The West African curse: Nigeria too?

Election win for Jonathan could deepen Muslim-Christian divide

The war in Ivory Coast is over or so we are told. Former president Laurent Gbagbo who clung to the presidency even though he only won 46 per cent of the vote in last year’s election has been dragged from his bunker after two weeks of battle that devastated the capital Abidjan. President Alassane Ouattara who got 54 per cent of the votes is in charge and Gbagbo is under arrest and all’s well that ends well.

Except that it didn’t end very well did it? Indeed it probably hasn’t ended at all. Ouattara owes a lot to the troops (the New Forces) that fought for him and they will expect to be paid mainly in military police and government jobs. This will further alienate Gbagbo’s supporters (mostly Christian southerners) who already feel they have been occupied by a northern Muslim army.

It’s not even clear that Ouattara ordered the offensive that was carried out in his name: The New Forces have about 10 semi-independent commanders. It’s even odds that the victors will simply overthrow Ouattara and take power themselves in the next year or two.

It is the West African curse: Rampant corruption plus chronic poverty plus ethnic rivalry produce civil wars and insurgencies that last for decades and kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. It happened in Sierra Leone it happened in Liberia and it started to happen in Guinea last year (although that country may have stopped on the brink of the pit).

East along the coast the curse hasn’t struck yet. Ghana on Ivory Coast’s eastern border has seen a few coups but no massacres and it is now a flourishing democracy with a respectable growth rate. Togo and Dahomey are not so lucky but they have had no huge massacres either. And giant Nigeria has done surprisingly well given that it has all the ingredients of a classic West African-style disaster.

Nigeria has oil but most of the money has been stolen by a small elite class while the majority of Nigerians remain poor. It is even more deeply divided than Ivory Coast in ethnic and religious terms. Yet Nigeria never slid over the edge.

It has had many coups and even when “democracy” was restored the elections were shamelessly rigged. The Muslim-Christian split dominates national politics and sometimes leads to local massacres. It is a chaotic abrasive almost lawless society — but also a highly successful one with seven per cent growth and a functioning if deeply corrupt democracy. It is in a weird way a very stable country.

The one major threat to its stability is the fact that its elections are getting more honest. When the outcome was decided in advance the basic north-south deal was safe: A two-term Muslim president from the north would be followed by a two-term Christian president from the south and then back again. That way everybody who mattered in Nigeria could count on getting their turn at the trough.

This time however the Muslim president died halfway through his first term and his Christian vice-president Goodluck Jonathan took his place. Jonathan likes the job so much that he ran for re-election as president which enrages the northern Muslim elite who think it should still be their turn.

To make matters more dangerous this time new election rules and an official who can’t be bought mean that the votes will actually be counted. The parliamentary elections two weeks ago saw the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) the vehicle of both the northern and southern elites lose ground dramatically to new opposition parties.

Jonathan did much better than that in the presidential election last weekend winning twice as many votes as his leading rival Muhammadu Buhari but his new term will be very perilous. He still must depend on the PDP but its majority in parliament is both narrow and fragile. And the northern elite is bound to cry foul because none of the polls predicted such a big win for Jonathan. The potential for a north-south confrontation is very large.

Ivory Coast has been going down for some time and it may not have touched bottom yet. Nigeria’s 140 million people are on the way up but they must still go through a tricky transition and nobody knows if they are exempt from the curse.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book Crawling from the Wreckage was published recently in Canada by Random House.