The pre-election expectations of violence – from Boko Haram, but also from supporters of the losing candidate – were so dire that some South African companies evacuated staff.
But in the end, last weekend’s presidential poll in Nigeria was such a resounding success that it has been compared to South Africa’s first democratic elections of 1994 in its importance for Africa.
It was the first democratic transfer of power, in which the opposition won the elections, in Nigeria’s turbulent history. And even though Goodluck Jonathan, the candidate of the deeply entrenched Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) – which had governed the country since the return to democracy in 1999 – was defeated, he conceded graciously.
He even called his opponent, former military leader Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) before the results had been officially announced to congratulate him on his victory. Observing that great tradition of more settled democracies helped Jonathan’s supporters accept defeat peacefully. As did Buhari in his victory speech, calling ‘on all Nigerians to be law-abiding and peaceful … we must begin to heal the wounds.’
According to the American political scientist Ian Bremmer, it was only the 19th time in history that an incumbent African leader had been removed from power in an election. His list, though, excludes South Africa 1994 and Lesotho 2012 and 2015, so perhaps one should add a few. But not many.
When the euphoria has evaporated, will a Buhari presidency make a real difference?
The Nigerian voting was mostly peaceful and any localised grumbling about vote rigging was neutralised by Jonathan’s concession of defeat. ‘You have proved to the world that we are a people who have embraced democracy,’ Buhari said to his countrymen. And African Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma enthused that ‘the election demonstrates the maturity of democracy not only in Nigeria but on the continent as a whole.’
Maybe that last part was pushing it a bit, but the point was taken; at least for Nigeria this was a triumph. For Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), the most remarkable aspect of the election was the way Jonathan called Buhari to concede defeat and congratulate him on his victory, and the way he urged his supporters to accept the results.
‘We see this often with advanced democracies in Europe and America, but hardly ever by an African leader,’ Ewi said, though noting that some of the widely expected violence did occur, even if not on the scale expected. The violent Islamist group Boko Haram did manage to disrupt voting and kill some people in the far north. There was also sporadic violence elsewhere. But on the whole, it was remarkably peaceful and transparent.
The election has sent a clear message to the new government that if it fails, it will be turfed out
How did this happen? Andrews Atta-Asamoah, an ISS senior researcher, was in Nigeria during the elections. He attributes quite a lot of the success, ironically, to Jonathan’s highly controversial decision to postpone the elections by six weeks so that security forces could focus on suppressing the threat posed by Boko Haram.
‘The decision was originally dismissed as political. But it played a huge role in defusing tensions.’ He also attributes Attahiru Jega, Chairperson of the Independent National Electoral Commission, with a large part of the success of the elections through his relentless impartiality. ‘He didn’t succumb to pressure from any side, and he was very careful about the results he put out. He double-checked those where there was any doubt,’ says Atta-Asamoah.
That made a huge difference, boosting the confidence of voters in the elections and helping them to accept the results. Nigerians deserve to be proud of themselves. But when the euphoria has evaporated, will a Buhari presidency make a real difference in the lives of ordinary Nigerians?
Or will it just rotate the snouts at the trough, replacing southern Christians with northern Muslims in Nigeria’s notorious system of patronage and corruption? In other words, will it just be a case of ‘it’s now our turn to eat?’ Nigerian investigative journalist Nicholas Ibekwe says that is a valid question. He notes that the victorious APC was created by former members of Jonathan’s long-ruling PDP ‘and we have seen no signs yet that they have repented of their old ways.’
The real power-brokers were not on the ballot. Whether they want change is uncertain
He also notes that several federal states have been ruled for some time by APC governors who have held off-shore bank accounts, lived luxurious lifestyles and appointed their cronies to top positions – just like PDP governors.
‘Nigerians are coming from a generation of bad leadership which Buhari was part of. We have been pushed to the wall. We are a country of so much potential, but we have fallen so far short.’ Ibekwe just hopes that Buhari will rise to the occasion and set an example for all his followers. And he believes that the election has sent a clear message to the new government that if it fails, it will be turfed out.
Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe is far less equivocal. She told the BBC that her compatriots had chosen ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’ and that Buhari’s government would make no difference to ordinary Nigerians. Buhari’s military rule 30 years ago had been a reign of terror; he had suppressed press freedom and executed people for crimes not legally punishable by death. And though he stood in this week’s election on a platform of fighting corruption, his fight against corruption the last time had been ‘selective.’
Atta-Asamoah believes that Buhari has the will to change, but that he will face a huge challenge – not least because of the very high expectations created by his victory. ‘Buhari has promised too much and so he will have to double the pace of Jonathan’s government to meet those expectations, including fighting corruption and Boko Haram.’
He believes that Jonathan handed Buhari a gift by inflicting heavy defeats on Boko Haram over the last few weeks, but the fight against the insurgents will enter a more difficult phase for the government now that it has regained territory, since it will have to hold that ground against guerrilla operations.
Even if Buhari is sincere about change, ‘he is one individual. The real power-brokers were not on the ballot,’ Atta-Asamoah says, referring to Nigeria’s notorious kingmakers, including its powerful state governors. ‘Whether they want change is uncertain.’
Certainly, the eyes of Africa and the world will be on Nigeria now. ‘Africa’s giant has woken up. If Nigerians can consolidate their gains, Nigeria will be a country to watch,’ says Atta-Asamoah. And, whatever the difficulties Buhari faces, and whatever his own real commitment might be to change the system, he will face a population greatly empowered by his own victory. If he stumbles he could be hoist on his own petard.
‘The good thing is that the voices of Nigerians have been heard,’ says the journalist Ibweke. ‘But we don’t want to wait four years this time. We reserve the right to recall the government sooner if it doesn’t perform.’
Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa