Why Nigeria's North South Distinction Is Important

The economic and social imbalance between the North and the South makes political power sharing in Nigeria a sensitive issue.
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Apologists for the Nigerian political system often accuse outside observers of viewing the country's North and South as monolithic blocks. With more than 150 million people, at least 250 different ethnic groups, and Christian and Muslim populations roughly equal in size, Nigeria's diversity is undeniable. Nevertheless, broad differences between North and South are a Nigerian historical, political and religious reality, and, as such, the distinction between the two provides a legitimate analytical lens. It is particularly relevant to understanding the debates and conflicts around who will be Nigeria's next president, principally as the contest shapes up to pit southern incumbent Goodluck Jonathan against northern former military head of state Muhammadu Buhari.

Given Nigeria's size and diversity, managing the complex web of interests and identities has challenged governance since colonial times. In general, control of the state has been accomplished through various forms of power sharing. Within the ruling People's Democratic Party, from 1999 to 2011, Nigerian elites reached an informal agreement, often referred to as 'zoning.' It provided for the rotation of the presidency between the North and the South. When the president was a southern Christian, the vice president was a northern Muslim, and vice versa. It was the South's turn with Olusegun Obasanjo from 1999 to 2007, and it was supposed to be the North's until 2015. However, following northern president Yar'Adua's death in office, his southern vice president, Goodluck Jonathan became president and secured the PDP presidential nomination in 2011, drawing on the power of his incumbency. Since past PDP primaries have been tantamount to winning the presidency, Jonathan could well remain in office until 2015. In this situation, Northerners fear political marginalization, which means reduced access to the oil revenues and patronage that fuel Nigeria's political economy.

The economic and social imbalance between the North and the South makes political power sharing a sensitive issue. The South is much richer and boasts far better socioeconomic indicators than the North. Extensive oil reserves are located in the Niger Delta, and the South has Lagos, the commercial and media capital of the country as well as one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. While there are numerous ethnic groups, the two largest, the Yoruba and the Ibo, make up the majority of the Diaspora that provides increasingly important foreign exchange remittances from abroad. It is true that Christians are a majority, but there is an important Muslim population in Yorubaland, and across the South, both religions are affiliative -- that is, an adherent chooses to join. Local conflict tends to be based on ethnic differences and competition for access to resources, especially in the oil-rich Delta, and very rarely do the clashes have a religious component. Given the history of inequality between the two regions, southerners often dismiss the North as backward.

By contrast, the North's population is probably larger, but it is much poorer than the rest of the country, with some of the world's worst health and economic statistics. Its economy is in decline because of deindustrialization and lack of investment in agriculture and infrastructure, and a much smaller percentage of its population has access to education than in the South.

Ethnically, two groups, the Fulani and the Kanuri, dominate, though there are many smaller ethnic groups in Nigeria. Islam, the 'establishment' religion since the Middle Ages, and Hausa, the lingua franca, are other common threads in the North. Much of the region falls under the dominions of the Fulani Sultan of Sokoto and the Kanuri Shehu of Borno. This "caliphate" Islam historically merged religion and governance to a greater extent than in other parts of the country. More recently, twelve Northern states adopted Sharia Islamic law, with Kano and Zamfara more rigorous in their application of it than the others. However, a growing Christian minority means local conflicts may have a religious dimension.

The North has long feared domination by the more advanced South, and, hence, was unenthusiastic about independence. Distrust of the South remains widespread, and there is the long standing view that only through political power can the North catch up to, or even hold its own with, the South. Most -- not all -- of Nigeria's military dictators have been Northern Muslims, which continues to be a sore point among many southerners. The North ascribes much greater importance to regional solidarity than is usual in the South, even if it is not always achieved. With its growing relative impoverishment and faced with the prospect of "losing" the presidency until at least 2015 if Jonathan wins the 2011 election, northern political elites now may well give serious consideration to the candidacy of Muhammadu Buhari, the former military ruler known for his austere lifestyle and intolerance for corruption. Buhari is already very popular on the "street" in the North -- and elsewhere. Alternatively, the likely reduced presence of northern powerbrokers in a Jonathan administration, which up to now has drawn heavily on southerners, will reduce their own standing with their local populations, if only because they will be able to dispense less patronage. That, in turn, could provide space for a different and likely more radical Muslim leadership to emerge, the political mobilization of religious and ethnic identities, and a more heated presidential contest.

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