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Pulling Nigeria Back from the Brink

Once again, Nigeria seems at the brink of disintegration, this time with the threat by parliament to impeach President Olesegun Obasanjo. But Nigeria has always been remarkable for producing surprising outcomes. Time and again, Africa "experts" issue dire warnings about the country's impending implosion, and time and again, Nigeria holds together, however precariously.

The forces working to undermine Nigeria's unity and stability are as varied as they are powerful. But the factors that hold together this huge, socially diverse country of over 120 million people are equally potent and tenacious, constantly pulling the country back from the brink--even as the most sanguine foreign observers brace themselves for the worst.

This time, ethnic and religious tensions are rising with the approach of next year's presidential elections, the second since military rule ended in 1999. Unemployed urban youth and ethnic militias are driving an upsurge of armed robbery and political violence in such cities as Lagos and Warri in the south, and Kaduna and Kano in the north. The political/ecological crisis in the oil-producing communities of the Niger River delta threatens to spin out of control as irate youth and impoverished women accuse the oil companies and state officials of despoiling their habitat and taking their oil without giving back much in return.

But most outsiders fail to grasp the maze of living threads that bind Nigerians to one another. Fulani cattle herdsmen and butchers, originally from the country's north, are a familiar scene in eastern cities and towns. Igbo merchants and artisans crowd the famous market of Kano and other northern cities. Lagos, the nation's commercial capital, is a city of mongrels and hybrids, with no ethnic group in command.