Stability must wait

International | After a vote called "comparatively peaceful," America's 5th-largest oil supplier still perilously sits on a Christian/Muslim divide

Issue: "Staying underground," May 3, 2003

Nigeria's presidential election is over, but the political outcome may not be decided until months after a May inauguration. Results of April 19 polling favored incumbent Olusegun Obasanjo, but the country has a history of rough transitions from one civilian government to another. Allegations of vote rigging and irregularities followed elections in 1965 and 1983, pretexts that culminated in military coups that installed generals as heads of state. Mr. Obasanjo's first electoral victory, in 1999, ended 16 years of military rule.

In addition to coup potential, this time around observers fear Muslim-Christian clashes. The election pitted Mr. Obasanjo, a Christian, against Muslim Muhammadu Buhari. Increasingly the country is divided over religious affiliations. Twelve of the 16 northern and central states have either adopted or plan to adopt Shariah law, the Islamic criminal code. Growing Muslim fervor has increasingly distanced the north from the south in the last five years, and has led to street clashes that have killed thousands.

Foreign observers and opposition parties accuse Mr. Obasanjo's government of stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating voters in six southern states, although the observers say overall the election was fair. Ambushing the capital's media center before the winner was announced, Mr. Buhari and other opposition leaders said they will not recognize any government Mr. Obasanjo forms.

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"All of this is the calm before the storm," said Emmanuel Ogebe, a legal consultant on Nigeria. "Wait till 2004 and say, 'Okay, it worked.'" As the United States' fifth-largest oil supplier, waiting is hard to do. The country's stability is of vital concern. Even as American officials brainstorm over how to create a free and stable Iraq, a Nigeria starkly divided between the Muslim north and Christian south shows how difficult it is for the seeds of democracy to take root.

Mr. Obasanjo was a southerner who became a Christian while a political prisoner. Once a military ruler in 1976, he was favored by the Muslim military elite as a presidential candidate four years ago. With Mr. Obasanjo's new unabashed devotion to the Christian faith, Muslim military leaders turned to Mr. Buhari, who supports Shariah, as a "golden retriever to reclaim power for the north," said Mr. Ogebe.

Part of the regionalism stems from colonial practices. The British allowed the Muslim tribal rulers of the north to retain and extend their rule over central areas, while patterning the south after Western-styled government. Keeping the unity was bound to be difficult: Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, with almost 130 million people and more than 250 ethnic groups. Muslims comprise half the population and Christians make up 40 percent, with the remaining 10 percent practicing a combination of the two or animism.

Without voting irregularities, Mr. Obasanjo was unequivocally favored to win. In some northern states where Mr. Buhari was expected to sweep, Mr. Obasanjo garnered 15 percent of the vote. For Nigerians, the Muslim leader came with unshakable political baggage-he seized power in 1983 and proved to be a ruthless dictator. Instituting a "war against indiscipline" to curb government corruption and unruliness in society, law enforcers even cracked whips at customers to make them line up straight.

Mr. Buhari's regime also jailed about 500 political dissidents. He served in 1998 under Sani Abacha, who headed what Mr. Ogebe described as the most brutal and corrupt dictatorship the country has ever seen.

"It's inconceivable that he would have won," said Mr. Ogebe. "If Buhari had run unopposed, he would have lost," he added. Mr. Buhari failed to satisfy the electoral law stipulating that a candidate must win 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of the country's 36 states to become president.

Runaway results favoring Mr. Obasanjo should not cloud the importance of the April vote. The fate of Shariah law hung on this election: Mr. Buhari would have used a victory to blanket the nation with the system. Mr. Obasanjo, by contrast, opposes its punishments, such as stoning, amputations, and flogging.

Nonetheless, the president's last term has hardly been scintillating. State corruption is rampant, and about 10,000 Nigerians have died in ethnic and political violence. On the plus side, he detained no political prisoners and allowed freedom of the press. The president's main task, Mr. Ogebe says, should now be to groom a new generation of leaders to succeed him: "I chalk up his last four years to a costly reorientation exercise."

Mr. Obasanjo attended church services the day after the election and thanked God for elections that were "comparatively peaceful, free, and fair." It's words like comparatively that keep this fractured nation on edge.


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