Skip to main content

Nigeria On The Brink: A Rejoinder

Former U.S. Ambassador John Campbell’s recent article, “Nigeria on the Brink: What Happens If the 2011 Elections Fail?”, published in the September/October web edition of the journal “Foreign Affairs”, has seized the attention of dedicated Nigeria-watchers and evoked the wrath of Nigeria’s official establishment.  While perhaps unintended, the article seems to suggest a coming Armageddon in the aftermath of Nigeria’s 2011 elections.  Ambassador Campbell’s prognosis is both alarmist and sensational, but is it based on objective facts?

Former U.S. Ambassador John Campbell’s recent article, “Nigeria on the Brink: What Happens If the 2011 Elections Fail?”, published in the September/October web edition of the journal “Foreign Affairs”, has seized the attention of dedicated Nigeria-watchers and evoked the wrath of Nigeria’s official establishment.  While perhaps unintended, the article seems to suggest a coming Armageddon in the aftermath of Nigeria’s 2011 elections.  Ambassador Campbell’s prognosis is both alarmist and sensational, but is it based on objective facts?

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('content1'); });

  This rejoinder points out problems in Ambassador Campbell’s assumptions and analysis and the many factors that would preempt a coming catastrophe for Nigeria in its pursuit of credible and democratic elections.   

The main flaw in Ambassador Campbell’s somber portrait is that he reduces Nigeria to two monolithic, antagonistic and inexorably colliding blocs, one Northern, the other Southern. This is a false reality since Nigeria is a nation of roughly 150 million people with more than 200 ethnic groups.  There is no insuperable Mason-Dixon line separating a wholly Muslim North from a wholly Christian South.  These hypothetical blocs are convenient intellectual fictions that do not accord with the complexity of the country’s vast national tapestry. There are portions of Southern Nigeria where Muslims are in the majority or are large minorities as there are swaths in the North where Christians are the majority or a significant minority.  As in our own country, Nigeria’s cultural, ethnic and religious diversity is at times a source of tension but also a tremendous national asset and a source of national pride.  Despite occasional local outbursts, Nigeria’s Christians and Muslims occupy the national space with considerable peace and tolerance.

Nor is conflict a predictor of national collapse.  Like America before it, Nigeria has suffered a ghastly civil war, but is unlikely to suffer another one. Most of Nigeria’s political leadership experienced the unspeakable depravations of that war, and are united in their determination not to go down that road again.

Ambassador Campbell’s article contains an implicit, blanket indictment of the Nigerian political class.  He indirectly accuses them of unbridled political greed, and gross irresponsibility, if not recklessness. Those who lose elections, he implies, will readily hurl the nation into chaos in the face of their personal political defeat.  Political ambition trumps all else, including patriotism and national allegiance.

While Nigeria’s movement toward elections in 2011 has its flaws, and much needs to be done to prepare for a credible poll, deep national divisions do not seem to be ominous.  Of course, there will likely be disputes and regrettably sad instances of pre and post-electoral violence.  However, there is nothing that suggests politicians are prepared to carelessly sacrifice the nation’s existence because of a negative electoral outcome.

Ambassador Campbell implies that  the presidential contest should be confined to only Northern candidates.  This conviction is shared by many Northern and some Southern politicians.  That some Southern politicians support the principle of “zoning” would appear to undermine Campbell’s theory of two monolithic geo-political blocs.  

According to Ambassador’s Campbell’s line of thought, President Jonathan’s entry into the presidential race will prove detrimental to national unity.  This conclusion, however, rests on several weak assumptions.  If the nation were splintered along the lines that Ambassador Campbell suggests, then the political parties would all have exclusive regional or religious constituencies.  However, while parties and candidates may draw core support from one area, no successful national candidate can be merely a regional favorite son.  In order to win, a presidential candidate must, according to the Nigerian constitution, have not only a majority of the popular vote but he must also win “not less than one quarter of the votes cast in each of at least two thirds of all the states and the Nigerian Federal Capital Territory”.

All Northerners are not against a Southern candidate and all Southerners are not against a Northern candidate. One declared Northern presidential candidate has a bevy of Southern and Christian supporters, but significant opposition in the North. Since all politics is local, some Southerners find their bitterest political rivals among their own group in their home base.  The same can be said of many Northerners.  Moreover, President Jonathan has many Northern and Muslim backers.  It is an open secret that the opposition party ACN, although a Southern based party, is actively courting a Northern candidate.  If the nation were as bitterly divided as Ambassador Campbell suggests, this would certainly not be the case.   

The governing PDP has made its decision regarding zoning and Jonathan’s candidacy. The party decided that zoning remains in effect but that Jonathan represents a continuation of the Yar’Adua presidency and thus can run. This is the kind of pragmatic accommodation that has characterized Nigeria’s politics. While it challenges Ambassador Campbell’s sense of logic, it is a workable accommodation that reflects political reality. That the largest party has settled this matter to its own satisfaction should be seen as evidence that the political elite is working to prevent the catastrophe Ambassador Campbell appears to predict.

We should not forget that in addition to the presidential election, important gubernatorial, National Assembly and state elections will also occur. The vice presidential candidate in the PDP and most other parties will come from a section of the country other than that of the presidential candidates. Thus, support for the ticket will cut across regional, religious, and even ethnic lines.

Numerous candidates for office as well as constituents in Northern states are stalwarts of the PDP, and it is inconceivable that they will exit the party if a Southern presidential candidate emerges.  Their interests are served by remaining in the party. Likewise, the majority of PDP office holders in the South would remain with the party if a Northern presidential candidate is nominated.  Strong countervailing forces make apocalyptic outcomes highly unlikely.

Contrary to the implications of the Campbell article, Nigeria’s political elites are well versed in dealing with matters of ethnicity, religion, and regionalism.  The 2003 election pitting President Olusegun Obasanjo against his chief adversary, former Head of State Muhammadu Buhari, a Northerner, did not make the nation convulse, and it will not convulse in 2011.  The political system has always had to content with these potential centrifugal forces, and Nigerians have shown exceptional ingenuity in making those accommodations that maintain the unity of the nation.    

Nigerian politicians are no different a species than politicians elsewhere, in that they will use every legitimate means to gain leverage and advantage. Those who believe they will benefit from zoning will advertise it as a bulwark against disaster. Those who oppose zoning will call it archaic, divisive, and unfair. Yet, just because some dust gets kicked around in the wake of competition does not signal an impending hurricane.

Furthermore, Ambassador Campbell’s article is contradictory in parts.  At one point, he claims that the political field is wide open; yet, he describes this openness as inimical to democracy and stability.  He decries President Obasanjo’s tactics as dictatorial, while lamenting that the absence of a strong man now to impose his will can ensure chaos. Campbell’s Nigeria appears to be caught between the proverbial rock and hard place: when the strong arm is there, he labels it dictatorial; when it is absent, he predicts chaos.   
Ambassador Campbell’s article employs overly sensational phrases that lead to problematic conclusions.  The inflation of the degree of “extremism in the North,” and the description of conflict in Plateau State and a few other areas in the Middle Belt as religious and ethnic violence, rather than responses to local and economic issues, is misleading.  Religion tends to be a secondary consideration in these flash conflagrations.  In the Niger Delta, the worst of the violence has abated through local and national efforts and is certainly not moving toward “impending insurrection.”  Efforts to reach an accord with “militants” in the oil producing zone have sometimes been slow and halting, but even in the worst of times , the vast majority of these “militants” was interested in resolving very practical local grievances and deprivations and had no taste for an insurrection that might prove fatal to the national unity of Nigeria.

What our friend Ambassador Campbell has done is to connect a chain of improbable assumptions. What we have tried to demonstrate is that individually each assumption on its own is not likely.  Moreover, the probability of these flawed assumptions simultaneously coming to pass, while theoretically possible, is extremely unlikely.  What Ambassador Campbell does is to construct a complex improbability, then label it inexorable.  Not a single match has been lit and yet he forecasts a nation aflame.   When one engages in rigorous political analysis, it is clear that Nigeria is not inexorably on the brink of collapse.  As such, Ambassador Campbell’s article was good fiction but less than a stellar portrayal of facts.

Of course, what happens in Nigeria will have national, regional, and continental ramifications.  Our job as friends of Nigeria is to separate fact from fiction, and to provide supportive encouragement for Nigeria’s movement toward greater national unity and stability.  Nigeria’s 2011 elections are at a critical juncture for the country, and a point at which we need to demonstrate the collaborative support of its international partners, the United Nations, and many other well-wishers.

Howard F. Jeter was U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 2000 to 2003, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, State Department Director for West African Affairs, and Special Presidential Envoy for Liberia

Gwendolyn Mikell is Professor of Anthropology at Georgetown University, former Director of the African Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, and former Senior Fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations 


googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('content2'); });