Electoral Violence in Nigeria
Nigeria is a country of overlapping regional, religious, and ethnic divisions. Rifts between the North and the South of the country, ethnic groups, and Islam and Christianity often coincide and have sometimes resulted in sectarian violence. This has been the case particularly in its geographical center and in the Niger Delta region. In the Middle Belt, as the former is called, bouts of retributive bloodshed between Christian farmers and Muslim pastoralists erupt with some frequency. In the Niger Delta, an insurrection against the Abuja government has been raging for more than a decade over regional, ethnic, and environmental grievances. In all, credible observers ascribe over twelve thousand deaths since 1999 to ethnic, religious, and regional conflict in Nigeria.
Since the end of military rule eleven years ago, Nigeria's elites have largely cordoned off national presidential elections from sectarian divisions by predetermining presidential and vice presidential victors. Their People's Democratic Party (PDP) nominates one southern Christian and one northern Muslim for the presidency and vice presidency and rigs these candidates into office. Every eight years the party rotates the office for which it nominates Christian and Muslim candidates. Excluded as it is from this process of political horse trading, known as zoning, Nigeria's ethnically and religiously fractured public has become increasingly indifferent to the country's national electoral politics.
Muslim president Umaru Yar'Adua's death in May 2010 may, however, have ended the stabilizing (if undemocratic) practice of zoning. Christian vice president Goodluck Jonathan's promotion to Nigeria's highest office in the wake of Yar'Adua's illness and death has created an opportunity for the South to retain the presidency during elections scheduled for January 2011, even though under zoning a northern Muslim should be president for the next four years. With the considerable resources available to him as an incumbent president and his Ijaw constituents in the Delta region pressuring him to stay in office, Jonathan has the means and the motive to seek a full term as president. If he chooses this course, powerful northern politicians may abandon the PDP's elite consensus and challenge his candidacy. The stage would be set for a divisive and potentially violent electoral season featuring unprecedented public involvement.
If events in Nigeria so transpire, the risks to U.S. national security interests are substantial. An Abuja government paralyzed by postelection sectarian violence or a resultant military coup would be unable to collaborate with the Obama administration in regional and continental politics at a time when conflicts in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Somalia are escalating. Increased conflict would also likely reduce the flow of Nigerian oil to the international oil markets. Further, sectarian violence may spiral into a humanitarian disaster requiring an international response. While the United States has limited levers by which to steer the country clear of an electoral crisis, its special relationship with the Nigerian political class does afford it a few preventive and mitigating options.