Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ethnicity and Religion Inflame Nigerian Politics ; Three Politicians Have Been Killed Recently in the Run-Up to Next Month's National Elections

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ethnicity and Religion Inflame Nigerian Politics ; Three Politicians Have Been Killed Recently in the Run-Up to Next Month's National Elections

Article excerpt

Presidential hopeful Emeka Ojukwu arrived for his opening campaign rally waving from the open roof of a black car barely visible through a jubilant crowd of thousands.

Police officers had to beat the supporters back with whips and truncheons as the candidate approached the stage. "They will literally mob him," noted one bystander.

This enthusiastic response is not one the controversial candidate would likely get in other parts of Nigeria. Mr. Ojukwu is best known for his involvement in a secessionist war in the 1960s that left 1 million or more people dead.

But the magnitude of his appeal here is a revealing indicator of the challenge facing the winner of next month's presidential election: uniting disparate segments of a culture whose religious and ethnic diversity has long been exploited by opportunistic politicians, often with violent results. Some observers fear that the candidates in the election, or their supporters, could tap these undercurrents, exacerbating the existing unease and threatening the stability of the country's precarious federalist structure.

"There is a definite risk," says Beko Ransome-Kuti, a leading human rights campaigner. "It's not unexpected, because of the experiences we have been through."

Indeed, just last week, a high-ranking member of All Nigeria People's Party, the country's main opposition party, was shot in his home, the third politician killed in the past month. No one has been arrested for the murders.

Ojukwu's party, the All Progressives Grand Alliance, says it wants to close divisions that date back to 1914, when British colonialists fused the northern and southern halves of Nigeria into one country. A civil war, fought from 1967 to 1970, was the result of a horrific power struggle between the poor but populous north, and the south, where the country's oil wealth is located.

In the January issue of The Rooster, an Alliance party newsletter, Ojukwu attacked the continued "misgovernment" of the nation and said he does not "seek to rule but to heal" Nigeria's troubled polity.

Ojukwu's rhetoric is less confrontational than that of party supporters among the Ibo ethnic group that dominates in the east. Many Ibo speak of long-standing discrimination at an official level. The Ibo, along with the Yoruba of the west and the Hausa-Fulani of the north, are thought to account for more than half of Nigeria's estimated population of 120 million. …

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