by Dele Olojede
Last weekend, we trooped to the polls on street corners and under almond trees in this rough and ready city of 10 million to elect a new president. Everything seemed orderly and peaceful and oddly celebratory. This time, unusually, we even believed our votes would count.
The results that trickled in suggested that Goodluck Jonathan, who succeeded Umaru Yar’Adua upon his death in 2010, had been elected our president. And with that, we Nigerians quietly reached an encouraging but little-noticed milestone: we’ve held four elections at four-year intervals, and in the process passed power to three different presidents without a soldier’s rifle pointed at anyone’s head.
We still have trouble counting votes accurately, but nobody’s perfect. We take comfort that even in America, chads occasionally hang and the Supreme Court hands down Solomonic judgments.
While our democracy remains rickety and our ruling elites remain unable to distinguish between public funds and private purposes, we take these baby steps as a sign that we will eventually get it right.
Mr. Jonathan, with nearly 60 percent of the votes declared in his favor, appears to have persuaded at least a plurality of Nigerians, as well as most external election monitors, that his victory is legitimate.
But Mr. Jonathan does have a big problem: a lack of support in the country’s north. Whether he is able to manage it will determine if Nigeria succeeds in becoming Africa’s economic and political heart, as its size and resources would suggest. Indeed, the rest of Africa will probably never fulfill its potential with a dysfunctional Nigeria. Nor can the United States, which gets more than 10 percent of its oil imports from Nigeria, afford disarray here at a time of upheaval in the Middle East.
Mr. Jonathan’s victory was based almost entirely on support from the largely Christian and economically dominant south. In the mainly Muslim, deeply impoverished and increasingly alienated north, voters overwhelmingly backed Mr. Jonathan’s opponent, the former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari — a taciturn and somewhat ascetic leader whose handling of the implicit power now bestowed on him is just as important as Mr. Jonathan’s tact in defusing an explosive situation. Mr. Jonathan cannot govern effectively in the face of active opposition by Mr. Buhari and his talakawa — or commoners — movement.
On Monday, shortly after Mr. Jonathan’s victory was announced by election officials, mobs of mostly young and unemployed people went on a rampage in northern Nigeria, attacking symbols of authority, local notables and traditional and religious leaders. Those perceived to be “non-indigenes” — Christians and migrants from the south and other regions — also became targets of the mobs’ rage. In the upheaval, quelled for now by the army, more than 100 people have died.
Typically, such a violent reaction would not have raised many eyebrows in a country where the government has come to be seen as an obstacle to citizens’ aspirations and communities competing for resources settle their differences not in the courts but with machetes or, in the oil-rich Niger Delta, through sabotage, kidnappings and bombings.
But the current fury in Nigeria’s north is different and alarming: the population, long ruled by a conservative religious and political elite, has for the first time turned on its most revered institutions, burning the palaces of emirs and the homes of religious leaders seen as “collaborators” with the corrupt political establishment in Abuja, the capital.
Even the Sultan of Sokoto, the most powerful and respected Muslim religious figure in Nigeria, was pelted with satchels of water in the street — a hitherto unthinkable act of public humiliation. Powerful Muslim businessmen, suspected of bribing voters and attempting to rig elections in Mr. Jonathan’s favor, also had their homes set ablaze.
Over the past few days we have seen the old order go up in the smoke rising over emirs’ palaces. A climate of fear has descended on the north. In many cities, now placed under curfew, residents cower indoors, terrified of what will come next. The very future of the country, whether it remains unified or the cleavage demonstrated in voting patterns becomes concrete, depends on the leadership skills displayed by Mr. Jonathan and Mr. Buhari over the coming days and weeks.
Mr. Jonathan, the first president who does not hail from one of Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups — he’s an Ijaw from the Niger Delta — may well be the right man to navigate the tricky rapids and falls ahead. But he has a weak team and he owes many people after a campaign notable for its unrestrained spending.
Mr. Jonathan’s immediate task, with behind-the-scenes help from Washington and London, is to find a way to keep Mr. Buhari in his tent. His tougher task is to rebuild the economic foundations of the country in a way that serves the impoverished masses.
Nigeria possesses the natural resources to finance its own future. What we don’t know is whether President Jonathan has the combination of courage, guile and clear thinking to use those resources to reduce the savage inequalities that allow a tiny elite to control the lion’s share of the country’s wealth.
Dele Olojede is the publisher of the Nigerian newspaper NEXT and a former foreign editor of Newsday.
This article first appeared in http://www.nytimes.com