Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo says that he fears for his country. He should. Political, ethnic, and religious violence have been on the upswing. The end of a long-standing, informal presidential power-sharing arrangement between the north and south within the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) -- known as "zoning" -- encourages appeals to ethnicity and religion in places as diverse as Yorubaland and the country's so-called middle belt. What is more, too many Nigerian politicians display a winner-take-all frame of mind, leading them to behave as though elections are a matter of life and death.

In the first of three polls, Nigerians voted for members of the National Assembly on April 9. They will vote for a president on April 16, and for governors and other local officials on April 26. The April 9 vote, although not perfect, remained broadly peaceful. It appears that the balloting, if not flawless, was more credible than it had been in 2003 and 2007.

With few exceptions, the leading presidential candidates in the April 16 election did not address in any detail the difficult issues that a future government must face. The presidential candidates who did talk about substance, notably Pat Utomi, who has since dropped out, exert only limited influence over the national dialogue. Such candidates lacked strong national organizations and were perceived to be resting on the political margins. More typical is incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan's campaign message urging Nigerians "to always think, say, and do well about Nigeria, and in so doing, Nigeria will go well."

Meanwhile, astute observers such as the Lagos Guardian's Reuben Abati are looking at events in North Africa and asking whether such popular rage as the international community saw in Cairo's Tahrir Square could happen in Nigeria.

Many Nigerians believe that free, fair, and credible elections could reverse the downward spiral of governance that has led their country to stagnation at home and the brink of irrelevance abroad. Hence, Jonathan's appointment of the highly respected Attahiru Jega as chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission and its subsequent registration of a claimed 73 million voters was encouraging news. Following the April 9 polling, it is now clear that whatever the precise figure, a very large number of Nigerians did indeed register to vote. Still, voter turnout on April 9 appears to have been low.

The end of zoning has eliminated an important elite tool for managing Nigeria's myriad divisions. Under zoning, the PDP alternated its presidential candidate every eight years between the north and south. If the presidential candidate was a Muslim, then the vice-presidential candidate would be a Christian. In addition to zoning, the Nigerian political system ensured that the PDP presidential candidates were always placed in office.

Nigeria's current crisis was precipitated by former President Umaru Yar'Adua's prolonged absence. Throughout most of his presidency between 2007 and 2010, Yar'Adua was ill, and in November 2009 he went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. While Yar'Adua was out of the country, he had no contact with his government, which all but ceased to function. In February 2010, the National Assembly extraconstitutionally designated Jonathan, then vice president, as acting president, perhaps to forestall military intervention. Jonathan became the fully constitutional president only in May, when Yar'Adua died.

Zoning was damaged, but not yet dead. Early on, Jonathan insinuated that he would honor the zoning agreement and return the presidency to a Muslim from the north in 2011. But when it came time to select the PDP presidential candidate, he used the power of incumbency to defeat his northern Muslim challenger, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, for the party's nomination. (It is credibly alleged that Jonathan paid "expenses" of $7,000 per person to party delegates, while Abubakar reportedly offered only $5,000 each.) By ending the alternating arrangement, Jonathan's nomination as the PDP presidential candidate effectively killed zoning. This worried many Nigerians, particularly those in the north. Northern Nigeria's elites may still accept Jonathan, but if they splinter, it could open up political space for an opposition candidate to win the presidency.

Even if Jonathan gains wider elite support, the emergence of a popular (as opposed to elite) opposition makes a rigged election more difficult. Muhammadu Buhari -- a former military head of state renowned for his anticorruption efforts, cleanup of Lagos garbage, and austere lifestyle -- is Jonathan's most formidable opponent. Buhari is one of the few Nigerian public figures who commands genuine grass-roots support. Additionally, his well-known opposition to corruption makes Buhari a threat to the Nigerian elites who benefit from it. As an observant Muslim and a supporter of sharia law in parts of the north, Buhari elicits distrust from southern power brokers, especially Christians. These factors make his presidential victory unlikely, absent a truly radical change in elite perception of where their "best interests" would be served, or if the elections are genuinely free and fair. However, should Buhari's populist supporters conclude that the election has been stolen from their candidate, they may take to the streets. Buhari himself has said that he will not rely on the Nigerian courts to resolve any electoral dispute given his failed legal challenges to the rigged elections of 2003 and 2007, when he also ran unsuccessfully.

Jonathan was unable to hold successful campaign events in the north, and in one instance, opposition supporters stoned his campaign convoy. In contrast, Buhari campaigned in the south as well as the north, suggesting his popular support is widespread.

In addition to the simmering tensions surrounding the end of zoning, some politicians at the state and local levels are taking advantage of perceived ethnic and religious cleavages to mobilize support. Framing the elections as a matter of life and death, these politicians justify any means to secure victory. As in the past, this election period has become the occasion for violence.

The incumbent Nigerian government continues to be ill-equipped, and perhaps unwilling, to address growing political and social unrest. Near the city of Jos in Plateau State, violence between Christians and Muslims has resulted in 1,500 deaths since early 2010, the displacement of countless people, and the destruction of villages and infrastructure. Despite a large military presence in and around Jos, the army has, in some instances, simply stood on the sidelines.

In the north, a radical Islamic sect known as Boko Haram continues its assault on police, government officials, and churches, with whispers that it has some support among local elites. In the Niger Delta, insurgents such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta -- a loose organization of armed rebels and thugs ostensibly fighting for more control over the region's oil and to prompt the central government to address the Delta's underdevelopment -- has resumed kidnapping and has threatened attacks on oil pipelines and facilities. Niger Delta militants also successfully detonated car bombs on October 1, 2010, in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, during an official celebration of Nigeria's 50th anniversary of independence.

New forms of connectivity could also influence the outcome of the elections. Internet access, social networking, and mobile phones are now prevalent in Nigeria and among the Nigerian diaspora. These technologies may have the power to rally a hitherto largely disenfranchised and disinterested population in support of credible elections. Civil society organizations can employ these new technologies to combat politics based on ethnic and religious fear and suspicion, as well as to bring more transparency to the electoral process. On the other hand, these tools are also available to those looking to advance their narrow interests by stirring up and otherwise exploiting popular anxieties. For example, in Plateau State during early 2010, text messages, ostensibly sent by local community leaders, incited people to violence against other religions and ethnic groups.

With the end of zoning, appeals to religious and ethnic identities, and the spread of new communications technologies, Nigeria's three April 2011 elections are the most unpredictable since the restoration of civilian government in 1999. The fact that the Nigerian press is speculating optimistically that U.S. President Barack Obama may visit if the elections go well is yet another sign of the importance Nigerians ascribe to the elections. If after the ballots are counted in late April, citizens perceive that the election has been stolen, they are likely to be angrier and more demanding than they were in 1999, 2003, and 2007 -- years when ethnic and religious tensions were less pronounced.

Today, Nigerians can look to the example of the democratic wave in North Africa and the Middle East, which is likely to lead to greater demands if the election appears rigged. A credible election would confer a popular legitimacy on the resulting government that none of its recent predecessors has enjoyed, putting the new government in a strong position to start to begin addressing Nigeria's myriad challenges. An unfair election could result in popular anger directed against the government, resulting in widespread violence. If the government cannot control it, the military may intervene as it has in the past, putting an end to civilian rule.

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  • JOHN CAMPBELL is Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for African Policy Studies. He served as the United States Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007. ASCH HARWOOD is a Research Associate in the Africa Policy Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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