Nigeria’s Elections: What Buhari’s Win Tells Us

2 years ago ccwa 0

President Goodluck Ebele JonathanMany of us in the United States cannot fathom what our own political system would look like if an opposition party never won a presidential election. Would we still have the Federalists or the Democratic Republicans? A healthy democracy requires opposition; it requires differences of opinion, and a sense of voter efficacy. Nigeria’s democracy, the largest in Africa, made headway yesterday as Goodluck Jonathan became the first sitting president to fall to an oppositional party opponent in Nigeria’s political history. Muhammadu Buhari, a 72-year-old former Nigerian general who headed a repressive military regime for two years in the mid 1980’s has been promoted to head of state once again, this time through democratic electoral process rather than military coup.

This election, maybe the most important since Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960, came down to a race between Buhari and Nigeria’s incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Jonathan, who has been criticized worldwide for his political corruption, perceived apathy, and weak efforts against terror group Boko Haram was defeated taking his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) out of power for the first time since late 1998. Buhari, a Muslim from northern Nigeria, expanded his power base beyond the northern states he has won in the past, receiving many more votes than the minimum 25% in 2/3 of the 36 Nigerian states needed to win. Buhari won every state that practices sharia law, but also managed to muster a miraculous win the southern Lagos State, home to Nigeria’s modern economic stronghold, Lagos.

It is remarkable to look at maps of the electoral results from the 2011 and 2015 Nigerian presidential elections as their differences offer a narrative of four years of corruption, declining oil markets, and Boko Haram’s rise to prominence. Over thirteen million votes shifted in Buhari’s favor, allowing him to sweep eight southwestern states that Jonathan won easily in 2011. The populations of these oil-rich states are hurting from the recent substantial decreases in oil revenues, possibly motivating their shifting political allegiance. Jonathan has always relied on the southern, predominantly Christian states to support him and his party, but this year the northern citizens constituted the bulk of the voting population, coming out in force to elect Buhari and his All Progressive’s Congress (APC). The lackluster voter turnout in the southern Niger Delta, where Jonathan has done well in the past, was detrimental Jonathan and his party in this year’s election.

Nigerians felt a sense of voter efficacy in this year’s historical presidential election, something some say they have never felt before in their lifetimes. Nigerians put their faith in Buhari, who has voiced strong opposition to corruption within the government and promised to end Boko Haram’s reign of terror. Buhari’s campaign signs read, “We will end Boko Haram,” but he explained in his speeches that an “even greater evil” existed in Nigeria: widespread political corruption. Instead of perseverating on Buhari’s repressive past as a military leader, voters chose to accept Buhari as a strong commander in chief and frugal opposition to past corruption. They chose to see the positives he can bring to the table rather than his questionable human rights record.

Only time will tell if Nigerians were right to put their trust in the former general. Many Nigerian political analysts say that Buhari’s appeal to the poor was what made him a much more desirable candidate than Jonathan, who tends to be associated with the wealthier political elite. His unassuming ways and disciplinarian manner make Buhari seem relatable to much of the Nigerian population. It is worth noting that Buhari’s Muslim background did not carry the stigma that many thought it would. It had been speculated that Boko Haram’s Islamic radicalization would cause southern Christians to paint all Muslims with the same proverbial brush, spelling defeat for Buhari. The fact that this did not happen demonstrates the majority of Nigeria’s population differentiates between the Muslim faith and Boko Haram’s radical Islamic extremism. Buhari proclaimed in a speech shortly after he was announced Nigeria’s President-elect, “Soon [Boko Haram] will know our collective will.” One of Buhari’s greatest strength as he nears his time to take office is the newfound sense of hope now widespread in Nigeria. He must harness this collective zeal and direct it in a manner beneficial to Nigerian citizens’ daily lives.

Jonathan and his People’s Democratic Party are scheduled to vacate office in roughly two months. Assuming a peaceful transition of power happens, Nigeria and much of West Africa can finally turn over a new leaf of healthy democracy. At that point Buhari will have to put his firm rhetoric to work, deploying a comprehensive strategy to defeat Boko Haram militarily and taking measures to assure the same sort of radical insurgency doesn’t fester up again. This widespread social agenda will have to be implemented alongside strict measures to curb corruption within the Nigerian government and armed forces.

The White House’s press release seeped of overall positivity around the electoral results, but undoubtedly warned Nigeria that the transition has yet to happen officially and must stay peaceful, affirming, “I urge President-Elect Buhari and President Jonathan to repeat their calls to their supporters to continue to respect the election outcomes, focus on unifying the country, and together lead Nigeria through a peaceful transition.” The press release ended by congratulating Buhari and the country, declaring, “On behalf of the American people, I extend congratulations to the people of Nigeria and to President-Elect Buhari and look forward to continuing to work with the newly-elected government on our many shared priorities.” The United Nations and foreign ministers from a broad range of western and Asian countries have also voiced their support for what has happened in Nigeria in the past couple of days politically, demonstrating that there is no shortage of hope in the global community.

I believe that from an American foreign policy perspective the election results are a positive sign and may even open new dialogue between the United States and Nigeria. Before this sort of progress can happen Buhari must assure the global community that human rights will be respected even when adversity arises. A peaceful transition can legitimize what appears to be the beginning of a healthy democracy in Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. More importantly, Nigeria can act as a critical example to the rest of West Africa, especially to those leaders who near their constitutional term limits in their respective countries. Buhari’s election reassures the world that organic democratic processes are possible.

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by Clayton Sharb

(photo credits: Kunle Ogunfuyi, flickr.com)