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OPINION: Religion, Politics and April 2011 Elections

Tolling Bells, By Bisi Daniels. Email: bisidaniels@thisdayonline.com,

I pray that April does not lead Nigeria in a decent into a crisis even close to the political impasse in Cote d’Ivoire. And I pray that one day soon, Nigerians will first see themselves as Nigerians before their origin becomes of any relevance at all.

I think former President Olusegun Obasanjo was right to have expressed concern for the unity of Nigeria last week. Over that, he no laugh o!

One would have thought that at this time and age religious and ethnic differences in countries had lost their potency for crisis. But not in Africa!  The North-South divide is as old as the longest civil war in the world that has birthed the newest country – Southern Sudan; and it is as fresh as the ugly Gbagbo – Ouattara impasse in Cote d’Ivoire. In Nigeria it would appear that there are always people at work, digging deep into the North-South divide.

And until the end of the superiority complex of some sections of the country or a set of people over others, there will always be strife. So I pray because politicians will go to any length to get power even if in the end there are no more people to govern.

I also pray that by April, the Independent National Electoral Commission would have matured enough to conduct a visibly credible and convincing presidential election, which will leave no one in doubt about the victory of the winner. For the Commission, unlike in its request for funding and timelines for the voters registration exercise, there will be no second chance. Mistakes made during the elections may be difficult to change. Loopholes will easily be exploited by politicians, who are already trooping to the courts for injunctions.

Months after the world moved against President Laurent Gbagbo for stealing Alassane Ouattara’s mandate as President of Cote d’Ivoire, he is still holding on. And he seems to have popular support from his part of the country – the South, while Ouattara is rooted firmly in the support of the North, and the international community.

However the story of the two is not as straightforward as it looks. In 1992 when Ouattara was prime minister under the late President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Gbagbo, then an opposition pro-democracy leader, was jailed for organising a student protest.   Clashes between the two continued when in 2000, Gbagbo, believed to be the real winner in a presidential election, was proclaimed president. Opposition leader Ouattara, was excluded from running in the poll and he called for a fresh election.

Soon fighting erupted between Gbagbo’s mainly southern supporters and followers of Ouattara, who were mostly from the north. Repeatedly Ouattara had been barred from presidential elections over doubts concerning his nationality, but a key component of repeated peace deals with the rebels, who remained in control of the north, allowed him to run during the last elections.

Ouattara, polled more than 95 per cent of the electorate in many parts of the north in the first round, while getting less than five percent in certain parts of the mostly west. Overall, he finished second with 32 percent of the vote, to Gbagbo’s 38 percent, which included dominating percentages in southern, eastern and western regions.

In the subsequent run-off ballot, the Election Commission announced that Ouattara won with 54.1 per cent of the vote compared with 45.9 percent for Gbagbo. But the Constitutional Council rejected the results as rigged and Gbagbo was declared winner.

Another scene: Sudan gained independence in 1956 and six years later, a civil war broke out in the southern parts of the country. Under the Jaafar Numeiri administration, southern Sudan achieved partly self-governance in 1972 in a peace agreement signed in Addis Ababa.

But in 1978, large findings of oil in Bentiu, southern Sudan refueled the strife between North and South. It was worsened five years later, when Numieri introduced the Islamic Sharia law to Sudan, leading to a new breakout of the civil war in the south. The forces there were led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) under command of John Garang.

Fast forward: a referendum took place in Southern Sudan  last month on whether the region should remain a part of Sudan or become independent.  The referendum was one of the consequences of the 2005 Naivasha Agreement between the Khartoum central government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).

The final results published by the referendum commission show a 98.83 per cent voting in favour of independence, and the predetermined date for the creation of an independent state is July 9, 2011.

I deliberately removed the religion factor from this narrative. In all instances, the north is described as the Muslim North, and the south, Christian South. Many countries in Africa, south of the Sahara, are so partitioned. Although elaborate efforts are made by their governments to paper over the wide cracks, the fact sticks out like the sore thumb.

Successive Nigerian governments have adduced the Jos crisis to anything but religion. Not even after last December bombings in Jos and other parts of the country. But an interesting scene played out at a press conference by the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC).

The Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar, said in his comments after NIREC’s official statement, “I have said this before and I stand by it: the Jos crisis is political, with religious undertones, and that is because those fighting are predominantly Christians and Muslims. Politicians are behind it and the leaders in the state should be blamed….That is the truth.”

The NIREC had described the crises as political and CAN President Ayo Oritsejafor’s anxiety was obvious as he took his turn to speak. “I agree that the killings are political, but with a very, very strong dose of religion….”

A careful look at most of these crises across Africa shows politicians at work. But it is true that the trigger they pull is religion. The politicians know the weaknesses of their foot soldiers and how to manipulate them to achieve their beliefs. Religion thus becomes the red flag to get the bull charging.

It is a sad irony that people would kill for the Almighty God, who has absolute power over life and death; sad indeed that people love religion more than they love God.

A broadcast on an American television network the other day set me thinking. It accused President Barack Obama of rising too quickly in support of Ouattara without a careful consideration of prevailing issues. To the network, which also showed a long interview with Gbagbo, he is being robbed in a conspiracy to give power to the Muslim north.

Oh, the North-South card!  Of course, I know it. In Nigeria, it is the politician’s favourite weapon.  As we prepare for the April elections, signs abound of people playing the religious and ethnic cards.  However, there are some genuine cases of discontent and people who control the power levers in the political parties should not take these cases for granted. They should move quickly to resolve them.

For INEC, the umpire, the challenges are equally enormous. As the voters registration exercise has hinted, the celebrated integrity of INEC Chairman Jega alone is not enough to guarantee free and fair elections. Not even President Goodluck Jonathan’s repeated promise is. There are very many loose variables to control, such as logistics, honesty of electoral officials and security personnel, and desperation of politicians, to ensure that people can vote freely and for all votes to count.

Sadly, we do not seem to have outgrown the mentality of do-or-die politics. God has blessed Nigeria to be a beautiful country and people who aspire to lead it should not destroy it with inordinate ambition.

He’s Gone. Who Next?

Presidents are not forever, so Hosni Mubarak, after a reckless display of stubbornness is gone. Thirty years in power. Phew! But make no mistake, the 6,000 year-old Egypt is difficult to rule because of the boisterous nature of pressure groups there. Hosni, did well stabilizing the country after the assassination of his predecessor, he himself was lucky to escape.

But that was no licence for him to overstay. Reports that he is worth $70 billion are still rumours, but the various sources are comfortable with a conservative estimate of $35 billion. It is also said that  his son, Gamal, once next in line for the throne, owns a £8.5 million Georgian terrace in Wilton Place, Belgravia, London – a stone’s throw from Harrods.

What eroded my sympathy during Hosni’s last days was when he told Christiane Amanpour that he was fed up with being president and would like to leave office now, but couldn’t, for fear that the country would sink into chaos. Of course, with him holed in the opulent presidential palace, the country was already burning.

One thing is clear about life. People tend to play God when they stay too long in a position. I don’t think anybody is indispensable!

So who next after Hosni? Algeria and Yemen have caught the bug. And experts have identified other countries that have similar mix of circumstances for a revolution. They include Iran, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, Vietnam, Venezuela, and Pakistan. It may not be soonest, but I know that one day, it will cross the Sahara desert.

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Posted by on Feb 16 2011. Filed under Elections 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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