The General Returns to Abuja

Buhari's win -- and Jonathan's gracious exit -- were watershed moments for Nigerian democracy. But with Boko Haram still raging and the economy tanking, the new president better be ready to roll up his sleeves.


LAGOS, Nigeria — For the second time since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, a retired army general has won the presidency.

Muhammadu Buhari of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) defeated President Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent and candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). Buhari took 15,424,921 votes to Jonathan’s 12,853,162.

In his concession speech, Jonathan urged those who felt aggrieved by the election results to follow due process by seeking redress in courts. “As I have always affirmed, 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,” Jonathan said. “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word. I have also expanded the space for Nigerians to participate in the democratic process. That is one legacy I will like to see endure.”

At least in these first few days following the election, Nigeria appears to be making good on Jonathan’s promise. Unlike the 2011 contest, this election was largely a peaceful one, save for a few states where violence broke out. In Rivers state in Nigeria’s south, thousands of protesters took to the streets on Election Day to push for a fresh election in the state, forcing the state government to impose a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Buhari won 21 of Nigeria’s 36 states, including almost all of the north, while Jonathan took 15, mostly southern, states. Impressive though Buhari’s showing was, Nigeria’s election law still requires the winning candidate to secure at least one-quarter of the votes in two-thirds of the states, or 24 states. Buhari more than met the minimum, garnering at least 25 percent of the votes in 26 states.

Thousands of Nigerians across the northern states took to the streets in wild jubilation over Buhari’s victory, his first after three previous failed attempts to successfully make the transition from onetime military ruler to civilian president. In Lagos, pockets of celebrations erupted across the city as dozens of people climbed aboard pickup trucks chanting, “Sai Buhari!” — “Only Buhari” in Hausa — as they drove through crowded streets.

Mike Ujaidu, a real estate agent and an APC supporter, said that his party’s victory had “overwhelmed” him. “Boy, am I happy? I don’t know how to celebrate it because we have been in the vanguard [of the opposition] for a very long time. And now we’ve gotten what we wanted, we now know the sky is the limit,” he said. “What we want now is for Buhari to give us good governance. My expectation is that the resources of Nigerians should be used to better the lives of Nigerians.”

But despite the wild celebrations and back-slapping, a Buhari victory places enormous expectations on the shoulders of a former major general who, in 1983, displaced a civilian government to become Nigeria’s head of state. The war against the jihadist group Boko Haram is still raging. Hundreds of schoolgirls from the town of Chibok remain missing after their abduction nearly a year ago. And much of the country remains in poverty.

Nigerians will also expect the 72-year-old Buhari to make good on his campaign promises to reverse years of corruption under Jonathan while jolting fresh life into a sputtering economy, ravaged by the plummeting price of oil and a steadily depreciating currency. Nigeria’s foreign reserves have also dipped below $30 billion for the first time in years.

Despite his disappointment at a Buhari victory, Prince Ekeh, a university student in Lagos, said it was time for the country to forge ahead. “Since they said APC is all about ‘change,’ let’s see how the ‘change’ will be like in the next four years — whether it’s going to favor us or be against us,” said Ekeh. “To be frank and honest, I’m not happy. But what can we do?”

Perhaps Nigeria’s most immediate need is ensuring that there’s no post-election violence. In January, militants from the oil-rich Niger Delta threatened to unleash violence on the country and take back “their” oil if Jonathan was not re-elected. So far, Boko Haram has yet to issue any threats of violence following the election.

The aftermath of the presidential election in 2011 was marked by communal violence across northern Nigeria, when hundreds of young people protested Jonathan’s landslide victory over Buhari. The protests degenerated into sectarian killings, with the Muslim rioters targeting Christians and members of ethnic groups from southern Nigeria who were perceived to have supported Jonathan.

Over 800 people were killed and more than 65,000 were displaced in three days of rioting across 12 northern Nigerian states, according to Human Rights Watch. (Buhari is from the mostly Muslim north, while Jonathan is from the Christian-dominated south.)

Since 2003, when he first began contesting the presidency, Buhari never won outside of northern Nigeria. In fact, it was more like a drubbing: In 2011, he won 40 votes in the north for every vote he won in the south. He also performed dismally in 2007, when he received 6.6 million votes, a meager 19 percent of the total votes cast.

But this year, Nigerians appear to have delivered Buhari a sweeping mandate. He won in 16 out of the 19 northern states, and five out of the 17 states in the south. He also polled 54 percent of total votes cast.

The poor voter turnout in Jonathan’s stronghold regions — 37 percent and 56 percent in the southeast and far south, respectively, in 2015 versus 67 percent in those areas in 2011 — also played a major role in Buhari’s victory.

During the final tabulation of results on Tuesday, Godsday Orubebe, a prominent member of the PDP — perhaps sensing defeat — caused a stir in the halls of the national election commission when he accused Nigeria’s election chief of conniving with the opposition to rig the election. “You are biased. You are partial. You are tribalistic,” he shouted, according to a video of the meeting.

By Tuesday evening, when it became clear that Buhari would win, Jonathan called to Buhari to congratulate him on his victory.

Another member of the PDP, Ayo Fayose, the governor of Nigeria’s southwestern state of Ekiti who led series of verbal assaults on Buhari during the campaign, also congratulated the retired general. “I salute President Jonathan for laying the most solid foundation for democracy in Nigeria. And I salute Maj. Gen. Buhari for being a [resilient] and dogged fighter,” said Fayose.

Later, an obviously repentant Orubebe congratulated Buhari on Twitter, describing his win as “a victory to democracy.” (He also apologized for his outburst.)

In his victory speech on Wednesday, Buhari dedicated his win to Nigerians and urged his supporters to remain peaceful as they continue their celebrations. “This is a moment that we must begin to heal wounds and work towards a better future,” the president-elect said.

“It is you, Nigerians, that have won,” Buhari said on television following his victory. “The people have shown their love for our nation and their belief in democracy.” He also promised to work with Jonathan on a smooth transition between their governments. “Jonathan engaged in a spirited campaign and was a worthy opponent,” he said. “He will receive nothing but understanding, cooperation, and respect from me and my team.”

It’s a major win for Buhari, and a momentous occasion for Nigeria’s democracy. But the next step will be uniting an often-fractious country under his rule, combating terrorism, and reviving an economy on its knees.

Photo Credit: Philip Ojisua / AFP


Ben Ezeamalu is a writer and editor at the Premium Times in Lagos, Nigeria. @CallMeBenfigo

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