Nigeria @ 50

Nigeria turned 50 last week. It’s been a turbulent fifty, a time of great success and more than a few crushing defeats. The paradoxes of the last 50 years were captured during independence festivities in Abuja last Friday, as thousands gathered in Nigeria’s capital to celebrate Nigeria 50th Independence Day with food and fireworks only to be flee in horror when two car bombs exploded outside the Ministry of Justice, killing twelve.

The occasion of Nigeria’s 50th birthday provided many news outlets and commentators with the hook they needed to perform an autopsy of Nigeria’s history, with the usual analyses of Nigeria’s successes (its literary icons, its contemporary status as peacekeeper and stabilizer of West Africa), and its many failures (the oft-mentioned 419 email scams and the Biafran War among them). It was jarring to see again the pictures of the Biafran war – the carnage of bodies piled atop each other, the stomachs of children bulging from hunger. Yet Nigeria survived the catastrophe of its civil war, and has remained unified since.

Nigeria’s future, in many ways, turns on the question of ethnicity and politics, the same questions that have hounded Nigeria since its founding. These questions will be at the fore as Nigerians head to the polls next year to elect their next president. The last year has been an especially interesting one in Nigerian politics; the current president, Goodluck Jonathan (a Christian Southerner), ascended to the presidency only after his predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua (a Muslim Northerner), died in office in May. Jonathan recently announced his bid for the presidency; if he is selected as his party’s candidate, it would throw a wrench into the ruling party’s finely calibrated North-South arrangement whereby a candidate from one half of the country is replaced in the following election cycle by a candidate from the other half. Since Yar’Adua only served a portion of his term, there are some who believe that a Northerner is entitled to another term as President. If Jonathan manages to win the political primaries for his party, his candidacy will upset the system, and perhaps for the best. A Jonathan campaign would hopefully provide an opportunity for Nigerians to focus a bit more on the qualifications and credentials of their presidential candidates, and a bit less on their ethnic background and religious beliefs.

There are many others who aspire to become the next president of Nigeria, the most interesting of whom, perhaps, is Nuhu Ribadu, the former Executive Chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Division, the anti-corruption agency. Ribadu has returned to Nigeria after several years in exile; he fled Nigeria after several attempts on his life as a result of his anti-corruption work. Now he is mounting a campaign that he promises will be based on the ideals he’s spent his career defending – honesty, integrity, and a promise to crack down on the graft and corruption that has become an endemic part of the political culture in Nigeria. His campaign has already attracted attention among many youth across ethnic boundaries in Nigeria.

The fate of Nigeria in the next half-century hangs in the balance. The direction that Nigeria takes – towards a future of hope and growth, or one of backsliding and defeat – depends, to a great extent, on leadership. For this reason alone, the next few months in Nigerian politics will be of critical importance.