Nigeria, the potential powerhouse of Africa, is in trouble. Brought to office in 2007 elections marred by accusations of fraud, President Umaru Yar’Adua had a lot to prove if he was to win popular legitimacy and overcome powerful cliques holding the nation back. His government is failing, and the consequences are grave.

The glue that has kept Nigeria together against long odds by binding the interests of its fractious elites, is coming unstuck. Onshore oil production has fallen to levels not seen since the 1960s amidst a crisis of confidence in government’s ability to regain control. Militants campaigning for a greater share of the wealth in the Niger delta have brought the oil industry to a virtual halt. The state is losing billions of dollars that it needs to invest in a decrepit infrastructure and failing schools.

Inhabitants of the Niger delta harbour grievances that date back 50 years to when oil was discovered there. The predominantly Muslim north, from where Mr Yar’Adua hails, is poorer still and sliding further into despair.

Economic liberalisation has helped businesses and banks to thrive in pockets of the south where Christians are in the majority. In the north, where industry and opportunity were dependent on the state, jobs have vanished, and services collapsed. An Islamist sect responsible for four days of violence this week, is but a symptom of far deeper malaise.

At the best of times it is a delicate balancing act catering to the disparate interests of these regions and appeasing rival ethnic groups. But the best of times are over and an opportunity to begin fixing Nigeria has been lost.

To bring peace back to the Niger delta the federal government must ultimately give its inhabitants a greater stake in the oil, while ensuring the proceeds achieve broad-based development rather than enrich a few. At the same time it must persuade inhabitants of the north that such a strategy can be in their interests, even if it means less money flowing their way.

Some of the reforms necessary are on the table, including a big shake-up of the oil industry that could help to curb corruption. But Mr Yar’Adua now looks to be the prisoner of those powerful cliques that helped him to power and who profit from the status quo. He cannot be blamed for the state he found the nation in. But if he is to prevent today’s crises gathering pace, he must act quickly to prevent Nigeria’s fractious states from taking power into their own hands.

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