Wahala in Nigeria

Youth groups set fire to the independent electoral commission, in the predominantly Muslim area of Ungwarimi in Kaduna. Image by Bénédicte Kurzen. Nigeria, 2011.

The body of Abdul Aziz Lawal, 13, who was slain by a stray bullet in the predominantly Muslim area of Ungwarimi, in Kaduna. Image by Bénédicte Kurzen. Nigeria, 2011.

Clouds of black smoke were visible along the horizon in the early morning. Skirmishes had erupted overnight between supporters of Muhammadu Buhari and police. Partial results from Saturday's presidential poll were already showing an insurmountable lead for the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan—a Christian from the south. Campaign representatives for Buhari, Jonathan's principle challenger and a northern Muslim, had begun to cry foul, alleging that voter turnout in a number of predominantly Christian states in the south had been inflated. By morning, Kaduna's Muslim neighborhoods were on fire.

Nigerians have a catch-all term that covers everything from trouble with in-laws to deadly political unrest— wahala. Today was going to be a wahala day.

The presidential polls over the weekend and a legislative vote held a week earlier were partially marred by a series of bombings and attacks by gunmen. But despite the violence, observers have deemed them the best in the country's history. And though not perfect, the process has indeed been a vast improvement over a horrendous 2007 election.

Clearly though, not everyone agreed. And the breakdown of the results revealed striking divisions between Muslims and Christians.

“We know General Buhari won the election on Saturday. They must change this government, or we will change it ourselves,” one young man shouted as others dragged trash into an elections commission office—fuel for a fire that was already consuming most of the structure. Half a dozen vehicles smoldered in the parking lot.

A block away hundreds of angry young men crowded around a flaming barricade of tires and steel dumpsters. Some had blackened their faces with ash. Others brandished improvised protest signs—“Change” and “No Mo Goodluck.”

After a few tentative scouting passes, the police arrived. The sound of engines at full throttle and screeching tires was followed shortly after by a pop as a teargas canister sailed into the crowd. The protesters scattered and disappeared, leaving behind a few unfortunate stragglers to bear the brunt of the policemen's rage.

Shots were fired in the air. A few motorbikes unwisely parked within sight of the barricades were rapidly loaded into pick-ups. Then the police tore off, handing control of the streets back to the young men.

Sheltered in a courtyard with just a concrete wall separating her from the violence, 72-year-old Hadjara Ibrahim sat, disgusted.

“All the police are thieves,” she said in reference to the stolen motorbikes. “Burn houses. Burn mosque. Burn church. Burn that. Kill that. The ruling people are not here. Their family in London. You see the boys jumping about? No school. No job. Their families are suffering. Their parents are suffering.”

As I spoke with her, the same scenario was playing out across the north, in Bauchi, in Kano, in Gombe, in Zaria. Homes, government buildings and churches were burning. The Nigerian Red Cross officials spoke of "many killed" and "bodies in the streets."

During an afternoon lull in the violence, we walked through deserted streets. A row of shops, normally pumping to the pulse of small-time commerce, was abandoned and shuttered. Then, coming upon a group of young men sitting in the shade of a wall, one stepped forward, hopped on a bicycle and told us to follow him.

A few blocks away a crowd had gathered in front of a small apartment block. As we moved inside, a man took my arm and said, “See what they have done.” At that moment a small group rounded the corner carrying a wooden stretcher. A green tapestry embroidered with ornate Arabic text in gold covered the body of 13-year-old Abdul-Aziz Lawal. Underneath, blood seeped through a white shroud.

“Nobody has told me anything,” said his father, still dazed. He had not been home when it happened. “They told me at the hospital that he was upstairs when the bullet arrived.”

A neighbor had also been hit and was now at the hospital. The families, I was told, had been instructed by the police to “consider it an unfortunate accident.”