Only a couple of days in and 2012 is already proving to be a challenging year for the Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan. A swift end to what looks set to become a protracted conflict is high on the list of his New Year agenda and his political weapon of choice has been decided; the use of emergency powers.
On hearing the announcement that a state of emergency would be applied to various parts of the country my heart sank. When weighing up the pros and cons of such an action the cons are resoundingly victorious. Not only is its application reminiscent of Nigeria's military past but it could have an adverse effect on the very conflict which it is trying to stem.
Political excess, instability and human rights abuses have all been associated with the use of emergency powers in Nigeria's political past. What the Nigerian government should be worried about is the position of the extremist group Boko Haram in all of this. My fear is that rather than acting as a deterrent it will be interpreted as a declaration of war and an escalation of the violence.
Religion has been the focus of the conflict in Nigeria. Its population of approximately 150 million is roughly divided between Christian and Muslim communities which, over the course of 2011, have increasingly exhibited signs of strain. Political fingers have been pointed at Boko Haram. Also known as the Nigerian Taliban, Boko Haram have been at the forefront of a terrorist campaigns carrying out acts of sabotage, political assassination and bombings, seen most recently on Christmas day. Political dissatisfaction and marginalization coupled with the rise of radical Islam has resulted in the growth of a terrorist organisation with an aversion to western governance and a perceived Christian Nigerian government.
Ethno-religious conflict is not a new phenomenon and has plagued Nigerian governments since its independence in 1960. The Kaduna riots (2000), disturbances in Jos (2010) and Kano (2011) are a few recent examples. The present government has been heavily criticised for failing to resolve these tensions and bridge the ethno-religious divide. With the current situation worsening, Nigerians and those in the diaspora are looking to Goodluck Jonathan for a solution.
The late Muammar Gadaffi once proposed a two state solution for Nigeria: One Christian, one Muslim. It's an idea that has gained in popularity as a result of recent events. I really don't think the solution is in division. Not only would this be a logistical nightmare it would do nothing to resolve the issues at the heart of Nigerian society, such as unemployment, marginalization and poverty. One of the failures of the democratic governments in Nigeria has been to adequately redistribute Nigeria's oil wealth amongst the population. This has led to vast contrasts, such as the luxurious Victoria Island where the nation's rich frequent and the rural areas of the north in which 80% of the population live below the poverty line.
Whatever action Jonathan takes needs to be backed up by dialogue, mediation and most importantly reform. But how do your reform a country with over 400 ethnic groups with varying vested interests? That is the challenge for Mr Jonathan; it is a dilemma which has failed all previous leaders in power. During Nigeria's military era diverging interests could be forcefully subdued however in a democracy the same cannot be applied.
I've been trying to avoid the "C" word for some time but I guess in any discussion of Nigeria it's kind of unavoidable. Yes you guessed it, that dirty word corruption. I've lost count of the many times I've told someone of my Nigerian roots and they have replied with variations of how terrible the corruption is there. There's no sugar coating it and as much as I would love to deny it, corruption is rampant in Nigeria. Widespread corruption is to blame for many of Nigeria's problems and could quite possibly be an underlying cause for the current situation. Corrupt practices have led to a lack of socio-economic reform, high levels of poverty and the political marginalization of minority groups. These factors and more have motivated extremist movements within Nigeria and fuelled the violence along religious lines.
How Mr Jonathan deals with the recent violence could prove to be his greatest test in power. The calls of a possible descent into civil war are worrying and his actions throughout the course of 2012 will be decisive for the aversion of a full blown conflict. The violence should not be seen from simply a religious perspective, the causes are much deeper. Yes religion does play a part, however underlying the conflict are socio-economic failures and political dissatisfaction. I'm not that naïve to suggest that Nigeria's problems will disappear overnight but I look forward to a time when Nigeria celebrates its diverse population instead of warring over it.