Fourth Time’s the Charm: Buhari Ousts Jonathan in Nigerian Election

Africa’s most populous nation has voted out their incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan for a former military dictator, Muhammadu Buhari.

Main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate Mohammadu Buhari holds his ballot paper prior to casting his vote at a polling station in the "Gidan Niyam Sakin Yara A ward" at Daura in Katsina State on March 28, 2015. Voting began in Nigeria's general election but delays were reported countrywide because of technical problems in accrediting electors. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)


This story was updated to reflect new polling information as it became available.

In his fourth democratic bid for Nigeria’s presidency, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari finally claimed victory Tuesday, beating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan by more than 2.5 million votes.


This story was updated to reflect new polling information as it became available.

In his fourth democratic bid for Nigeria’s presidency, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari finally claimed victory Tuesday, beating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan by more than 2.5 million votes.

Nigeria’s national electoral commission announced the results close to 3 a.m. local time Wednesday, but Buhari had already announced his win on Tuesday evening and Jonathan reportedly called his rival and conceded defeat. He was widely congratulated for his willingness to accept his loss, and in a statement released late Tuesday, Jonathan said he “promised the country free and fair elections” and that he kept his word. “That is one legacy I will like to see endure,” he said.

The election marks the first time since Nigeria’s 1999 transition from military rule that the People’s Democratic Party has lost the country’s presidency and the first time an incumbent has been ousted from the office.

Representatives of the PDP on Tuesday claimed that the election had been marked by widespread fraud in certain states, raising fears that supporters of the ruling party may carry out acts of violence in coming days. When in 2011, Buhari lost to Jonathan, his supporters carried out bloody attacks that resulted in tit-for-tat violence that would eventually leave more than 800 dead in Nigeria’s northern states, a stronghold of support for the former military ruler.

Jonathan urged his supporters to avoid a violent reaction to his loss. “As I have always affirmed, nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian,” he said. “The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else.”

At an earlier Abuja meeting of the Nigerian electoral commission Tuesday, a spokesperson for the PDP angrily disrupted the announcement of results, claiming that the body had rigged the outcome. “You are biased. You are partial. You are tribalistic,” Godsday Orubebe, a former minister and now agent for Jonathan’s party, shouted, according to a video of the meeting.

But if Orubebe is all talk, and the elections are determined to have been free and fair, it will mark a significant milestone for Africa’s most populous nation’s long and bumpy transition into democratic rule. “It’s quite something to have elections and all that, but to have a country develop a strong two-party system essentially capable of maturing to the point where a challenger defeats an incumbent from the ruling party,” said J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “Now that’s a significant milestone in democratic evolution.”

Still, segments of Nigeria view Buhari’s commitment to democratic politics with some skepticism. Buhari first won control of the country’s presidency through a 1983 military coup and was ousted by another in 1985. The general’s time in office was marked by arrests of the political opposition and a heavy-handed anti-corruption drive that saw many businessmen and officials detained by the government. As part of that effort, Buhari also ordered Nigerians to form neat lines at bus stops — or risk being beaten by soldiers carrying whips.

But with Boko Haram extremists waging a campaign of terror, kidnappings, and suicide bombings, Nigerians appear to have opted for Buhari’s heavy-handed past over Jonathan’s lackadaisical present. Under Jonathan’s watch the group has consolidated control over large parts of Nigeria’s northeast, seizing major towns and army bases, killing more than 7,400 civilians in the past year alone, and launching deadly suicide attacks in major cities.

In recent weeks, a coalition of West African militaries — with the aid of an unknown number of mercenaries — have banded together to retake territory controlled by Boko Haram, but these advances on the battlefield apparently failed to boost Jonathan’s fortunes at the polls. Early vote counts indicate that Buhari won by large margins in northern states most affected by the militant group, including in Adamawa, Yobe, and Bauchi states. Results from Borno state came in late Tuesday, but only gave Buhari’s party a greater lead.

Despite the recent territorial gains, Buhari will still face significant security challenges. “The security situation really underscores a terrorist threat,” Pham said. “It will require much more policing and intelligence rather than hard military response.”

In addition to Boko Haram, Buhari faces sundry challenges as he prepares to take office. The government derives about three-quarters of its revenue from oil sales, the value of which have plummeted during the past year. The naira, the Nigerian currency, is largely devalued, roads are in need of repair, and electricity is extremely unreliable.

For Africa’s largest economy, addressing these development issues will be crucial to maintaining Nigeria’s position as the largest and most prosperous economic power in the region.

The elections had been initially scheduled for Feb. 14 but were postponed to March 28 after Nigerian officials claimed many citizens were lacking voter ID cards. Moreover, the deteriorating security situation in the north raised questions about whether the army would be able to provide adequate security on election day. After long wait times and glitches with reading voter ID cards, polling was extended through Sunday. Results were declared as they came in on Monday, Tuesday, and in the early hours of Wednesday.

Although there were some isolated attacks on polling stations, observers said the election was mostly peaceful. Card readers only disrupted voting at a fraction of polling stations. Ironically, one of the polling stations that faced delays was Jonathan’s.


More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?