Nigerian leader to be sworn in

May 29, 2011 12:00 am

, ABUJA, May 29 – Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan will be sworn in on Sunday following elections seen as the country\’s fairest in some two decades, but he faces a divided nation after deadly post-poll riots.

Jonathan, a 53-year-old southern Christian, handily beat his main opponent, an ex-military ruler from the mainly Muslim north, in the April 16 vote, but three days of rioting following the election killed more than 800 people.

The rioting and massacres spread across the north of Africa\’s most populous nation, with victims hacked, burnt or shot to death. Mobs torched churches and mosques, beat people after pulling them from cars and attacked shops.

Jonathan, the first president from the oil-producing Niger Delta region, will be seeking to put the violence behind him in an elaborate ceremony in the capital\’s Eagle Square. Some 20 heads of state, largely from African nations, are expected.

But suspicion remains in the north, where many accuse Jonathan\’s ruling Peoples Democratic Party of rigging and reject reports from observers calling the election a step forward for the continent\’s largest oil producer.

"Jonathan does not have legitimacy," said Abubakar Siddique Mohammed, who runs a thinktank in the northern city of Zaria, where a home belonging to the family of Vice President Namadi Sambo was torched in the riots.

He personally witnessed numerous cases of ballot fraud, he said. Asked about observers\’ findings that Jonathan\’s victory was legitimate despite major flaws, he called them liars.

"(Jonathan) cannot lead by pretending that people are not aggrieved," he said.

Long before the elections, Jonathan faced hostility in the north — poorer and less educated than the oil-producing south — since many in the region accused him of snatching power away from them.

His nomination overturned an internal ruling party arrangement that saw it rotate its candidate between the north and south every two terms.

The president initially came to power in May 2010 following the death of Umaru Yar\’Adua, a northern Muslim who had not yet finished his first term.

For that reason, many argued that a northerner should be nominated for the party, which has won every presidential election since the country returned to civilian rule in 1999.

Many northerners saw hope in his main challenger, Muhammadu Buhari.

Buhari, an ex-military ruler known for his "war against indiscipline" in the 1980s, has benefited from a reputation as an anti-graft figure in one of the world\’s most corrupt countries.

He also alleged fraud in the election, but disassociated himself from the violence. Buhari has been criticised, however, for failing to make a strong public statement against the riots as they unfolded.

Because of the circumstances surrounding his election and the fact that Jonathan comes from a minority ethnic group — he is an Ijaw — some argue that he will find it difficult to bring about significant change.

Others say progress is possible if Jonathan can deliver on issues such as infrastructure — including a woeful electricity supply that leads to daily blackouts — and begin to attack corruption.

They point to progress made by the electoral commission, which was led by a respected academic and managed to compile an electronic voters\’ roll to replace an old one littered with false names. Safeguards put in place on election day made rigging more difficult.

"Even the modest experience of the election shows it is possible to make incremental gains," said Chidi Odinkalu of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

But it is not only the north that poses potential troubles for Jonathan.

His native Niger Delta has seen relative peace after years of unrest thanks to a 2009 amnesty deal, but questions have been raised over how long it can last.

A deadly conflict between Christian and Muslim ethnic groups in the country\’s middle belt region also continues to simmer, while an Islamist sect has been blamed for dozens of killings in the northeast.


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