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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In evoking Nigeria’s civil war, Jonathan may have done more than sound an alarm about the West African nation’s political instability. He may unintentionally have made a bad situation worse.

“It’s as incendiary a thing as he could say,” says Jean Herskovits, a retired academic and a longtime Nigeria analyst. “To say this is about the same grievances as ’66 is an insult.”

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.

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