After a Remarkable Election in Nigeria, the Hardest Part Lies Ahead

President of Nigeria His Excellency Muhammadu Buhari arriving at the Waterkloof Airforce Base for the 25th AU Summit under the theme "2015 year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa's Agenda 2063" in Pretoria. (Siyasanga Mbambani/GCIS)

The strong victory of Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressives Congress in Nigeria’s March 30 election was in and of itself a remarkable event—the first time in 55 years that a ruling party in the country has been voted out of power rather than being toppled by a military coup. The peaceful transfer of power alone would make this election a major achievement for the forces of democracy and constitutional rule.

It was a crushing defeat for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led by Goodluck Jonathan, which had ruled Nigeria without interruption since 1999. Buhari’s APC took almost 55% of the popular vote, the PDP 45%. The election also was remarkably well run, peaceful, and featuring few charges of fraud. This was in sharp contrast to 2011 and other previous elections, which were marred by voting irregularities and significant post-electoral violence.

The large margin of victory for Buhari and the APC was due overwhelmingly to large popular dissatisfaction with Jonathan’s PDP-led government. Since its electoral victory in 2005, Jonathan’s government has proven itself unable to stem the advance of Boko Haram insurgents in northern Nigeria, to deal with Nigeria’s faltering economy in the face of declining oil revenues, and to stem the tide of widespread corruption in the country. Most notably, Boko Haram’s kidnapping and disappearance of 250 girls in April 2014 and the more recent attacks on civilians in a number of towns in the north had destroyed public confidence in the military. The notable failure to defeat Boko Haram, and Nigeria’s dependence on forces from Chad—a much smaller country—to liberate northern towns underscored the army’s poor leadership and declining effectiveness.

A second important factor was the perception of widespread corruption throughout the bureaucracy and the widening economic and social disparity between the more prosperous Christian south and the more impoverished Muslim north. After the death of president Yar’Adua in November 2009 Goodluck Jonathan took over and continued the national political trend of domination by a leader from the south, instead of allowing an alteration of power with the north. Jonathan’s decision to delay the elections, originally scheduled for February, for four weeks, and last ditch efforts to defeat Boko Haram, had little impact on altering popular dissatisfaction.

With 173 million people, Nigeria is far and away West Africa’s largest and most important country, with huge oil reserves as well as other mineral resources. Moreover, Nigeria has been at the forefront of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) since its inception in 1975.

Nigeria took the lead in mounting ECOWAS interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, bringing an end to civil wars in both countries. In the last decade, however, the capacity of Nigeria’s army has significantly deteriorated. Nigeria has played little role in more recent conflicts in Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and now the Central African Republic. Its weakness has left a leadership vacuum in seeking peaceful solutions to these West African conflicts.

What Lies Ahead

Nigeria’s political history since independence in 1960 has been characterized by alteration between weak, often corrupt, civilian rulers and authoritarian military rule. Buhari himself carried out a military coup 30 years ago. Expectations for his new term are high. Whether they should be is a matter for debate. Buhari is now 73 years old, notably taciturn, and uncharismatic. He does not offer a vision as much as a figure of some rectitude. He is described by some as a “born-again democrat,” after his previous rule as a military dictator.

It remains to be seen whether Buhari can carry out a major reform of the army or carry through on his pledge to defeat Boko Haram. Even more problematic is whether he can attack deeply entrenched patterns of corruption in the army, the Parliament or the civilian bureaucracy. A few post-electoral speeches will be insufficient to provide answers to these important questions. As the Centre for Conflict Resolution Executive Director Adekeye Adebajo has indicated, what is new is that an incompetent government has been voted out of power by the citizenry. There is now for the first time in Nigeria’s history an opportunity to link performance with accountability—a point which may also have reverberations elsewhere in Africa.