Julianne Funk on the inflammation of Nigeria’s north-south tensions after the election

The optimist: President Goodluck Johnathan

On April 16th 2011, Nigerians went to the polls for a presidential election, which resulted in the victory of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. On the surface, the election ran smoothly: there was limited evidence of fraud and outbreaks of only small, seemingly insignificant skirmishes throughout a country of some 154 million people and 74 million registered voters.

President Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party praised the election as ‘a new dawn in Nigeria’s political evolution’, citing the protection of free and fair voting, both in the North and South. However, nearly two weeks after the votes have been counted, violence and rioting has erupted in the Muslim north, portending grave problems for Nigeria. While the South celebrates the victory of its beloved incumbent candidate, the North has exploded into anger, centring on far deeper issues than election results.

The Northern and Southern regions of Nigeria have long been divided along tribal, religious, and economic lines. Although the two regions have had distinct histories and traditions dating back hundreds of years, the British united the two in 1914 under the Protectorate of Nigeria. When the country finally received independence in 1960, for nearly forty years, tumultuous dictatorships dominated Nigerian politics, exacerbating tensions and sectarian divides.

Even when Nigeria reached quasi-democratic status in 1999 with the election of Olusegun Obasanjo, kin-centred nepotism continued to dominate government appointments, despite a rotation of power between the predominantly Muslim North and majority Christian South. Furthermore, various secessionist movements have gained momentum within the past decade, fuelling divisions and tensions between Nigeria’s three main ethnic groups: the Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba, separated among lines between the two regions.

Many would argue that these divisions are not only rooted in ethnic and religious differences but also in economic inequalities. While the South is home to the Niger Delta, rich in oil, the north is lacking in natural resources. The South is seen to receive more from the government in basic services, while the North suffers from low literacy rates and malnutrition, and staggers behind the South in almost all aspects of growth. According to the UN, the annual income per person in the nineteen northernmost states averages at $718, while the citizens of the remaining seventeen states earn on average double this amount.

With the votes counted and the winner declared, President Goodluck has declared to the world that Nigeria has proved itself a peaceful, stable, and united state. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Nigeria is not as stable as he claims. The sectarian divisions have only deepened, and the North’s growing frustration with the loss of the Muslim candidate Muhammadu Buhari could ultimately spell havoc for the country.

As the international community begins to grasp the scale of the conflict, in which hundreds of people have died within weeks owing to post-election violence, President Goodluck must be wary of the North’s current volatility. Instead of ignoring the inherent inequalities, Goodluck and his government must address them. Northern Nigerians are not frustrated just with the results of the election; they are calling for development and the end of a period of neglect of Northern needs. It’s time Nigeria, a leading state in Africa, takes responsibility for its worsening divisions and unfairness, and addresses the massive elephant in the room.


Julianne Funk