Sunday Alamba / AP

Nigerian election a triumph for democracy

President-elect Buhari’s in tray will be full, but he has a mandate to end a corrupt and insecure era

April 1, 2015 4:00PM ET

Nigerian President-elect Gen. Muhammadu Buhari cruised to a landslide victory in an intently watched election, garnering nearly 2 million votes more than incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. It wasn’t a close shave and didn’t force a runoff, as many analysts predicted. Buhari, a former military ruler, will soon take over as a civilian president, 30 years after his 18-month stint in power.

This election has given us a Shakespearean array of images — long and defiant lines of women in Borno state, Boko Haram’s stronghold; an old man being lifted from his hospital bed by nurses to cast his vote; the bloodied head of a young man shot dead by soldiers in Bauchi during a scuffle outside a polling station; Jonathan patiently waiting for a handheld scanner to read his voter card. (It failed.) Despite the technical glitches and bloodshed, democracy, in its rough and complicated Nigerian guise, prevailed.

After an eternal Tuesday glued to the country’s Channels TV, Nigerian Twitter users expressed quiet joy. “President Buhari. Takes some getting used to” was the general sentiment. In contrast, the achaba (motorcycle taxi drivers) in northern cities raced up and down the main streets with offline abandon. Skeptics were humbled by Jonathan’s defeat: His Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) — the biggest political party in Africa, which has won every presidential election since 1999 — is now an opposition party. And in Aisha Buhari, Nigeria’s soon-to-be first lady, Nigerians recognize someone they can be proud of rather than embarrassed by, as was often the case with Patience Jonathan.

The 2015 election marks a turning point for Africa’s most populous nation, for a variety of reasons. Since its return to democracy in 1999, there has been a litany of disappointments. After 15 years of high oil prices, ordinary Nigerians are no better off. Most live without basic infrastructure and public services. It is difficult to imagine where all the money has gone. During his second term as president, Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration briefly raised the governance bar with the help of a small team of technocrats. However, disillusioned by a failed and unconstitutional bid for a third term — and not to be outshone by his successor — Obasanjo chose a weak heir in Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and an even weaker vice president in Jonathan. Heavily rigged elections did the rest. European observers called the 2007 election “the worst they had ever seen anywhere in the world.” Obasanjo — now a farmer and an elder African statesman — sowed the seeds for eight years of woe. Yar’Adua’s death in 2010 after long illness with pericarditis ushered in Jonathan, the most accidental of public servants.

Jonathan’s victory in the 2011 election was marred by political tensions and postelection violence, especially in the north. It interrupted the tradition of rotating the presidency between the north and the south of the country every two terms. (Like Obasanjo, Jonathan is a southerner. Yar’Adua hailed from northern Nigeria.) The pre-election threat to make the north “ungovernable” in the event of a victory for the south appeared to have materialized with the rise of Boko Haram. Unlike Obasanjo and Yar’Adua, Jonathan had no direct affiliation with the military. The upper echelons of the armed forces saw his inexperience as an opportunity for massive enrichment by way of an enlarged security budget.

Nigeria was in danger of becoming a one-party democracy. Buhari’s All Progressives Congress Party has broken the mold and perceptions of a north-south divide, ushering in a new era of two-party politics.

With Tuesday’s result, a military man returns, just when Nigeria needs it. A more efficiently managed and accountable security apparatus is in order. Expectations are already high. It is likely that at least some heads in the military top brass will roll to get the armed forces to deal with Boko Haram’s rag-tag army of conscripts. The insurgent group will likely be one of the first casualties of the Buhari era. The $20 billion oil sleaze of the Jonathan era may also be dealt a swift blow. Few doubt Buhari’s anti-corruption credentials. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which flexed its muscles under Obasanjo, may once again become a formidable force.

Under the PDP, Nigeria was in danger of becoming a one-party democracy. Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC), the country’s first genuine opposition party with national reach and, now, the ascendant power, has broken the mold and perceptions of a north-south divide, ushering in a new era of two-party politics in Nigeria.

Concerns abound

Amid the postelection jubilation, many concerns linger, even among those who voted for Buhari. In “The Trouble With Nigeria,” the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wistfully noted that Nigerians remembered how to queue up a day after Buhari took power through a military coup in 1984. Discipline in government at all levels and upholding the rule of law became the norm during his brief tenure.

This raises a lot of questions: How hard-line will Buhari be now, as an older man and a born-again democrat? Nigeria watchers will recall the Dikko affair of 1984, when Umaru Dikko, a corrupt transport minister, was kidnapped from his self-imposed exile in London, allegedly with help from Israel’s Mossad. Will Buhari once again go after corrupt Nigerian officials who are likely to leave for their second homes in Vienna, Dubai or London? How free will the press be? Will civil servants be forced to do frog jumps for being late, as was the case under Buhari’s “war against indiscipline” in the 1980s? And how much does Buhari understand the investment priorities of a market economy?

Buhari’s in tray will be full. He will have to assuage doubters and confront many of Nigeria’s political, social and economic troubles from the get-go. The ongoing multinational offensive against Boko Haram will likely be unfinished when Buhari is sworn in on May 29. The more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last April must be found and brought home. Nigeria’s northeast needs a Marshall Plan — revamping the Maiduguri–Port Harcourt rail line, which stops in Gombe, will help. But the region’s chronic poverty requires a deeper, systemic fix. Time will tell whether Buhari can work with Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, a former central bank governor and now the emir of Kano, to remodel northern leadership for a new age.

More fundamentally, Buhari will need to oversee structural changes to the Nigerian state. Constitutional reform is needed to update or even replace the 1999 constitution with one that empowers citizens, decentralizes power and enables a more efficient governance framework. He will also need to revamp the oil sector. Jonathan’s administration was incapable of even enacting a new oil law, let alone tackling the massive corruption in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. There are perhaps 10 to 15 profitable years left before the world begins a concerted move away from hydrocarbons. Buhari’s administration can steer the Nigerian economy away from the curse of oil. A more efficient use of its diminished oil revenues could offer an opportunity for long-term infrastructural development and rapid turnaround in the power sector.

After overseeing an administration that lost the plot on security and corruption, Jonathan achieved perhaps the most defining statesmanlike moment of his political career by gracefully conceding — and calling and congratulating Buhari shortly after the results were collated. He will also be remembered for appointing Attahiru Muhammadu Jega, the chairman of the Nigeria Independent National Electoral Commission, who coordinated the least-rigged election since 1999 and has set the course for even better elections to come. The era of impunity in Nigerian politics is perhaps over for good. But history will cast these two achievements against the massive corruption and frightening insecurity of the Jonathan era and not be kind.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Africa, Nigeria
Boko Haram

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter