The outcome of the Nigerian election and the thus-far peaceful reaction to it is the most hopeful news out of Africa’s largest country in years. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, an incumbent head of state has been defeated at the ballot box.
On May 29, when President-elect Muhammadu Buhari is sworn in, Nigeria will have cleared the highest hurdle on its path to entrenching electoral democracy—the first peaceful handover of power from one political party to another.
In an unprecedented move, outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan made a congratulatory call to Buhari, graciously conceding defeat even before the final poll numbers were officially released. Jonathan later went on television to tell the Nigerian people: “Nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian. The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else.”
To his party colleagues he said: “[We] should be celebrating rather than mourning. We have established a legacy of democratic freedom … and free and fair elections.” It was his finest hour.
There were fears aplenty that even if Buhari garnered more votes than the sitting president (which he did, receiving 55 percent of the total), the ruling People’s Democratic Party would rig the vote in favor of Jonathan, as it has been accused of doing in the past. But INEC, Nigeria’s national electoral commission—under the leadership of the highly respected professor Attahiru Jega—refused to bow to pressure from agents of the government party and ran one of the cleanest elections in the country’s history.
Jonathan, a southern Nigerian who had been vice president, assumed the top job in 2010 when President Umaru Y’ardua, who was from northern Nigeria, died in office three years into his term. Jonathan filled out the last year without incident. Then, when he decided to run for a full term, a crisis developed in his party. He was accused of violating a PDP agreement that the presidency would alternate between the north and the south after the incumbent had served two terms. Since Y’Ardua had not lived to finish his first term, the candidate for the 2011 elections should have been another northerner.
Jonathan refused to step aside and was re-elected. His decision to run yet again in 2015 created a crisis that resulted in many party stalwarts leaving the PDP and crossing over to the newly formed All Progressives Congress, an amalgamation of the two strongest opposition parties. APC chose Buhari as its standard-bearer, giving the former military ruler a fourth chance to contest for the presidency after unsuccessful runs in 2003, 2007 and 2011.
In a nation where nearly all contestants for political office are accused by their opponents of corruption, Buhari stood out as a rare exception. During his short period of military rule from December 1983 to August 1985, he developed a fearsome reputation, rooting out corruption and often, with no regard for due process, throwing high officials suspected of being on the take into prison.
Ascetic by nature, Buhari—unlike other former military officeholders—did not enrich himself in office. His modest lifestyle made him a populist hero throughout the north. He adopted a broom as his symbol, promising a clean sweep of a problem that has bedeviled Nigeria for most of it existence. He promised to confront corruption head on and give no impunity to those who indulged in it. He is one of the few people who could make such a pledge and be believed by Nigerians that he means to carry it out.
The most immediate problem that the president-elect will face is the security challenge of Boko Haram. Buhari’s military background surely played well with voters, who were dismayed by the feckless attempts of the Jonathan administration to deal with the terrorist group.
Nigerians are a fiercely proud people. They often refer to their country as “the giant of Africa.” Their army had long been praised in international circles as one of the most effective U.N. peacekeeping forces in the world. In the 1990s, under the worst of its military rulers—Sani Abacha—Nigeria helped to restore civilian rule to three of its West African neighbors—Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Now, two decades later, the army is a mere shell of its former self. The once-proud fighting force has lost morale due in no small part to the corruption that led to its soldiers being underpaid and underequipped.
In the field, Boko Haram not only had the element of surprise but, because of its attacks on military bases, also was often better equipped than the army units sent to fight it. Then, to add insult to injury, it was Nigeria’s smaller neighbors—Cameroon, Chad and Niger—whose armies succeeded where the Nigerians had failed, in forcing Boko Haram to retreat from the Nigerian towns it had overtaken. The expectations among Nigerians are high that Buhari will succeed where Jonathan, up until the last few weeks, appeared to have hardly tried.
Most Western interpretations of the election and of Nigeria in general make the mistake of placing too much emphasis on religious differences. Nigeria, with a population of 170 million, is the only country of any appreciable size that is split almost equally between Christians and Muslims. Its occasional religious tensions are minor compared to those that flare up in much of the Middle East.
The political differences in Nigeria are far more ethnically than religiously based. Yet many news stories talk about the Christian south vs. the Muslim north. That is a grave oversimplification. The most populous area of the southern half of the country is the southwest, home of the Yorubas, a religiously diverse people. Yoruba Muslims are as opposed to northern hegemony as are Yoruba Christians. Both voted overwhelmingly for Buhari, not because of the region from which he hails or the religion he practices, but because they believe he is the best man to pull them out of the malaise they feel the country has fallen into.
Muhammadu Buhari has a rare opportunity to chart a new course. In temperament and resolve, he reminds me most of Lee Kuan Yew, who turned Singapore from the poor backwater city I visited as a student in 1954 into one of today’s most prosperous, corruption-free nations. To succeed, Buhari will need to temper the firmness of Singapore’s founding father with the humaneness of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.
A united Nigeria, under the new leadership of a man so dedicated and capable of curbing corruption and restoring peace and security, can reclaim its moral authority as the leader of the continent from whose loins, as Countee Culllen reminded us, our ancestors sprang.
Walter C. Carrington is the former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and Senegal and a nonresident fellow at Harvard University’s Du Bois Institute.