Nigeria's President Calls for Calm After Riots

April 19, 2011 - 6:56 AM

Lagos, Nigeria (AP) - Nigeria's president called for calm and national unity after violent riots swept across the country's Muslim north, forcing thousands to flee and leaving houses ablaze as results from the national election showed that the Christian incumbent had won.

Authorities and aid groups have hesitated to release tolls following the riots for fear of inciting reprisal attacks, but the Nigerian Red Cross said hundreds had been wounded in the postelection violence.

In a televised address to the nation late Monday, President Goodluck Jonathan said that "nobody's political ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian."

Supporters of opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari set fire to homes of ruling party members in several areas across the north. Police said an angry mob also engineered a prison break.

Thousands have been killed in religious violence in the past decade in Nigeria, which is Africa's most populous nation. But the roots of the sectarian conflict are often embedded in struggles for political and economic dominance.

While Christians and Muslims have shared the same soil in the nation for centuries, the election result showing the Christian president's more than 10 million vote lead over Muslim candidate Muhammadu Buhari spread accusations of rigging in a nation long accustomed to ballot box stuffing.

Jonathan took office last year only after the country's elected Muslim president died from a lengthy illness before his term ended, and many in the north still believe the ruling party should have put up a Muslim candidate instead in this year's election. Monday's violence also was fueled by the economic despair in Nigeria's arid north.

"The region has the worst unemployment, the most grinding poverty, the poorest education, and the shortest life expectancy of any region of Nigeria," the newspaper Next said Tuesday in an editorial. "So stark and repulsive is the poverty, and so thoroughly alienated have the people become, that even this contested election can be seen as little more than an outlet for the expression of deep-seated grievances."

Nigeria has a long history of violent and rigged polls since it abandoned a revolving door of military rulers and embraced democracy 12 years ago. Legislative elections earlier this month left a hotel ablaze, a politician dead and a polling station and a vote-counting center bombed in the nation's northeast. However, observers largely said Saturday's presidential election appeared to be fair, with fewer cases of ballot box thefts than previous polls.

Election chairman Attahiru Jega announced results Monday night that showed Jonathan won 22.4 million votes, compared to the 12.2 million votes of his nearest rival, the former military ruler Buhari.