For Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo, things have never been so bleak. It will now take a miracle to return him to office in the 2003 election. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which began almost as a joke with the declaration of Shari’a law in the remote northern state of Zamfara, is now a make or break issue for his regime. The clashes between Christians and Muslims, which disrupted the Miss World competition, are getting worse. And a former head of state, General Muhammadu Buhari, has called on Nigerian Muslims to vote only for fellow Muslims, and then promptly declared his interest in running for the presidency.
Since coming to office three years ago, Obasanjo has worked hard to woo the west. But as coverage of the riots shows, the west has not taken much notice. The reaction of the Miss World contestants to the carnage got more coverage than the consequence of the violence on Nigeria’s future.
In fact, both beauty pageant and religion were only incidental to the riots. The main cause is Nigeria’s dysfunctional politics. Take a country of 125m people divided into about 250 distinct ethnic groups, add religion, poverty and oil, and long periods of military dictatorship, and what you have is a very volatile compound.
Power sharing in Nigeria has always formed along ethnic lines: the mainly Hausa north versus the Ibo and Yoruba south, in keeping with the example set by the divide-and-rule British. At independence in 1960, the British handed power to the less literate but politically more sophisticated north, and ever since, except for brief intervals when the north finds it expedient to relinquish power to the south, the equation has remained unchanged. Obasanjo is one of only three of Nigeria’s 12 rulers to have been southerners. The south has held power for less than ten of the 42 years in which the country has been independent-the north exercising power mostly through military dictatorship.
This one-sided equation was bound to be challenged. In Nigeria, where the only profitable business is government, being in power is a matter of life and death. The cry for power transfer to the south reached its peak after Moshood Abiola, a businessman from the south, contested and probably won the presidency in 1993. He was denied power by the then military ruler, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, a northerner known as the “Evil Genius.”
Then came General…