On Saturday, Nigeria accomplished something that even four years ago seemed impossible: it held peaceful and legitimate elections.
Proving the skeptics and the fear-mongerers wrong, Nigerians marched to the polls and waited for hours in the blazing sun and stifling humidity to cast their ballots in the hotly contested presidential vote. But subsequent violence cast a shadow over Saturday’s vote, which was widely praised as the fairest since the country abandoned military rule since 1999.
The vote pitted incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian from the oil-rich delta, against one-time military ruler and northerner Muhammadu Buhari. Mr. Buhari, who has staked his reputation on his sometimes brutal intolerance for corruption in a country rife with it, was strongly favored in the north, but Mr. Jonathan – who polled as high as 99.8 perfect in his home state of Bayelsa – took the victory.
The results of the vote indicate a deepening divide between the north and the south – one that President Jonathan, who rose to power when his predecessor died in office, may find difficult to bridge.
“All the northern states don’t like Jonathan, that is the message clearly out,” says Halima Ben Umar, a women’s rights activist in the northern city of Kano who like many other northerners was dismayed when it became apparent Sunday night that Jonathan would win.Violence breaks out
On Sunday, as results from each of Nigeria’s 36 states were read on live national television, tension began to build among northerners whose rallying cry during the campaign was “Only Buhari!”
By mid-morning on Monday, young men had taken to the streets in several northern cities, armed with wooden planks and lighter fuel, apparently motivated to protest the results. The mobs quickly turned violent and began burning wood and tires to create informal checkpoints and later setting fire to homes of known supporters of Jonathan and his ruling People’s Democratic Party in the cities of Kaduna and Kano.
The death tolls from the riots that followed are not yet clear, though a doctor at Murtalla Muhammed hospital in Kano told the Monitor that he had seen “about 10 people” dead in the emergency ward on Monday afternoon.
The police quickly announced curfews in several northern states. In Kano, they fired shots overhead outside the main hospital to disperse rioters, most of whom form the “ready army” of unemployed men who have often been manipulated by politicians to wreak havoc in past elections.
After years of sham polls marred by what Nigerian newspapers frequently call “political thuggery” by opportunistic politicians, Saturday was a chance to demand change.
That was particularly true for citizens in the vast, arid, and underdeveloped northern region. Despite Nigeria’s enormous oil wealth, concentrated in the south, the majority of northern Nigerians under 30 years old are deeply impoverished, unemployed, and increasingly discontented with the country’s leadership.
“We are protesting with our vote,” says Mohammed Issa Jamal, an unemployed father of four who earned a linguistics degree but drives a motorcycle taxi from time to time to support this family. Jamal accuses political elites in his country of stoking local violence in order “to distract us from the real issues,” including lack of basic services for citizens.Praise for the vote
The Nigerian observation group known as Project Swift Count reported that citizens such as Jamal were “generally provided with a meaningful opportunity to exercise their right to vote,” noting that various reports of possible rigging and voter intimidation “did not undermine the overall credibility of the process.”
In some cases, dedicated voters also helped with crowd control, demanding that their fellow citizens remain orderly during the long wait many faced at polling stations that clocked high turnout figures.
One man in the northern city of Kaduna nearly lost his voice while shouting the names to a boisterous crowd of registered voters who had to present themselves for accreditation before they could cast ballots.
Going forward, the high political awareness of urban Nigerians, combined with their use of smartphones to blog and Tweet about political trends, means that citizens in both north and south will be holding their newly elected president accountable throughout his four-year term.