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Salisu Suleiman: The Post-Election in Nigeria

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[Editor’s note: Salisu Suleiman is a highly regarded newspaper columnist from Nigeria, most often writing for NEXT Newspaper. This is his third and final contribution to our blog – check out his first and second pieces.]

It was not dissimilar to the opening of an action film.  All land, air and sea borders of Nigeria were locked down, preventing anyone from leaving or entering the country. All flights were grounded. Movement within cities and towns was restricted. Interstate travel was prohibited. Sporadic gunfire was heard in many cities; bombs destroyed public buildings, killing several people. There was evident fear in the air and palpable tension everywhere.

International monitoring groups and other observers moved from one location to another to ascertain the state of things. There were roadblocks manned by fierce-looking policemen every few streets. The military was out in force. Armoured personnel carriers were deployed at strategic locations. The economy shut down completely; hardly anything could be bought or sold, while the revolutionary language on the street proclaimed phrases such as “no retreat, no surrender until we capture that zone.”  Others sought refuge in prayer at the many churches and mosques across the vast countryside.

The country had not been invaded nor had it declared war on another state.  Instead, this past 16 of April, the citizens of Africa’s most populous and often misgoverned nation headed out to the polls to vote for their next president.

 

The election featured the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner who came to power following the death of his boss, President Umaru Yar’Adua, against the popular former
military leader Muhammadu Buhari from the Muslim North.  As ethnic and religious lines were stretched to breaking point, the incumbent secured a comfortable victory, thanks mainly to what some observers call a systematic rigging of the ballots and widespread use of public funds in the service of the campaign.

How did Goodluck win so many votes in the hostile North? The ruling party claims that young voters came out in unprecedented droves to support the president in these Northern states, while the opposition is crying foul that while national voter turnout ranged from 45-55%, meaning that this would be an impossible outcome.  In areas controlled by the ruling PDP party, turnout was an unprecedented 80-90%, with an improbable 99.96% of votes going the ruling party’s way in some states, which is a statistical fantasy enjoyed by many despots of the world who dabble in fixed elections. Any thorough judicial process, including forensic analysis of ballot papers would probably reveal multiple thumb printings among all the other irregularities. But that’s another story, one that is eagerly forgotten by those who simply wish Nigeria to move forward with stability.

Even though we have come to expect such tragedies and prepare for them, all the security measures put in place failed to stop the outbreak of sectarian violence.  Even before the election results were officially declared, angry youths in parts of the north attacked local politicians, accusing them of colluding with the ruling party to rob their candidate of victory. Christians and were also killed and churches burnt, leading to reprisal killing of Muslims and destruction of mosques. God was  evidently forgotten in the ensuing carnage that left over 500 people dead and property worth billions destroyed before being brought under
control.

What many outsiders fail to appreciate is the enormous economic impact that is inherent in the great unspoken social pact predominant throughout Nigerian democracy, that power should be equally and alternatively transferred between a Northern presidency and a Southern presidency, negotiated and pacted by a number of highly influential regional religious, labor, and political leaders.  The presidency carries with it a number of ministerial assignments, and while one could write volumes of books about the corruption or inefficient pork barrel politics of this process, it also includes thousands of jobs and general economic well being that either goes to one community or another.  Goodluck Jonathan’s completion of Yar’Adua’s term, and, indeed, the perception that the president lost effective leadership years earlier, gave rise to discontent that the South was doubling up with back-to-back presidential administrations, and many of the Northern leaders did not give their backing to the PDP candidacy – something that is unprecedented for the country.

In any event, Nigeria’s electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared incumbent Goodluck Jonathan as the winner of Nigeria’s presidential elections and challenged aggrieved parties to seek legal redress against what on the surface would pass as one of the best organized and transparent elections in Nigeria’s history. But as John Campbell, former US Ambassador to Nigeria noted, votes were most likely inflated in favour of the ruling party at the collation centres. That too, is another story.

For now, Mr. Jonathan is awaiting the commencement of a fresh four-year term beginning with formal inauguration on May 29, 2011. Nigeria’s powerful military, traditional rulers and the political elite have endorsed his election. For all practical purposes, the matter is settled. What should we expect from Mr. Jonathan?

In terms of foreign policy, there will be little or no changes to Nigeria’s approach. The centrepiece of the country’s foreign policy remains Africa, but the USA, UK and the EU remain strategic partners. Nigeria is also likely to begin a strategy to deepen relations with the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), several of whom have already shown an interest in gaining access to strategic oil reserves and untapped mineral wealth.

Economically, the oil industry is critical to the Nigerian economy as earns over 90% of the country’s foreign exchange.  For anyone keeping an eye on political risk and resource nationalism, Mr. Jonathan’s government is not likely to introduce dramatic changes to existing contracts; the sector is underfunded and Nigeria needs foreign investments to increase production in the upstream and downstream sectors.  To wit, it’s not even possible for a business in the center of Lagos to survive one day without rolling blackouts in the power supply, so the international partners that come up with the best infrastructure and power utilities plans are likely to win their tenders. A watered down version of the contentious Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) will likely be passed, without impacting on the industry in any significant way.

Apart from oil, Nigeria is an investor’s haven with many sectors begging for attention. Few countries have a higher percentage return on investment than Nigeria. Mining, infrastructure and services are open to investors on good terms.

For better or worse, Nigeria has a new president, and will attempt to heal and look forward to developing its profound potential for economic growth despite enduring cancers of corruption and unfairness in the democratic process.  While many outside investors and political partners are eager to buy into the fantasy of national cohesion around the election of Goodluck Jonathan, it is much more important to monitor how quickly the sectarian and ethnic divisions are healed.  At the moment, instability and violence are still enormously likely, given the high level of public outrage and feelings of exclusion – and it will take an especially innovative and focused set of policies from the new government to address these social issues. These dynamics will in turn determine how rapidly Nigeria’s dream of becoming Africa’s largest economy and investor’s haven is realized.