Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once asked, "to what purpose, April, do you return again?" For Africans, this is a burning question, as April has delivered some of the continent's most decisive moments, from great triumphs such as the end of apartheid and independence, to tragedies including the Rwandan genocide and twenty-four coup attempts.
Today may be such a moment, as Nigeria's presidential election could either solidify the continent's advance towards democracy through Nigeria's first successful civilian transfer of power or plunge the continent's most populous nation into chaos with dire consequences for the continent and even the United States. If the elections are a success, however, it will be in spite of a failure of leadership on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nigeria's significance stems from the fact that it is the United States' fourth biggest supplier of crude oil, and within eight years, imports from the region will surpass the Persian Gulf and account for 25 percent of U.S. imports. Nigeria, however, also has been called the "largest failed state on earth," and major unrest in Nigeria could push crude oil prices up to $98 per barrel ("/pb") or $120/pb if coupled with a crisis in the Middle East. A spike in prices to $98/pb would cause U.S. gross domestic product to drop by 1.6 percent, leading to increased inflation and unemployment, while the average household would pay an additional $2,200 per year as pump prices reached $5 per gallon. If gas prices seem high now, imagine paying $66 to fill up a Mini-Cooper, $85.50 for a Honda Accord or $160 for a Hummer.
The history of Nigeria has been marked by both a three-year civil war (1967-1970) between the more populous Muslim north and the oil rich Christian south, in which over a million Nigerians died and successive military coups which have led to 28 years of military rule. Today, Nigeria once again stands on the brink of chaos and is targeted by Osama bin Laden as "ripe for liberation."
Over the past eight years, one-third of the states have adopted Islamic law in defiance of the constitution's declaration of a secular state, contributing to the 15,000 deaths from religious and ethnic conflicts during this period. In the oil rich Niger Delta, southerners have shared in little of the wealth, but have had an abundance of environmental degradation, poverty and disease. This has fueled a growing insurgency that has kidnapped more than 100 foreigners since 2006 and reduced the region's oil production by 25 percent. President Bush, who once declared that Africa is "a centerpiece of the [his] foreign policy agenda," nonetheless denied the Nigerian government's request for U.S. Marines to help reestablish control in the area.
At the center of the current controversy is former General Obasanjo, who in 1979 became the first African military ruler to voluntarily relinquish power to a civilian government. Twenty years later, Obasanjo was elected president as a civilian and now, with his second term coming to a close, faces the prospect of becoming the first African leader to hand over power twice due to constitutional term limits.
Obasanjo, however, is not ready to relinquish power. After being blocked in his attempt to seek a third term, he has sought to manipulate the process to ensure victory for his People's Democratic Party (PDP), declaring that the election will be "PDP or nothing else." The most serious of these actions was to take over Nigeria's election commission to exclude the leading opposition candidate (Vice President Abubakar) from the ballot altogether.
On Monday, however, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed this action forcing the elector commission to reprint 65 million ballots. The new ballots, which were printed in South Africa, did not arrive in Nigeria until last night and needed to be distributed to 120,000 polling stations across a nation the size of Washington, Oregon and California combined in time for today's election. Due to such time constraints and the fact that last Saturday's parliamentary elections were marred by "the non-arrival of ballots, fake results sheets, armed thugs snatching ballot boxes, kidnapping of election officers . . . and voter intimidation," opposition candidates are calling for a postponement to avoid "a sham election." The Obasanjo government, however, insisted that elections proceed as scheduled.
As tensions mount, there is great concern that the elections will lead to a nationwide strike and widespread violence which would push the country over the edge. Today began ominously with a failed attempt to bomb the electoral commission with a tanker truck hours before polls opened.
Twenty-eight years ago, President Carter demonstrated leadership by pressuring Obasanjo to make the historic move of relinquishing power. In contrast, when faced with the opportunity to exercise leadership to defuse this situation and guide this strategically important nation targeted by Al Qaeda towards democracy, President Bush has offered only lip service.
An African proverb advises "not [to] look where you fell, but where you slipped." If the elections do plunge Nigeria into chaos, history will remember that it was not because of the magnitude of the problems facing the Nigerian people, but because of the smallness of the leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. Should this happen Americans will learn the hard way that Africa matters, while Africans will hear the echo of T.S Elliot -- "April is the cruelest month" bringing only "fear in a handful of dust".