Presidential elections in Nigeria and Liberia: The issues at stake

Abuja officially became the capital city of Nigeria in 1991, replacing Lagos. It is located in the centre of the country in the Federal Capital Territory. Built in the 1980s and 1990s, it is a planned city, comparable to the capital of Brazil since 1960, Brasilia, which must have inspired the Nigerians. The Federal Republic of Nigeria comprises of 36 States. Click here if you want to know more about each State and here for a map showing the 36 States. Lagos is by far the largest of the Nigerian cities and with an estimated population of some 15 million people it is the second largest city on the African continent, after Cairo. Nobody knows how many mega cities Nigeria counts, there must be at least 20. With an overall population of 150 million people (estimate) and black Africa’s second largest economy, after South Africa, Nigeria is a giant.

With a total population of 3.5 million and a modern economy still devastated, seven years after the end of the Second Civil War and the departure of warlord-president Charles Taylor, Liberia cannot compare to Nigeria. Yet, in my opinion the forthcoming presidential elections are equally important in both countries. I will clarify this statement because I do realize that there will be many people who disagree with this comparison.

In Nigeria, the 2011 presidential elections might stir unrest. After the death of President Yar’Adua, a ‘Northerner’, earlier this year, a ‘Southerner’ took over, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. With over 250 ethnic groups Nigerian politics are characterized by an uncertain balance. Broadly speaking, we may distinguish ‘Hausaland’ in the north and ‘Yorubaland’ in the southwest, whereas in the southeast of the country live the politically important Igbos – who unsuccessfully tried to break away from the rest of Nigeria in the late 1960s (‘the Biafra war’). The political party of Yar’Adua and Jonathan Goodluck, the Peoples Democratic Party, is the only of the more than 60 registered political parties in Nigeria which does not have a specific, narrow regional base (read: ethnic base). However, the first successful presidental candidate of the PDP, Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba and ‘southerner’, served two terms (1999 – 2007), after which a ‘northerner’ would serve two terms. Obasanjo was succeeded by Yar’Adua who, however, did not complete his first term. Consequently, northerners in the PDP now claim that not someone from the majority-Christian south – Goodluck Jonathan – but someone from the mainly Muslim north should be the presidential candidate of the PDP in the 2011 elections. Nigeria is not only an ethnically diverse country but also there are important religious cleavages. But the most important difference may be yet to come.

The oil wealth of the country is exploited in the south, in the Niger Delta, and the proceeds are distributed among all 36 States though a complicated system which leaves the southern states – where the wealth is generated – unsatisfied whereas the northern states are always looking for ways to increase their share. The Nigerian constitution does not allow the Federal Government to intervene in the affairs of the States. The governors of these States are nearly allmighty people.

This is exactly what is at stake in the Nigerian presidential elections of next year: national unity, the distribution of oil revenues, and the immediate future of the continent’s potential superpower. ‘Nigeria is a nice set of countries’ as someone once told me. In fact, the 36 States of the Federal Republic of Nigeria are 36 mini republics, their Governors being the unproclaimed presidents of these mini republics. Some of these States have a larger Gross Domestic Product or population than in neighbouring independent countries – like Liberia.

To be continued

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