By Barnaby Phillips
I was having dinner with two Nigerian friends in Lagos, just days before the recent presidential elections. One friend comes from the north of the country, the other from the south.
"There’s an ugly truth to this election campaign, which no-one is talking about," said the northerner.
“In the south, they won’t vote for Muhammadu Buhari simply because they don’t want to give power back to the north. That’s all there is to it. We will vote along regional lines”, she explained.
The southerner protested, insisting that he had no time for regional prejudice. He had chosen to support Goodluck Jonathan, whom he insisted was “the best of a weak list”.
In Nigeria, your political perspective is still, above all, defined by which part of the country you’re from. In the south, many people believe that Jonathan’s victory derived from the cleanest and fairest election Nigeria has ever held.
But try telling that to the angry mobs rampaging through Kano and Kaduna. Regardless of whether there was widespread fraud on election day, as alleged by the losing camp, and denied by the winners, (I’ll leave that assessment to the election observers and the courts), it’s hard to define the whole electoral process as a success when it has caused so much death and destruction.
This is a large and complex country, and it is difficult to generalise. Across Nigeria, most people of different faiths and ethnicities live together in peace, and have done so for generations.
Here in Lagos, for example, Yoruba families happily share Christian and Muslim identities without a hint of friction, in a way that puts parts of the Middle East and Europe to shame.
But it’s also true that anyone who travels around Nigeria, and is curious enough to garner opinions, will soon hear widespread prejudices about people from other regions.
If I had an English pound, or even a Nigerian naira, for every time I’ve been told that “The northerners are all …[add your own unflattering adjectives]..”, or, “we can’t trust the southerners because they are all [ditto]” , I would be a very rich man.
There is a sickening familiarity to what is now unfolding in the northern cities. When I lived here, I saw the same scenes in 1999 and 2000 in Kano, Kaduna, but also in southern cities like Sagamu and Aba. And, of course, those with longer memories, will remember the massacres of 1966.
President Jonathan, to his credit, had the courage to draw that link himself, saying these “acts of mayhem are sad reminders” of “an unfortunate civil war [that] as a nation we are yet to come to terms with”.
These events are so sad because they help to unpick the fabric of Nigeria as a nation.
Take the city of Kaduna, for example. Before the dreadful Sharia riots of 2000, different religions and ethnic groups shared neighbourhoods. But after all the violence and killing, those mixed neighbourhoods have unravelled, and Kaduna is now a city largely divided between respective Muslim and Christian halves.
Another example; Nigeria has a compulsory youth service, the National Youth Service Corps. Established in the aftermath of the civil war, the NYSC is intended to foster a sense of nationhood.
The theory is commendable; young people out of university are sent to different parts of the country to meet other Nigerians and gain useful work experience.
But in this election campaign many young “Corpers”, enlisted to help in the voting process, have been targeted and attacked, and several have been killed.
In practice, many Nigerians are now extremely nervous about their children serving in other parts of the country, and those with political or financial influence often do their best to ensure this does not happen.
Friends in the north tell me that this week’s violence started with attacks against political leaders and traditional rulers, and later developed into ethnic and religious clashes. And it is the Nigerian elites, (of course not just in the north), who have a lot to answer for.
For decades they have enriched themselves, whilst an ever-growing army of unemployed young people struggles to survive. Worse, some leaders have used ethnicity and religious identity when it suits them, cynically unleashing a monster they cannot control.
President Jonathan can be under no illusions about the scale of the task before him. In parts of the south, particularly in the Niger Delta, he is seen as a messiah, who will suddenly deliver a rapid improvement in living standards.
In parts of the north, he is viewed with suspicion, by a region that believes it has been robbed of power.
Of course, Nigeria has a long-proven ability to pull back from the brink, and stumble on.
But the events of the past few days show that the country is desperately in need of a new kind of leadership.
Over to you, Jonathan.
Barnaby Phillips has 20 years experience in television and radio journalism.
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