Is Nigeria Heading Toward a Second Civil War?

In the wake of presidential elections, riots have broken out and thousands have been displaced. Is Goodluck Jonathan, the winner, fanning the flames of war?

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Yes, Herskovits said, the present crisis has taken on ethnic, regional and religious dimensions, much like the Biafran War. But more important, she said, today's unrest is a reaction to the pervasive culture of corruption that has long gripped the country, "a rejection of 12 years of PDP" government malfeasance. According to Herskovits, young people in the North pinned their hopes on Buhari as an agent of change, a presidential candidate who could end corruption.

Instead, she says, "we are heading toward exactly what we don't want, which is civil war. People up North are already talking about it."

Already, the Nigerian Independent Electoral Commission has had to postpone balloting in three Northern states because of the tenuous security situation. Buhari has been barred from traveling to one of the states.

How much worse will things get?

A lot will depend on legal challenges to the election results. The United States and much of the international community declared the balloting free and fair. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a speech congratulating President Jonathan, said, "this election represents a positive beginning for Nigeria." But pronouncements from outside have done little to calm the situation.

But almost from the beginning, many have been skeptical of the election results, even in a country where allegations of electioneering -- real or imagined -- are routine. Despite the widespread use of social media to monitor the balloting and track results, there is a general belief among many Nigerians that elections are won and lost not at the polling station but as the votes are tabulated -- a process that remains secretive.

The ruling PDP was defeated in the first two rounds of elections for Nigeria's parliament. And although many polls picked Jonathan to win the presidential polls, few predicted that he'd win with a large-enough margin to avoid a second-round runoff.

Buhari supporters with the Congress for Progressive Change are launching challenges in 11 Northern states, where Jonathan received a quarter of the vote in constituencies that already voted heavily against the ruling PDP in the parliamentary rounds.

Jonathan's apparent re-election upsets the unspoken "rotation," in which Northern and Southern leaders alternate terms as president. Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba from the West, was elected and served two full terms as president. Umaru Yar'Adua was elected amid charges of fraud in 2007. He had not served a full term before he died of pericarditis in May 2010 after a lengthy illness.

"Nigeria has depended on a tacit political balance between the North and the South its entire postcolonial existence," says Mark Quarterman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "When this has broken down, we've seen the worst excesses. A ticket balancer has now become president, but regional allegiance has always trumped party allegiance. The question is: Wouldn't the supporters of the party, with Jonathan at the bottom of the ticket, support the ticket with Jonathan at the top of the ticket?"