For Nigeria, this recent presidential election was a pretty big deal.
All Progressives Congress challenger Muhammadu Buhari bested incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan by more than 2 million votes. Results were still streaming in Tuesday, and international observers were still sweating allegations of vote tampering, but the size of Buhari’s lead over Jonathan was just too significant to push back.
More importantly, it’s the first time in Nigeria’s nearly two-decade history as a democracy that it has experienced the electoral ousting of a ruling party. Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party had been holding on to power since Nigeria barely crawled out of military rule in 1999.
In a land that’s been plagued by despots, military regimes and lifelong dictators, that’s something to call home about. Not only is it significant for Africa’s largest country by both population and economic power, but it’s another stable, all-black African election sending ripples of democratic change across the continent. And in a nation of 173 million gripped by a civil war that’s displaced nearly 2 million, that’s no small accomplishment.
Now for some bad news.
Nigeria just picked its former military dictator as its new president. In an almost Vladimir Putin-like move, retired Major Gen. Buhari returns to power even though he was one of the country’s more brutal despots—courtesy of a bloody coup—from 1983 to 1985. This was the dude who sentenced legendary global pop star Fela Kuti to 10 years in prison.
Yet, Buhari’s win makes sense simply because Nigeria is saddled with a raging, multiborder civil war driven by terrorist insurgency Boko Haram. Voters were, understandably, in a state of panic. Islamist militants continue wreaking havoc throughout the country’s northeast, even as federal troops (in conjunction with neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger) have made substantial gains in recent months. Hence, Nigerian voters placed their bets on the former army junta commander with battlefield experience rather than the disappointing lifelong pol who still didn’t bring those kidnapped schoolgirls back.
Boko Haram’s incessant reign of terror on mostly northeastern Nigeria had been in play for more than a decade. But it was the snatching of 219 innocent Chibok township schoolgirls by Boko Haram in April 2014, and Jonathan’s indifference to it, that set the stage for his eventual downfall. Even after the president ordered a dramatic all-chips-on-the-table military offensive against Boko Haram—going so far as to postpone the elections that should have taken place on Feb. 14—it still wasn’t enough to slow the insurgency. Boko Haram carried out deadly attacks on polling stations, and all those girls, presumed to be “married off,” were never found.
Which means, in some respects, Boko Haram pulled off a symbolic—albeit twisted—win. Of its many goals, kicking Jonathan out of office was one of them.
While this election was notably quiet compared with previous ones, it still represented an ongoing power struggle between the country’s rival Christian and Muslim political blocs, Jonathan hailing from the Christian South and Buhari from the Muslim North. Tensions have been at a boiling point for years over oil-money corruption that’s made the nation’s South ridiculously rich while leaving its North unbearably poor. The Boko Haram rebellion was a direct result of those frustrations: disenchanted and impoverished northeastern Nigerians with nothing to lose in a fierce bid to upend the country’s political class. A Muslim political elite quietly funded Boko Haram in its early years.
“Nigeria’s economic growth has not been inclusive, and the benefits of that growth have not been evenly distributed,” Nigerian political scientist Jideofor Adibe told The Root in January. “Boko Haram preys on the vulnerability of uneducated and poor young people.”
Buhari clearly benefited from that disruption and provided a convincing win for the country’s North. But even if he’s perceived as the military strongman who can bring Nigeria back from the abyss, it’s not entirely clear if the U.S. Army War College-trained general will be any more successful than Jonathan. More than likely, Buhari will be forced to play patronage games with Boko Haram, offering the northeast economic stability through jobs and community development. Such a strategy could force the insurgency’s hand—if it doesn’t end up feeding it.
Since Boko Haram was obviously the defining issue of the Nigerian presidential election, expectations for its swift demise will soon follow. This will be a crucial balancing act for Buhari when he predictably begins shifting resources to his peoples in the North: He’ll have to do that in a way that doesn’t upset folks in the South who’ve been living large off Jonathan’s use of oil-market success. What is certain is that the new president will need to be as clever and creative as the last one in keeping Africa’s largest economy intact. Should he fail, that won’t bode too well for a West African region already hammered by Ebola, and a continent feeling the pressure of renewed Islamist militancy all around it.
(Editor's note: An earlier version of this article said Muhammadu Buhari was part of the Muslim elite that funded Boko Haram in its early years. It was not the author's intent to suggest that Buhari himself funded Boko Haram.)
Read more: Nigeria Sets the Reset Button.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.