Riven by regional, ethnic and religious divisions since it attained independence in 1960, Nigeria has a long tradition of overcoming difficulties that might destroy other nations. But rarely has the state of the world’s seventh most populous country, and Africa’s biggest economy, seemed more precarious than now, as it prepares to elect a president in 10 days’ time.
Pitting the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan against the former general Muhammadu Buhari who was briefly President himself during the 1980s, the vote, in one sense, is a rerun. The two faced each other in the country’s last election in 2011, which Mr Jonathan won with relative ease. This time, however – and unlike the previous four elections since the country was returned from military dictatorship to democracy in 1999 – the outcome is anything but a foregone conclusion.
One reason for the uncertainty is the sheer scale of today’s challenges. The most obvious is the rampaging, murderous insurgency of Boko Haram in the Muslim north of the country, which continues unabated despite signs that countries in the region are uniting against this common threat. Arguably no less threatening is the current plunge in the price of oil – exports of the commodity have underpinned Nigeria’s impressive economic performance in recent years.
To these contemporary ills must be added those that have bedevilled Nigeria from the very start: the split between the poorer, less populous north and the richer, Christian south that contains the bulk of its oil and other natural resources; enduring ethnic differences that all too easily spill over into violence; and endemic corruption. Thus far, the rickety ship of state has held together. This time, however, the seas are rougher than ever.
Although the 2011 vote, by Nigerian standards, went relatively smoothly, it contained the seeds of future trouble. Mr Jonathan had been Vice-President, and was only elevated – unelected – to the presidency by the untimely death a year earlier of his predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim. Mr Jonathan is a Christian, and in deciding to run, he violated Nigeria’s unwritten rule of alternation of power between the north and the south. In 2011, it was still the north’s turn, and northern resentment has helped propel Mr Buhari’s candidacy.
There are other factors. Mr Jonathan’s five years in office have been a mixed bag. At least until the oil crash, Nigeria was seen as a vibrant and increasingly diversified emerging economy. His administration also won praise for its vigorous response to the Ebola crisis. But it has been scarred by massive corruption scandals, while the military’s performance against Boko Haram has been lamentable – not least the failure to recover the 200 schoolgirls kidnapped last year by the terrorist group.
Preparations for the 14 February vote have only added to forebodings. Delays in distributing proper voting cards have led to calls that the election be postponed. But such a step at this late stage is unlikely, not least because it would merely prolong the present uncertainty. Vote-rigging and ballot box stuffing are part and parcel of democracy, Nigeria-style. But the close result that now seems probable will only give the loser greater grounds for complaint and thus increase the risk of post-election violence.
The stakes therefore are high, not just for a country but a continent. Nigeria shapes perceptions of Africa as a whole. It has faced comparable trials in the past, and somehow has muddled though. This time though, the muddling through may be messier than ever.