ABUJA, Nigeria–After nearly a month-long elections cycle, the verdict on the 2011 parliamentary, presidential, and state governor polls is decidedly mixed.
This is not, however, due to the legitimacy of this year’s elections, the fourth Nigeria has held since it transitioned from a long spell of military rule in 1999. Despite predictable logistical hiccups and engineered irregularities in certain parts of the country, all of the Nigerian and international observer groups monitoring these polls deemed them to be more credible than the 1999, 2003, and 2007 polls. Indeed, in the past month I’ve spent here in Nigeria reporting on the elections, I have yet to meet a Nigerian voter, activist, analyst, journalist, or other citizen who does not agree with the assessment that these polls are likely to mark a step- change in the way Nigeria conducts elections moving forward.
At the same time, the serious violence that swept the northern region of the country last week is a national tragedy. Local and international media reports largely downplayed the violence that initally began as youth riots in the northern cities of Kaduna and Kano on April 18 in anticipation of the results of the presidential election held April 16. It was not until The Associated Press passed througthe devastated villages of Kafanchan and Zonkwa in rural southern Kaduna state late last week that the scale of the violence trickled out to the public. The media are not entirely to blame for underreporting this crisis, given that the Nigerian authorities were hesitant to release full details on the deaths of hundreds of Nigerians in the post-elections violence–likely for fear of provoking more reprisal killings.
Last night in the staid capital of Abuja–a few hundred kilometers from the epicenter of the violence–I heard some of these terrible details from a journalist colleague who had visited the village of Zonkwa on Tuesday. On his visit, he learned that more than 350 people had recently been buried, some in mass graves and others in closed-off wells, after an attack on the Muslim community in the village. The attack was a reprisal for the killings of Christians in the state capital Kaduna, which occured after mainly Muslim youth supporters of the opposition Congress for Progressive Change party began protesting the loss of their hero-candidate Muhammadu Buhari after the presidential vote. The protests turned violent, quickly dividing the city along religious lines; the polarizing violence soon spread to rural areas like Zonkwa, with deadly results.
The post-elections violence in the north arguably bodes poorly for the prospects of Nigerians uniting behind their newly elected leaders in the months and years ahead. President Goodluck Jonathan will need to do more to reach out to the disillusioned northern electorate if he is to heal the wounds opened by this month’s elections.