By Sola Tayo

As Nigeria prepares for elections in early 2011, newspaper headlines will be dominated by the antics of warring politicians desperate to claim and regain that most glittering of prizes - a term in office.

Across towns and cities a not so quiet revolution is taking place. The population is increasingly technology-savvy and is embracing what is on offer from the country's private sector and forging an existence that is almost exclusive of the state. A major oil producer and exporter, Nigeria is something of a contradictory nation. Economic and social progress is blighted on a daily basis by poor infrastructure and deep religious and ethnic divisions, yet among large sections of the population there is a refusal to rely on the meagre provisions of the state and an almost manic desire to adapt and progress - by any means necessary.

On paper, the statistics look impressive. With at least 150 million people, Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation and the continent's third largest economy after South Africa and Egypt. It is also a regional powerhouse, in the top five of countries contributing to United Nations peacekeeping operations and boasting a fast-growing economy despite the global financial crisis. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is so confident in Nigeria's recent economic performance that it predicts 'exceptionally high' growth for 2011. Oil accounts for more than 80 percent of foreign exchange earnings, but the non-oil sector has also seen significant gains.

Paradoxically, the country is also a world leader in unenviable statistics - one of the most recent being its ranking of 142 out of 169 least prosperous countries in the world according to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) data released earlier this year. It was also included among 41 countries considered to have the least human development. Life expectancy is below 50 years - lower than in neighbouring states like Ghana, Benin and Cameroon - and it constantly languishes towards the bottom of Transparency International's Annual Corruption Perceptions Index. State education is in serious decline and is arguably in a worse state than many low income African countries. Decades of neglect by a succession of ineffective leaders has resulted in poor infrastructure, which has hampered social growth. World Bank research predicts that Nigeria may not meet many of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Socially, there are vast divides. The mostly Muslim north struggles with the rise of Islamist activity while life in the oil rich Niger Delta in the south is often disrupted by militant groups carrying out acts of violence in a perceived effort to claim a greater share of the oil wealth for the region.

Power Shift

Despite - or because of - this, Nigerians look for ways to navigate the many obstacles that get thrown in their way. Nowhere is this more apparent than in telecoms. With a subscriber base of 63 million in 2009, Nigeria is Africa's largest mobile market. This explosion in the market was largely fuelled by lack of investment in fixed lines and an ever-growing population. Broadband and the use of mobile phones have transformed the way in which Nigerians do business and communicate. On business cards, a mobile number is the primary means of communication, often followed by a hotmail address. The use of smartphones is also on the increase and - for those who can afford it - the Blackberry is fast becoming the communication tool of choice.

Social networking is on the rise with Facebook - which has an estimated 1.6 million users in the country - and Twitter increasingly being adopted as political tools. The much maligned Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has recognised this and, under its revered new Head Professor Attahiru Jega, has vowed to avoid the mistakes of the past and make the elections as difficult to rig as possible. INEC has committed to adopting electronic technology to clamp down on the electoral fraud that has plagued Nigeria. In tandem, civil society groups and NGOs have been discussing plans to use mobile technology and social networking sites to instantly record irregularities and occurrences of fraud during voting.

Internet-based communication has long provided a forum or debate amongst Nigerians and the diaspora community, but the 2011 elections may be the first in which the outcome will be directly influenced by web-based activity.

Changing Landscape

Traditionally, elections in Nigeria invoke feelings of optimism followed by disillusionment: optimism about what the future may hold and disillusionment with the disappointments the past has delivered.

With a recent history of electoral violence and rigging, commentators regularly warn of Nigeria being 'on the brink ' and of elections being 'make or break ', but somehow the nation manages to avoid tipping over into anarchy and destruction.

However, 2011 could be the year that changes Nigeria's political landscape as divisions in the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) continue to thrust old political and ethnic grievances back into the spotlight.

Since the end of military rule in 1999, the PDP has won every presidential and most state elections and remains an overwhelmingly dominant force in Nigerian politics. As a result, its lawmakers have come to symbolise the self-centred old guard accused of hindering Nigeria's progress and development.

The party is currently embroiled in a battle to decide its candidate to contest the presidential elections. This is being fuelled by an unofficial understanding within the party that dictates the presidency be rotated between different regions every two terms or eight years.

The incumbent president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, has been in office for less than a year and is seeking another term. A former vice president, Jonathan came to power after the illness and eventual death of Umaru Yar'Adua earlier this year. Yar'Adua's election in 2007 wasn't without controversy. The 2007 polls were so heavily rigged and marred with violence that the results were roundly denounced by international observers as 'flawed'.

The Chief European Union observer openly doubted the credibility of the whole process saying it had 'fallen far short ' of basic international standards. Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the poll 'represents a step backward' for elections in Nigeria.

Yar'Adua, a Muslim from the north, succeeded Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian who became the first civilian president after decades of military rule. Yar'Adua's death came before the end of his first term and, as his deputy, Jonathan assumed the role of acting president and was later sworn in as head of state. Many influential northerners in the PDP contend that as Yar'Adua didn't complete his time in office, the next president should also come from the north.

Since announcing his intention to seek another term, Jonathan has faced challenges from several prominent northerners within the PDP including a former military ruler, Obasanjo's former deputy, an influential state governor and his own former national security adviser. The issue of a presidential rotation or "zoning" is so contentious that a senior PDP member, the former military president General Ibrahim Babangida, has threatened to quit the party if Jonathan emerges as the chosen candidate. To further ramp up the rhetoric Jonathan's challenger for the PDP vote, Atiku Abubakar has publicly warned that reneging on zoning could result in violence.

A possible solution being discussed is to allow Jonathan to run for the presidency with the caveat that he be restricted to serving one full term, after which the next candidate is selected from the north. This could appease some in the party, but could also serve to further anger aggrieved northerners and southerners who might view this as a compromise too far. In his favour, Jonathan has support from the public in all regions. He has also capitalised on the success of Barack Obama's presidential campaign by actively reaching out to a younger audience via Facebook. So important does his team consider the young electorate that Jonathan chose to announce his intention to run in the elections on the social networking site.

Empowered Population

As the PDP continues to wage war on itself, the doors are opening for alternative voices and thought within the political system.

Young people are beginning to engage more with the political system and enter the political arena. Recognising the generational chasm between the current crop of leaders and the rest of the population, the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka launched the Democratic Front for a People's Federation (DFPF). According to Soyinka, the DFPF is not only a political party but will be at the 'forefront of the watchdogs of democracy'. The aim of the DFPF is to engage sections of the population who feel excluded and sidelined from mainstream politics. Another advocate of youth engagement is the former anticorruption chief and now presidential candidate Nuhu Ribadu. Upon his recent return to Nigeria after a period in exile, Ribadu has actively campaigned for young Nigerians to have a bigger say in the running of the country and youth empowerment has become a major feature of his election campaign.

Politicians from all sides say that for the sake of Nigeria's credibility, the 2011 elections have to be clean. A government official remarked tome that with the amount that INEC has invested in electronic voting and technology, 'these elections can only be rigged if people want them to be'. He could be right, but with less than six months to go and speculation over the effectiveness of the Commision's methodology, the elections could be Nigeria's greatest triumph or its biggest undoing.

An enlightened and technologically empowered population could dramatically alter Nigeria's current political landscape for the better, but ultimately change can only come from the collective will of the people. Nigerians like to say their greatest asset is not their vast resources, but each other. In a religiously and ethnically diverse nation that exists in uncomfortable unity, people power can go a long way.

(Sola Tayo is an Associate Fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House.)