 20, 2011

Ogoni: Will the Election Riots Spread to the South?

The Independent’s Africa Correspondent Daniel Howden reports on the riots in northern Nigeria after the presidential elections and expresses his fear that the violence may spread to the Niger Delta during the upcoming state governorship elections

Below is an article published by The Independent:

Soldiers patrolled the streets, cities were under curfew and doctors counted the dead yesterday in northern Nigeria as an election trumpeted as the fairest since the end of military rule ended in deadly riots. 

Despite winning twice as many votes as his rival, Goodluck Jonathan faces a national emergency after supporters of losing presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari went on the rampage. Hundreds of people are feared dead as churches, mosques, homes and shops have been burned. Despite a heavy police presence pockets of rioting that began on Monday flared again yesterday. The Nigerian Red Cross said yesterday that nearly 400 people had been wounded. 

These elections are being closely watched for signs that recent growth in sub-Saharan Africa's second biggest economy could pave the way for political stability. 

Yesterday [19 April 2011], President Jonathan pleaded with political and religious leaders to condemn the violence: "Nobody wants to invest in a place... (where) people fight, kill and destroy."Two-thirds of the way through the electoral marathon that analysts expect to set the course for Africa's most populous country and its leading oil producer, international monitors have given their backing to the results. 

However, religious divisions stirred during campaigning have come quickly to the fore. Witnesses described seeing charred corpses and burning buildings on the approach to Kaduna, the northern city and former seat of British rule. Similar scenes were reported in the northern states of Zamfara, Kano and Katsina. 

Like so many of the towns in Nigeria's troubled middle belt Kaduna is divided between Muslim and Christian communities on opposing sides of a river. In Kano, Reverend Lado Abdu said three churches had been set ablaze. "What brought together religion and politics?" Rev. Habila said. "I want to know why when politics happen do they burn churches?" 

Nigeria's political class has repeatedly been accused of stirring religious conflict for local gain. Former military ruler, Mr Buhari, campaigned hard in his northern strongholds and was quick to reject official results that showed a close contest with Mr Jonathan's ruling party. 

The election winner has come to be known as the "accidental president" after inheriting power from Umara Yar'Adua who died last year following a long illness. 

A southern Christian from the oil-producing Niger Delta, Mr Jonathan's decision to stand for a new term in his own right violated an informal agreement in the ruling PDP party under which the presidency was rotated between candidates from the north and south. 

The PDP has dominated Nigeria's nascent democracy and there were fears that a north-south split could destabilise the country. Despite strong economic growth and a wealth of oil and gas reserves Nigeria is held back by endemic corruption and the vast majority of its 150 million people live in grinding poverty.

The rioting in the north has not affected oil exports so far but a further round of elections - for the influential state governorships - this weekend could see unrest spread to the Niger Delta. 

An armed insurrection in the Delta crippled oil production for two years and a subsequent amnesty paid off many of the rebel leaders without addressing the underlying issues behind the violence. 

Nigeria's energy wealth has been concentrated in the hands of a small elite, while much of the growing population remains unemployed and mired in poverty. Analysts saw immediate parallels between the rioters in the north and the Delta rebels. The respected Lagos-based Next newspaper wrote yesterday: "While these elections were the last straw that broke the camel's back, it was clear that these riots were also about northern youth who had, for a long time, felt disenfranchised and vested their hopes of change on the candidacy of Mr Buhari."