KANO, Nigeria—Brandishing wooden planks and lighter fuel, young men and boys -- some hardly taller than the makeshift clubs they were wielding -- took to the streets of several northern Nigerian cities Monday, April 18, to protest the emerging results of Saturday's presidential election. As they waved their clubs, they shouted "Only Buhari! We want change!" echoing the campaign slogans of their fallen candidate, the onetime military ruler of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, who battled the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan in the April 16 election.
Saturday's vote marked a first for Africa's most populous country in its latest chapter of democratic rule. Nigerian and international observers praised it as the only election since 1999 -- when the country transitioned to civilian rule after decades of military dictatorship -- to break away from a history of chaotic, rigged, and violent polls. Unlike previous occasions, on Saturday there was no ballot stuffing, no "Elvis Presleys" or other fake names on the voters list, no hired thugs stealing ballot boxes from polling stations. Everything was on track -- right up to the moment when widespread, deadly violence broke out.
The first rioters flooded the streets Monday morning, as soon as word had spread that the results were expected to favor Jonathan. By the time the electoral commission certified his victory on Monday evening, the protests had calmed slightly, but by Tuesday morning, fighting had erupted once again in Kaduna and the Associated Press reported by midday that "charred bodies" lined the road on the southern outskirts of the city. Violence spread to some 13 northern states throughout the day Monday. The Nigerian Red Cross reported that 16,000 people had fled their homes, afraid that the violence would continue.
Quickly, what was meant to be Nigeria's first truly legitimate election has begun to look a lot like the clouded ones of the past, even if the votes themselves add up the way they're supposed to. And it's not at all clear that the protesters in the north who torched churches, looted vehicles, and smashed billboards are entirely to blame, given the behavior of their leaders in Abuja. More importantly, if Jonathan does not manage to address the broader issues raised by this violence -- notably the discontent among northerners with the status quo that includes a huge class of unemployed and marginalized youth -- he may find his term as president focused largely on putting out brush fires rather than initiating badly needed reforms.
Security forces in Kaduna, Kano, and smaller northern cities such as Sokoto and Zaria managed to restore calm on Monday by firing live rounds into the air to disperse angry crowds, but not before the youth rioters had torched the homes and vehicles of some actual or perceived supporters of Jonathan's People's Democratic Party -- including the emir's residence in Kano. In Kaduna, rioters set fire to the electoral commission's state offices. As the sun set on April 18 in Kano, an ancient Muslim trading center that's now Nigeria's second-largest city after Lagos, an eerie calm had settled, but heaps of burned tires and wood remained on the streets.
But it's far from clear that the police can keep the protesters quiet for long, and indeed protests picked up again on Tuesday. Nor, for that matter, will Nigeria's politicians be able to quell the discontent. In a country where political elites have so often run roughshod over elections by paying young, uneducated, and unemployed men to do their dirty work at the ballot box and in the streets, those same elites now have little credibility when appealing for calm.