Nigeria on the Brink

What Happens If the 2011 Elections Fail?

The 2011 elections in Nigeria, scheduled for January 22, pose a threat to the stability of the United States’ most important partner in West Africa. The end of a power-sharing arrangement between the Muslim North and the Christian South, as now seems likely, could lead to postelection sectarian violence, paralysis of the executive branch, and even a coup. The Obama administration has little leverage over the conduct and outcome of the elections -- and if the vote does lead to chaos, Washington may no longer be able to count on Nigerian partnership in addressing African regional and security issues such as the conflicts in Darfur, Southern Sudan, and Somalia.

Nigeria’s current political drama dates to November 2009, when its president, Umaru Yar’Adua, was hospitalized for a kidney condition in Saudi Arabia. Yar’Adua refused to comply with the Nigerian constitution and hand over executive authority to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. The result was a power vacuum until February 2010, when the National Assembly extralegally designated Jonathan the “acting president” by resolution, even though there is no constitutional provision for doing so. In April, Acting President Jonathan attended the nuclear safety summit in Washington, where U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden warmly embraced him, not least because his designation forestalled a possible military coup. In May 2010, the first act of Nigeria’s political tragedy ended when Yar’Adua died and Jonathan became the constitutional president. Now, Washington may be tempted to move its attention away from Nigeria -- but that would be a mistake.

Nigeria has held three national elections since the end of military dictatorship in 1998. In 1999, active and retired military officers, along with a few civilian allies, oversaw the transition from military to civilian rule. They established the nonideological People’s Democratic Party (PDP); selected Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian from the South, as the presidential candidate; and placed him in office with a northern Muslim vice president. An elite consensus formed around an unwritten power-sharing agreement, which dictated that presidential candidates would henceforth alternate between the Christian South and the Muslim North -- a system designed to avoid presidential contests that could exacerbate hostility between the regions and religions.

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