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What Role Does Tribal, Religious and Military Background Play in Nigeria's Elections? - 2003-04-20

Nigerians are waiting anxiously for the results of Saturday's election, in which 20 candidates were vying for the presidency. Analysts say only two of those candidates have a realistic chance of winning. They come from separate sides of the ethnic and religious divisions in Africa's most populous country. But the two top contenders have one thing in common: their past.

President Olusegun Obasanjo and opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari both hail from different regions of the country, belong to different ethnic groups and have different religions. Mr. Obasanjo is a born-again Christian Yoruba from the south, while Mr. Buhari is a Hausa-speaking northern Muslim.

Their differences point to a divide so profound that Nigeria at times seems like two separate nations. In the past, the division has threatened to split the country right down the middle. In the last four years alone, ethnic, religious and political violence is blamed for the deaths of about 10,000 people.

In the last election, four years ago, Mr. Obasanjo won substantial support from the Muslim north, despite his ethnicity and religion, while he had trouble winning votes in his own southern region. But there are indications that, this time around, the situation is reversed.

In last week's legislative poll, Mr. Buhari's party won just about all the seats in the north, while Mr. Obasanjo's supporters won most of the south. If those patterns hold up for the presidential vote, it means Nigerians are moving back to a strictly ethnic vote. But are they? Many residents of Lagos, which is in the south, do not think so.

One of Mr. Obasanjo's polling agents, Larry Isioye, says ethnicity has nothing to do with his support for the sitting president. He thinks his fellow Nigerians are gradually moving away from tribal politics.

"I'm a Yoruba guy, but that doesn't mean anything. I belong to the Yoruba ethnic group, but first and foremost, I'm a Nigerian. We will get there one of these days," Mr. Isioye said.

Another Yoruba man, Abdulhekeem Oyewole, also believes Nigeria's voting patterns have changed since what he calls "the olden days," when people used to vote along tribal lines.

"If the Hausa man is more credible than the Yoruba man, definitely, you have to vote for the Hausa man. Because what we need is somebody that will move Nigeria forward, not just sentimental election. So for you to vote this time, you vote on credibility, you don't vote on tribal sentiments," he said.

There is one thing that Mr. Obasanjo and Mr. Buhari have in common. Both are former military rulers who have entered politics as civilians.

Nigeria won independence from Britain in 1960, but for two-thirds of the time since then, it has been ruled by various military dictatorships.

One such ruler was the then General Obasanjo, who ran the country from 1976 until 1979. He then handed power over to an elected civilian government, which lasted until 1983.

In that year, Nigeria made its first attempt to transfer power from one democratically elected government to another. But the 1983 elections were seen as seriously flawed, and three months later, the elected president was overthrown - by none other than General Muhammadu Buhari.

Now, 20 years later, Mr. Obasanjo and Mr. Buhari are trying to return to office through the ballot box.

Surprisingly few voters express any reservations about electing an ex-general as president in a country that has almost always been run by generals.

Mr. Oyewole said there is actually an advantage to having a former military man in power. "If they intend to come into politics, it's welcome. Since they have influence on the servicemen, if they were voted into power, they will know how to talk to these people. So that there wouldn't be any overthrowing, or taking over of governments," he said.

Mr. Oyewole is hopeful that Nigeria will eventually move on to a leader without a military past. After "one or two" ex-generals, he said, civilian rule will be firmly established, and the army will be less of a threat.