‘173 million Nigerians and 68 million voting’
These figures may come as a surprise to some. Whilst it is true that this election cannot compare to the one in India last year, it is still much larger than most realize. The Nigerian electorate is larger than the entire French population. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s reputation precedes it. Despite officially overtaking South Africa as the continent’s powerhouse, Nigeria has been pretty much reduced to ‘Boko Haram’. This group only became truly violent in 2009, seven years after its establishment. Now, this old British colony lacks a national identity to effectively deal with the Boko Haram threat. Just days before four million people marched in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Boko Haram performed one of its largest killing sprees with deaths numbering in the thousands. No one marched.
With an eye on the upcoming elections and the role of the media especially, this article seeks to understand what is going on in Nigeria.
Boko Haram and Nigerian fragmentation
Nigeria is very culturally diverse and so suffers from heavy national fragmentation. It is a country that is blessed and cursed with more than 500 local dialects – a society which is organized around tribes and a very apparent religious division between Christianity in the South and Islam in the North. Responsibility consequently falls on the government to create a national rhetoric to unite the population, regardless of its origins. This has not happened yet.
It took President Goodluck Jonathan nine months to make his first visit to Borno state in the Northeast since a state of emergency was declared there last May, highlighting, to some at least, his disregard for this particular geographical region. Yet he was quick to offer words of compassion after the Paris killings. However, it is true that both attacks have been framed within different contexts.
The rhetoric in France was focused on highlighting the attack as being completely out of the ordinary, a direct assault on the French values of freedom of expression and liberty. By contrast, the attacks in Borno state were downplayed as the continuation of an already existing conflict between communities. This then impacts on how citizens perceive and react to the attacks. The difficulty in getting any media coverage of events in the north of Nigeria compared to the 24/7 coverage of the attacks in Paris has resulted in uncertainty about what is actually happening. It has also made it difficult for the rest of the population to identify with the victims.
Stakes in the elections
Goodluck’s government has faced heavy criticism and currently suffers from low approval ratings. Furthermore, the extension of the state of emergency by a further six months has not convinced many that the election will make a tangible difference. His party, the People’s Democratic Party, is sure to suffer from this apathy on the 14th of February. Yet the opposing party, the All Progressive Congress, has its work cut out as well.
Its 72 year old candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, is popular in the north but his violent rhetoric and very close association with religion is making voters wary of him. Nigeria has enjoyed democracy for 16 years and so the stakes in these elections are high. Newly elected officials will have to ensure that whatever the outcome, identity-based riots will not create further unrest in the country. And as recent reports of kidnappings in Cameroon have surfaced, the new executive is going to be judged on its ability to effectively work with neighbouring governments to tackle this issue.
The role of media and unity
It is also important to take a critical step back. Hyperbolizing Boko Haram’s actions is a trap which must be avoided. This does not imply that Boko Haram is a negligible threat. As when discussing the recent developments of Boko Haram, we should not focus solely on how many died but how Nigerians can be empowered to counter the killings. Conversations about uniting the country are one of the keys to solving this crisis. To do so, the media needs to be more solution focused. What do I mean?
Exacerbating and focusing on differences is too easy. Nigeria is a very dynamic country which would benefit from effective social media campaigns to allow citizens to critically engage with information that is focused on long term solutions. Beyond social media, serious restructuring of Nigerian public institutions is necessary to allow for a national rhetoric to unite the whole country regardless of regions, ethnicities, tribes and religions. The winning party should make this one of its top priorities.
To wrap up
Change is something that all Nigerians want. Whether that will come from the APC or the PDP is currently up in the air. The new government of this old British colony will need to foster a spirit of unity throughout the country in order to create a more effective response to Boko Haram.
Image courtesy of boellstiftung