This may be setting the bar fairly low, but west Africa has been getting more news coverage than usual this year. There’s been the war crimes trial of Liberia’s Charles Taylor, the post-election standoff in Côte d’Ivoire that finally saw the triumph last week of Alassane Ouattara, and now a divisive and disputed election in Nigeria.

Incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan, who took office last year on the death of his predecessor, has been declared the winner in the first round with 57% of the vote. The announcement was followed by widespread rioting in the north, which had voted strongly for his main opponent, general Muhammadu Buhari.

In a sense, of course, elections are supposed to be “divisive” — an election that shows near-unanimity among voters is almost certainly not an exercise in democracy. And since a nominal return to civilian rule in 1999, Nigeria’s elections have generally been regarded as seriously flawed.

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This time, however, the process has been the subject of much more care:  in the lead-up to the polls and in voting on Sunday, international observers seem to have been impressed by the fairness and impartiality of the electoral commission. Opposition supporters say they are not convinced — Buhari last week told the BBC that the ruling party was just trying “to rig this election in a more sophisticated way” — but there is nothing implausible in the idea that Jonathan would get 57% in a free vote.

It’s inevitable, however, that an election in which voting patterns are strongly dictated by geography and ethnicity raises questions about the country’s viability as a single entity. The north of the country is overwhelmingly Muslim; the more wealthy south, which supported Johnathan, is largely Christian.

As in most of Africa, they are together not out of free choice but due to arbitrary boundaries drawn by European colonists. (Nigeria was British-ruled until 1960.) There has already been one major civil war, in the 1960s, although that pitted east against west.

The comparison may seem incongruous, but in a way Nigeria is not unlike Belgium: a country that we’ve become used to having around despite its artificiality, but where the underlying division is never far from the surface. Elections last year in Belgium produced a political crisis that is still unresolved due to the apparently incompatible demands of the different ethnic groups.

To prevent Nigeria going the same way will be Jonathan’s big task. It’s not impossible that the best solution would be a radical devolution of power as in Belgium, or even peaceful separation a la Czechoslovakia. This year’s referendum in southern Sudan has already shown that colonial boundaries are not sacred, but African leaders are understandably apprehensive about just how far revision, once started, might lead — especially with a precedent as big as Nigeria.

For although it rarely features on the nightly news, Nigeria matters. It is by far the most populous country in Africa, and it dwarfs everything else in west Africa (a look down Wikipedia’s list of African countries by population is quite instructive). It is rich in natural resources and already boasts an impressive growth rate; if it can get its governance issues under control and stay united in the process it will one day be a major world player.

But if the two goals of democracy and union end up being incompatible, it needs to be remembered that there are much worse things than disunion. If it takes dictatorship to hold a country together, it’s probably best to give up the attempt.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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