The current Nigerian government is widely seen as the most corrupt since independence from Britain in 1960. Ordinarily, this would be a huge problem for President Goodluck Jonathan and his People’s Democratic Party, which has been continuously in power since the end of military rule in 1999. But things are unlikely to change. To many Nigerians, it sometimes seems as if we merely swapped military dictatorship for a one-party state.
Mr. Jonathan’s name will be on the ballot this February, when Nigerians, many of them fed up with government corruption and incompetence, go to the polls. Yet events percolating across the country that could come to a boil within the next three months might actually work to the president’s advantage. Two grave problems — the Boko Haram insurgency and tensions in the oil-rich Niger Delta — hang over the land. A third, West Africa’s Ebola crisis, seems to have been contained so far, and though this has little to do with Mr. Jonathan’s leadership, the people responsible for it are unlikely to gain any political capital at his expense.
The incompetence of Mr. Jonathan’s government is most clearly seen in its inability to rescue the 276 schoolgirls, most of them believed to be Christians, who were kidnapped by Boko Haram insurgents in the largely Islamic north last April. Even at the time, the president, himself a Christian from the largely Christian south, didn’t seem much concerned about their fate. It took him almost three weeks to officially acknowledge what had happened, whereupon he belatedly invited their relatives to lunch at the presidential villa in Abuja, an event which one journalist likened to “a wedding reception,” complete with bunting and a band.
What Mr. Jonathan didn’t count upon was the international furor over the kidnappings or the powerful worldwide publicity, negative in his case, of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Seven months later, most of the girls are still missing (though dozens have managed to escape). A report by Human Rights Watch catalogued the “physical and psychological abuse they were subjected to: forced labor, forced participation in military operations, including carrying ammunition or luring men into ambush; forced marriage to their captors; and sexual abuse, including rape.”
Meanwhile, sporadic violence continues. Last week, a suicide bomber killed at least 48 students at a boys’ high school in the northeast. Rescuing the girls — or putting an end to the insurgency altogether — would certainly help Mr. Jonathan’s ambitions, but his government’s ability to do so seems most unlikely. Corruption and low morale have hobbled the military. Even so, the government announced last month that the extremists had agreed to a cease-fire, though Boko Haram has denied it.
Although the extremists have been widely condemned by leading Muslim clerics and politicians, the insurgency contributes to Christian suspicions of their Muslim compatriots, and this may well play into Mr. Jonathan’s hands come election time.
But in an effort to bridge sectarian divisions and garner votes across the religious divide, the country’s leading opposition parties, one from the largely Muslim northeast, the other from the mostly Christian southwest, have joined forces with other groups to form the All Progressives Congress. In theory, this gives the opposition a fighting chance of wresting control of the Senate and House of Representatives from the People’s Democratic Party.
Unfortunately, efforts to make common cause in Nigeria are invariably sacrificed upon the altars of religion and ethnicity. The alliance’s likely presidential candidate is a Muslim northerner, Muhammadu Buhari. He also happens to be a former dictator, who ruled Nigeria for 20 months in the mid-1980s. His administration came to an abrupt end in August 1985, when members of his cabinet, alienated by his efforts to root out corruption, forced him out. Though widely unpopular, many Nigerians feel he has the credentials to tackle corruption. Moreover, one potential running mate is Babatunde Raji Fashola, the two-term governor of Lagos State who has distinguished himself by successfully tackling the incipient Ebola crisis with the same energy and efficiency that he brought to modernizing the infrastructure of Lagos, the biggest port in West Africa. But there are also doubts about his commitment to clean government, fueled by the fact that he is a protègé of Ahmed Bola Tinubu, a former governor of the same state and a founding member of the All Progressives Congress whose reputation has been tarnished by corruption scandals, even though he has never been convicted of corruption.
Though Mr. Fashola is a Muslim with a Catholic wife, few Christians (or for that matter even the generally more-liberally minded Muslims of the south) would be inclined to vote for a Muslim-Muslim ticket.
Religious differences are a key factor in voting, but perhaps patronage plays a greater role, a lesson Mr. Jonathan learned in the Niger Delta, where he taught school and gained political prominence. Like any savvy politician, he knows that patronage is a two-way street, and he has been careful to keep the money flowing in a region plagued by resentment over oil rights, piracy and periodic unrest.
Oil is Nigeria’s greatest source of wealth, providing about 90 percent of the nation’s foreign exchange earnings, but many people among the delta’s diverse ethnic groups feel that the central government has seized control of their oil without adequate compensation. The government says it loses about $3 billion a year due to piracy, widely seen as aided and abetted by the military. Local gangs also take what they can by tapping pipelines. In the past, anger over corruption and the unfair redistribution of wealth has fueled a dangerous political militancy. Everyone knows that if the militants want to, they can easily stop oil production, which would bankrupt the country.
Thus Mr. Jonathan takes care to ensure that the region is well looked after, and this contributes to his enormous popularity there. Indeed, he is widely seen as crucial to keeping the lid on potential unrest. In the words of Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a former leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force who is now a key supporter, if Mr. Jonathan is not re-elected next year, there will be “blood in the streets.”