Nigeria, Slouching Toward Nationhood

ABUJA – Nigerians like political theater, particularly if it is loud, colorful, and has a rich cast of “good” and “bad” characters. Such melodrama abounded from November 2009, when ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua was flown out of the country for treatment, until the just-concluded general elections, Nigeria’s fourth since military rule ended in 1999. According to the official results, Goodluck Jonathan, who succeeded Yar’Adua upon his death and became the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, was sworn in as President on May 29.

Jonathan was the unlikeliest of candidates in Nigeria’s take-no-prisoners presidential power game. He is an Ijaw, an ethnic minority in the South-South, one of Nigeria’s six political regions, whereas the country’s governance had historically been dominated by the three largest ethnic groups – the Hausa-Fulani, found mainly in the North-West and North-East, the Igbo in the South-East, and the Yoruba in the South-West. Complex ethnic bargaining had made Jonathan Yar’Adua’s running mate in the fraudulent 2007 election.

Jonathan entered the election campaign fighting off powerful conservative northern politicians who insisted that the PDP’s informal agreement to rotate power periodically between north and south implied that their region was entitled to five years more in office. After all, they argued, Olusegun Obasanjo, Yar’Adua’s predecessor from the largely Christian south, had wielded presidential power for eight uninterrupted years.

But an often-unacknowledged feature of Nigerian politics is that citizens usually back underdogs. The PDP, which had been in power since 1999 and had failed to tackle the country’s pressing economic and political problems, was not a favorite at the polls. Moreover, the consensus countrywide was that the revamped Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), under the leadership of Attahiru Jega, a respected university teacher, would help cut the PDP down to size by ensuring free and fair elections at long last.