ISN: Nigeria Navigates Turbulent Times

ISN: Nigeria Navigates Turbulent Times
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Facing down intrigue on both the domestic and international political fronts – not to mention intra-state ethnic and political violence – acting Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has his work cut out for him. But the enormous challenges he faces also present significant opportunities to move the troubled, young democracy further down the path to peace and electoral reform.

By Jennifer Giroux

Source: ISN –

Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country, where half live in the Muslim-dominated north and the other in the Christian-controlled south – is currently being challenged in unprecedented ways. The government has been facing what many are calling a “constitutional crisis” since November 2009, when President Umaru Yar’Adua disappeared without transferring authority to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan during his absence. Yar’Adua, a Muslim from the north, sought medical treatment for a heart condition in Saudi Arabia and only his inner circle, which does not include Jonathan, a Christian from the south, have had physical access to him. With the 2011 elections around the corner, this situation has created considerable political turmoil in part because executive power rotates every two terms (eight years) between the north and south. Thus, Yar’Adua’s prolonged absence has created a constitutionally complicated ordeal. Amid a growing chorus of national protests, the Nigerian Parliament voted in February to transfer full executive powers to the vice president until Yar’Adua recuperates.

Despite what may appear as a potent combination of events that could send the state into a tailspin, Jonathan’s conduct throughout the crisis has been nothing short of commendable and defining. On a continent where political coups continue to be all too common (case in point, the recent political coup in Niger, as well as Nigeria’s own politically volatile history), he has remained loyal to the president, publicly controlled, patient and, perhaps most importantly, respectful of the constitutional process. Jonathan’s successful navigation of this political crisis presents a tremendous growth opportunity for Nigeria’s young democracy. However, managing the minefield of challenges ahead will not be easy.

Three months, three key events

In addition to Yar’Adua’s departure, since November three significant events have transpired. First, on 25 December 2009, Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an al-Qaida affiliate, attempted to carry out a suicide bomb attack on a trans-Atlantic flight as it prepared for landing in Detroit, Michigan. However, passengers and crew members – alerted to his activities as he fumbled with the device – manage to thwart the attack and subdue Abdulmutallab.

Though the plane landed unharmed and Abdulmutallab was arrested by waiting authorities, the US and many other countries immediately strengthened airport security and mandated enhanced screening for those arriving from or traveling through Nigeria, Yemen and 12 other countries deemed high risk. In addition, international media and various governments unleashed a wave of scrutiny that examined Abdulmutallab’s relationship to al-Qaida, as well as Nigeria’s relationship to radical Islam in general. International scrutiny of their country since the thwarted attack has concerned many Nigerians, who regard their relationship with the US as amiable and strategically important. It further illustrates that Nigeria has been placed under the unwanted banner of radicalization and transnational terrorism.

Second, in January and March 2009, violent clashes between Christian and Muslim communities in Jos, the capital of Plateau State situated in the north, left hundreds dead and thousands displaced. To quell hostilities, Jonathan sent military support to the troubled region. The conflict in Jos, however, is part of broader developments in the north and reflects the general political frustrations. In May 2004, for example, a state of emergency was declared in Plateau after more than 200 Muslims were killed by Christian militia that then lead to revenge attacks perpetrated by Muslim youth. Two years later, Muslim-Christian violence emerged in the northern region that caused the death of 100 people, and in July 2009 attempts made by the Boko Haram Islamist movement, who sought to impose Sharia (Islamic) law at the national level, led to numerous deaths in the northeastern part of the country.

Although several northern states have adopted Sharia law, tensions between the two communities are not exclusively tied to religious differences. Rather, they are fueled by a complex set of grievances, political manipulation and exploitation, and, in some cases, land disputes. Recognizing the unlikelihood that disputes in this region will meet a speedy resolution, Jonathan has taken measures to contain the crisis through enhanced security support, as well as making more symbolic moves such as firing Yar’Adua’s appointed national security adviser Major-General Sarki Mukhtar. Although not directly related to Jos, this act communicates the acting president’s ability to take significant measures to handle states affairs.

Third, on the other end of the country, the southern oil producing Niger Delta, which achieved some peace in October 2009 after militants surrendered their arms and agreed to an amnesty program led by Yar’Adua, has begun to unravel and threatens the region’s stability. For years, violent non-state groups have used kidnappings and strategic targeting of the region’s abundant energy infrastructure to create a climate of insecurity that has cut oil production by more than 20 percent. Conflict activities have been fueled by a mixture of greed and grievances born out of the effects of environmental degradation, lack of development in the region and resource control.

At the height of violence between 2006-2009, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), an umbrella militant movement, was extremely successful at galvanizing broad media attention and sustaining disruption in the region, such that they achieved a balance of power with the Nigerian Joint Task Force (JTF). Consequently in June 2009, the government announced an amnesty program that aimed to disarm, demobilize, rehabilitate and reintegrate the militants, as well as focus on bringing development to the region. Shortly before Yar’Adua’s departure, over 10,000 militants came forward – surrendering nearly 3,000 small arms and 300,000 rounds of ammunition.

Without question, the amnesty process has led to a reduction in armed hostilities and greater peace in the region – but these relative gains have been met with growing doubts about the government’s sincerity and commitment to genuine reconciliation and peacebuilding. Critics of the amnesty process note that the program needs to be redeveloped and negotiated to address issues such as unraveling the enormous conflict economy (e.g. oil theft, kidnapping, arms trade); gaps in the security arrangement; incorporating a reconciliation process; de-militarizing the region; and engaging stakeholders. In addition, greater efforts are needed to rehabilitate and reintegrate the ex-militants who are living in camps, which are reported to have inadequate facilities, provide little or no training and/or counseling and have consequently become a breeding ground for frustration, anger and disillusionment with the peace process.

The program’s shortcomings recently surfaced when militants re-emerged and attacked Agip and Shell facilities in Delta State. Then, on 15 March a post-amnesty meeting in a government building in Warri was the target of two car bombings detonated by MEND, who aimed to communicate their ability to re-energize hostilities and introduce another phase of violence if more proactive measures did not materialize. Prior to this amnesty process the government introduced a similar program in 2004. Yet, its failure gave birth to a greater articulation of violence and militancy in the region. This previous failure begs the question: If the current amnesty process is not sustainable, then what will the next phase of violence in the Niger Delta look like? At minimum, it would be destabilizing and result in significant losses in state revenue from oil production as well as potential disruptions to the global energy supply and crude oil pricing.

The ‘Goodluck’ opportunity

With the realization that Yar’Adua’s return to office is increasingly unlikely, Jonathan has slowly demonstrated more authority – and understandably so. The aforementioned issues at his doorstep are considerable. In addition to leading the country as the 2011 elections approach, Jonathan has to manage tensions in the north, south and political center of the country. Given that he will not be a candidate for the presidency because of his southern status, he has an incredible opportunity to lead Nigeria through this turbulent period. If his recent actions are any indication, he has embraced the challenge.

Shortly after assuming power, the acting president appointed a 26-member Presidential Advisory Council to address electoral reform, anti-corruption initiatives, the post-amnesty process in the Niger Delta and deficiencies in the national electric power grid. By March, he made a bold move to officially remove the President’s Executive Committee, a cabinet filled with those loyal to Yar’Adua and partially responsible for the political paralysis, in exchange for his own appointed cabinet. For the time being, communal violence in the north has subsided as the military maintains a strict curfew with the view of ending reprisal attacks before more sustainable solutions can be brought to the table. In the south, MEND’s symbolic attack on the amnesty meeting was a major awakening.

Shortly after, Jonathan, a native of the Niger Delta region, reinvigorated the post-amnesty program, directing relevant federal ministries and local committees to fast-track all issues, with particular focus on infrastructural development and education. As for taking steps to remove Nigeria from the US terror watch list, Jonathan is ensuring that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) addresses some of the security and safety measures required by the US.

In all, if he continues on this path, it seems that Jonathan has the unique opportunity to leave behind a legacy of transformational leadership – as one who was able to seize the moment at a critical juncture, uphold the nation’s constitutional process under significant stress, and take this young democracy another step forward by proactively addressing some of its myriad challenges – in particular electoral reform and building sustainable peace in the south.

Jennifer Giroux is a senior researcher for the Crisis Risk Network at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. Innocent Adjenughure, Executive Director for the Innocent for Dispute Resolution based in Warri, Nigeria, assisted with the research for this article.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).