Buhari wins: a huge step in the right direction for Nigeria

Buhari wins: a huge step in the right direction for Nigeria

It’s official: Muhammadu Buhari, the opposition candidate, has won the Nigerian election. And President Goodluck Jonathan has gracefully conceded defeat. Although Buhari’s win is no panacea, it says a lot of good things about Nigeria’s much-maligned democracy – and hints at a brighter future for Africa’s most populous country. By SIMON ALLISON.

Two extraordinary, unprecedented things happened in Nigeria on Tuesday night – events which may just mark a turning point for Africa’s largest democracy.

First, an opposition party, for the first time in Nigeria’s history, won a presidential election. The All Progressives Congress (APC), the opposition coalition formed in the wake of the 2011 poll, won around three million votes more than the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In addition, the APC received at least 25% of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states, satisfying the second condition necessary for a first-round victory. The PDP has won all previous elections since this democratic era – known as the Fourth Nigerian Republic – began in 1999.

Second, the sitting president immediately conceded defeat, according to media reports, overturning the hackneyed African stereotypes about leaders being unwilling to leave office. President Goodluck Jonathan called his rival Muhammadu Buhari to congratulate him once it became clear that there was no more hope. This was a brave decision. Jonathan was under huge pressure from within his party to contest the results, but this could have spelled disaster for Nigeria. In 2011, post-election violence claimed more than 800 lives as rival parties fought over the outcome; by admitting defeat, Jonathan has made it much more difficult for his party members to turn violent.

This has already done wonders for Jonathan’s legacy. Several commenters on Twitter were calling for him to receive the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership (unlikely given his record in office), while media organisations were dishing out praise. “Today [Jonathan] found himself standing at the crossroads of chaos or potential greatness. He chose the latter,” wrote Quartz. A future role as roving African statesman surely beckons.

Some of this praise is deserved. For all his faults as president, Jonathan allowed the Independent National Electoral Committee (INEC) to organise a very slick election. While there were problems – and of course there would be in a country this size, with this level of development – the vote was well-run and generally fair, as most observer missions have concluded. In particular, the biometric voter registration process is thought to have greatly cut down on the potential for voter fraud (leading, perhaps, to some of those dramatic declines in the turnout in certain states – declines which hurt Jonathan particularly hard).

For Buhari, this marks the pinnacle of his long and storied political career. Once a military dictator, he has reinvented himself as a democrat, and tens of millions of his countrymen have bought his born-again narrative. This is the fourth presidential election he has contested – he’s nothing if not committed. But now the hard work begins.

Buhari’s most potent campaign message, reminiscent of Barack Obama in 2008, was that he was the only person who could bring about change. Now he must deliver: on reviving the economy that has been battered by falling oil prices; on creating jobs to solve the unemployment problem; on finding a long-term solution to Boko Haram and the endemic insecurity in the north-east. He is also going to have to be very careful in how he navigates Nigeria’s geographic, religious and cultural divides: any sign of favouritism towards his core northern constituency could knock his presidency off course before it even begins. He must also get through what will still be a very delicate and potentially volatile post-election period, despite Jonathan’s concession.

These, however, are problems for a later date. For now, Buhari and his supporters – who are celebrating wildly across much of the country, hooting and beating drums and waving flags – are entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labours.

For Nigeria, there are plenty of positives to take out of this election. 2015 might just go down in history as the moment when Nigeria grew up; the year that it became a mature state capable of reflecting the will of the people. There is now a strong precedent for leadership challenges and graceful concessions that future leaders will find difficult to stifle. And that such a robust opposition campaign could happen at all says plenty of good things about Nigeria’s respect for core freedoms: there are many African countries in which such vocal opposition would have been silenced long before it became so powerful.

But it’s important to remember that Buhari’s win is no panacea. “It is a tantalising prospect, when you think of it – get this one election right, and all else shall be added unto you. Except that when you are dealing with a country so complex and troubled, and so marinated in its own contradictions like Nigeria, it is going to require more than a single election – or elections in toto for that matter – to have a shot at getting things right,” wrote Ebenezer Obadare on the LSE’s Africa blog.

Nigeria still has a long way to go. But at least it’s heading in the right direction. DM

Supporters of the presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressive Congress (APC) party celebrate in Kano March 31, 2015. Three decades after seizing power in a military coup, Buhari became the first Nigerian to oust a president through the ballot box, putting him in charge of Africa’s biggest economy and one of its most turbulent democracies. (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)


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