LAGOS, 15 March (IRIN) - A new-found hope was the abiding sentiment of Nigerians last year when civilian President Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in, ending the curse of military rule and promising to put the country back on its feet.
But just 10 months on, the government is facing a political crisis that threatens to dismember Nigeria. In the wake of last month's bloody sectarian clashes that left hundreds dead, some regional leaders have been calling for a rethink of the basis of the country's unity.
Nigeria's political class may baulk at the idea of regional separation. One communication specialist told IRIN: "We're at the brink but we have not jumped yet". However, on the streets of Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos, that does not appear such a radical solution to the problems of coexistence in such a diverse country. Several times this week, IRIN was told that if peace demanded the breakup of the 36-state federation, comprising three big ethnic blocs and over 250 smaller nationalities, people were willing to pay that price.
"The time to decide is now," human rights lawyer Olisa Agbakoba told IRIN. "It has not been written in heaven that we should stay together. This is perhaps the most important period in Nigeria's political life since 1966 (when sectarian violence led to civil war a year later). For me this is it, there is no going back (to the status quo)."
The introduction of full-blown Sharia (Islamic) law in the remote northern state of Zamfara by Governor Ahmed Sani Yerima early this year was the beginning of Nigeria's latest crisis. It was hugely popular locally and other northern governors, who had not mentioned Sharia during their election campaigns, announced they were considering its adoption.
The explosion occurred at the end of February in Kaduna, with its mix of Christians and Muslims, after the state assembly said it would study a Sharia bill. Protesting Christians were attacked and four days of religious violence ensued. Tit-for-tat killings broke out in three southeastern towns in which northerners were targeted.
Shocked into action, Obasanjo called a National Council of State meeting for the 19 northern governors on 29 February, after which they appeared to agree to return to the legal code in existence since independence in 1960. Under Nigeria's secular constitution, Sharia is recognised, but limited to civil rather than criminal law.
"Officially they backed down, but the reality might be different," the director of the Constitutional Rights Project, Clement Nwankwo, told IRIN. "This thing is out of the hands of the political leaders and has moved to the streets. I don't think Nigeria is going to break up. I don't think anybody is sitting down to carve the country up, but my fear is that (the Sharia) issue is going to drag on and on."
In the south, historically in an uneasy relationship with the Muslim north which had held power almost exclusively until Obasanjo's election victory, the crisis is seen as a deliberate attempt by northern political and business interests to destabilise the government. The decision to shelve Sharia, reached at the Council of State meeting, was immediately condemned by two former heads of state, Shehu Shagari and the man who deposed him in a 1983 coup, Muhammadu Buhari.
Both are members of the arch-conservative Sokoto royal family. According to the lively southern-based media, they have risen as champions of Sharia - which they did not support during their tenures as heads of state - to protect the interests of the old political order under threat from Obasanjo's government.
Traditional northern politics is based on the royal families of the northwest but Obasanjo's government, while retaining a northern flavour, has largely looked outside that constituency, analysts said. More crucially, the key government positions from which patronage has historically been dispensed are now out of the northwest's control.
"Some people in the north are angry their political relevance has been questioned and their economic patronage that has fuelled their business is threatened. It is important for them to go back to the status quo," Nwankwo said. "I don't think corruption has reduced under Obasanjo, it's just that the competition is more open, and northern businessmen were not prepared. In the past, a contract was just slipped to you."
Agbakoba sees the Sharia issue as a direct political threat to the government. He points out that the core northwest states, where Sharia has been championed hardest, are in the hands of the opposition All People's Party (APP).
"Sharia becomes a tool to get back into the system," he said. "In presidential elections in 2003. APP will use Sharia to ensure they retain those states, and then they will look for a (political) partner from the other regions. Obasanjo was put there by northern money, but now they want their crown back."
The government has insisted that Sharia is an issue that must be resolved politically, rather than through a Supreme Court ruling on its constitutionality. Analysts say the mathematics are very simple. Out of 17 Supreme Court judges, nine are Muslims and the government is unsure it could win a court victory.
Agbakoba, however, has challenged the Sharia in Zamfara's High Court and intends to take it all the way to the Supreme Court. "I disagree with the government," he said. "It's an important question that needs to be resolved. We would all like to know where we stand with Sharia."
"The main question is political," he added. "If I can't go to Zamfara unless under armed guard, it calls into question the validity of the Nigerian state. If the consequence of this issue is that we break up, so be it. The question thrown up by this issue is what political arrangements do Nigerians want to see?"
But some human rights groups see Agbakoba's challenge as a mistake. Rather than forcing a court ruling on Sharia, they would prefer to see the crisis managed. "The way out of the situation is political. It's late night meetings, horse trading, and maybe some arm twisting as well, until the north quietly drops it," one analyst said.
But a related problem is that Obasanjo's leadership has been heavily criticised for being less that sure-footed in the crisis. "A lot of Nigerians are disappointed. If they support him it's because they don't want the military back in office. But he's too old and surrounded by recycled ministers. He comes from the past and doesn't have the energy. He needs to bring in young men with vision," Nwankwo said.
Increasingly there are calls for a sovereign national conference - with representatives from across the country - to meet and thrash out the numerous problems inherited from the brutal and self-serving years of military rule. "If we need to talk for years, then let us keep talking if that saves us from violence," one government official told IRIN. But Obasanjo has rejected that approach, pointing out that only his administration has a mandate to govern.
"We don't need to rub his nose in it and call it 'sovereign', but we should all recognise that there is something fundamentally wrong with the political system which the national assembly and presidency cannot deal with," Agbakoba said.
However, according to an analyst, Obasanjo
is attempting to cool tempers. Over the weekend he persuaded southern governors
to cancel a planned meeting in the southeastern city of Enugu, a move that
almost inevitably would have led to finger pointing at the north, escalating
the tension. "Negotiations are still possible," the analyst said,
but with trouble
still simmering, "people are sleeping with one eye open."
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