New York — The new round of violence in Jos, tragically similar to unrest there in the past and once again misinterpreted as primarily a Muslim-Christian dispute, was exacerbated by the central government's failure to effectively intervene. Indeed, there has scarcely been a functioning central government in Nigeria since President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua was hospitalized in Saudi Arabia in late November. He has not been seen in public since then, and although no one in government openly acknowledges it, he is in a coma, according to knowledgeable sources who requested anonymity.
Yar'Adua was flown back home in the early hours of February 24, landing in a remote area of the partly blacked out Abuja airport like "a thief in the night," as a Nigerian newspaper put it. Still, Nigerians hoped that his return might end their time in limbo one way or another.
It did not. While Yar'Adua was hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, numerous government delegations had gone to Jeddah to ascertain the state of his health. All, however, had been rebuffed by Turai Yar'Adua, his formidable wife. Finally, after some 90 days of this fruitless minuet, the Senate passed a resolution stating that Vice President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan should become "acting president."
Many Nigerians welcomed that; so did the international community, even though the solution had no basis in law.
Then, while President Yar'Adua lay in his generator-powered intensive care ambulance parked by the presidential villa, still unseen by the vice president, or anyone outside his own tiny circle, it seemed that the legal end of his presidency was in sight. Either two-thirds of the Executive Council (the cabinet) would vote to start the process of declaring him incapacitated or the National Assembly would begin impeachment proceedings. Neither, however, happened.
Instead, political maneuvering continued while Jonathan, as acting president, took a few steps of his own. In one, he replaced the attorney-general, Michael Aondoakaa, a member of what Nigerians called "the cabal" led by Yar'Adua's wife. But Jonathan, the former governor of Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta, was unwilling or unable to go further, unsure of support from the Senate.
But he did appoint a Presidential Advisory Council (PAC) made up of 26 heavyweight Nigerians with long public and private sector experience. Chairing it is retired Lt. General T.Y. Danjuma, a veteran of several previous governments. Speaking at the PAC's inauguration on March 4, he urged Jonathan to "act quickly and aggressively" in four areas: implementation of the agreed upon measures in Yar'Adua's Niger Delta amnesty; restoring momentum to the fight against corruption, and, linked to that, electoral reform before the 2011 elections. Danjuma also urged Jonathan to address the critical lack of electrical power.
Throughout the nearly 11 years of Nigeria's supposed democracy, nothing has more greatly undermined Nigerians' way of life than what they call "the culture of impunity." Political figures steal as they choose and pay gangs of unemployed youths to intimidate voters, while hired assassins and other criminals go unpunished. In a February 10 letter to Acting President Jonathan, Human Rights Watch urged him "to take meaningful steps to address the impunity that underscores…Nigeria's very pressing human rights problems."
Which leads us to the cycle of killing in Jos. Its underlying causes are economic and political, not religious or ethnic. In the most recent crisis in which hundreds of people were killed or injured - death estimates range from the police's 109 to Human Rights Watch's "at least 200" to press reports of 500 - the lack of an effective central government was evident. Who could insure law and order and protect the population? A state of emergency should have been declared months ago. Until the latest violence, impunity reigned in Jos; only now have there been arrests. Nigerians want to see trials and convictions. Justice for the victims of the January attacks is also vital for lasting peace.
Outbursts of violence occur elsewhere in Nigeria, but in Jos in Plateau State the tragedy seems more poignant. This was a peaceful, pleasant part of the country where Nigerians of varied backgrounds had lived harmoniously for decades.
But the frighteningly rapid southern advance of the Sahara Desert and the shrinkage of Lake Chad in the last 30 years have increased pressure on the grazing lands that are key to the lives of nomads in northern Nigeria. Most of the country's cattle are found there. At the same time, agricultural patterns are changing from shifting cultivation to more clearly defined plots.
Compounding the problem is the population growth in farming areas where Muslim Fulani herders have long moved with their cattle as the seasons changed. Farmers can be Christian Berom or Angas or Tarok in Plateau State or Muslim Hausa living outside Jos. They can be Muslim Hausa, Kanuri or Nupe or something else in other states. Religion is irrelevant. Competition for land is heightened, but seldom does it descend into Jos-scale violence.
The pernicious concept of "indigenes" of a state (or city or town) makes matters worse. There are indigenes, while others are "settlers" who can be excluded from school or land ownership or from holding government positions, even if they have lived in the same area for generations and are, often, successful traders. Politicians exploit this, and then, using religion, stoke anger further.
Many Muslim Nigerians, condemning all the killings without exception, note the difference in international reaction to the recent deaths when the victims were Christian Berom and those in January when they were Muslim Hausa and Fulani. They say that only Human Rights Watch has given equal coverage, with equal condemnation.
Meanwhile public pressure to legitimatize a Jonathan presidency is mounting. General Muhammadu Buhari, opposition candidate for the presidency in 2003 and 2007, who challenged both elections but lost at the Supreme Court, spoke for many Nigerians when, calling for Yar'Adua's impeachment, he said: "Adopting extra-constitutional measures has not addressed the problem. If it had, we would not have been subjected to [the] raging debates and controversy going on."
He was alluding to the behind-the-scenes plotting. The Yar'Adua "cabal," for example, wants to continue the status quo indefinitely, although a family feud has erupted over dynastic succession: Which son-in-law (two of Yar'Adua's daughters are married to sitting governors) should contend for the presidency in 2011? The state governors, speaking through their unofficial Governors' Forum, supported making Jonathan "acting president," but will not support anything further.
The People's Democratic Party (PDP), Nigeria's dominant party, insists that the next president must be from the north, continuing their non-constitutional arrangement that alternates the presidency between north and south for eight years each. The PDP governors also want one of their own to be the next presidential candidate but they can't agree on which one.
Meanwhile, the national legislators, overwhelmingly PDP, are firmly opposed to having any governor as the next presidential candidate. Most share with the governors, though, a fear of electoral reform: One Nigerian exclaimed, when asked about an estimate that 70 per cent of those "elected" didn't win or even have an election, "Tell me someone who was elected!"
Also, former president Obasanjo, who, Nigerians repeatedly say, "created this mess," has been active behind the scenes. Indeed, one early concern about having a Jonathan presidency was that it could bring back Obasanjo's influence. Jonathan has, however, been powerfully warned against that.
And surfacing again are the ambitions of a former military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida. Nigerians hold IBB, as he is known, responsible for two calamities: first, in the 1980s, his "Structural Adjustment Program," which destroyed Nigeria's middle class and further impoverished the general population; and second, the annulment of the presidential election of 1993, which they believe could have brought them genuine democracy. Speculation about IBB intensified when Jonathan appointed retired Lt. General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau as his national security adviser. He and IBB have been close for decades. Gusau held the same position for six years under Obasanjo and has his own political ambitions, too.
Furthermore, the Niger Delta, Jonathan's home territory, is becoming restive. Recent days have seen two explosions, targeting Agip and Shell installations. At the same time, any arrangement that does not give Jonathan presidential powers is unacceptable there and could spur calls to break up the country.
And so the uncertainty and the tension continue and there is only a semblance of a functioning federal government. Although an apparent consensus is emerging in Abuja to allow the acting president to exercise full presidential powers, the coming weeks will be critical for Nigeria's future.
Jean Herskovits, research professor of history at the State University of New York at Purchase, has been visiting Nigeria for four decades. She returned from her most recent trip last week.