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?

The signs are ominous, and strangely familiar: communal warfare raging in the politically volatile Muslim Northern regions, with supporters of the ruling party stabbed, hacked or shot; churches, mosques and homes burned; and hundreds believed dead and tens of thousands more displaced. That’s the scene so far in parts of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, following its latest round of presidential elections.

Gubernatorial elections in at least three Northern states this week were postponed because of the violence.

The incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, has appealed for calm after being declared the winner April 18 with 57 percent of the vote — thus avoiding an expected second round of balloting with his main rival, former Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who received 31 percent. Buhari is a Fulani from the predominantly Muslim North; Jonathan is an Ijaw from the predominantly Christian South.

In his recent address, Jonathan harked back to the bloody events that set off the country’s North vs. South civil war almost 45 years ago. “If anything at all, these acts of mayhem are sad reminders of the events which plunged our country into 30 months of an unfortunate civil war,” said Jonathan.

Today as many as 40,000 people have been displaced, according to the Red Cross, with many of them seeking refuge at police and military barracks. Even the home of Nigeria’s vice president, Namadi Sambo, in Zaria in Northern Nigeria, was torched, forcing him to flee. Many supporters of the PDP have met a similar fate.  

The scenes are reminiscent of the events that began in January 1966. Back then, in the country’s first unsuccessful military coup, mostly Ibo junior officers murdered Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and much of the country’s Northern civilian and military leadership. A July countercoup reinstalled Northern leadership, ushered in military government and eventually sparked pogroms in the North in May, July and September — carried out in part by government troops — that left as many as 40,000 people dead, many of them Christian Ibos.

Nearly 2 million people soon became refugees. The Ibo-led breakaway Republic of Biafra was declared a year later before a Northern-dominated federal government crushed the rebellion in January 1970. More than 1 million people died in the war. Can this country of an estimated 125 million people be brought back from the brink?