In a country where elections have routinely been rigged in favor of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential incumbent or his designee, opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressives Congress have won an astonishing victory. Buhari’s support was nationwide, and his vote total was the largest in four of Nigeria’s six geo-political zones. Unlike 2011, the electorate did not starkly bifurcate along north/south, Muslim/Christian lines.
This is the first time that the Nigerian presidency has been won by an opposition candidate through broadly credible elections. This is an important step toward the establishment of a genuine, two-party system and starts to open up Nigerian politics in a new way.
Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan’s congratulations to Buhari and his subsequent remarks contributed to the relatively peaceful aftermath of the elections. It may be a step toward the rehabilitation of his battered personal reputation. However, pre-election violence was higher in 2015 than in 2011, and there may be more around the state and local elections that will take place on April 11, 2015.
While there appears to have been some rigging in favor of the PDP and election-related violence, the polling and the counting of votes was a marked improvement from 2011. The Obama administration and the U.K.’s Cameron government strongly supported Attahiru Jega, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and credible elections, and raised the prospect of sanctions against those who perpetrated violence. That had an effect on the positive tone of the elections, though it is hard to quantify. Nevertheless, on April 1, Buhari publicly thanked the United Kingdom and the United States for their support of a democratic process.
Popular confidence in the electoral process, at least in the short term, now appears higher than it has been in the past. This is a tribute to Jega and his innovations and reforms that made rigging more difficult.
The 2015 elections advanced democracy. Buhari probably won the largest number of votes in the presidential elections of 2003, 2007 and 2011, but the incumbent or the PDP’s candidate was rigged-in. This time, that could not happen. Buhari has likely been the most popular politician on the Nigerian street for a long time, especially in the north. His campaign themes of opposition to corruption and re-establishing security for Nigerians deeply resonated with the electorate, much of which is increasingly impoverished, despite high rates of economic growth.
There is a back story to the Buhari victory. Since independence in 1960, a theme of Nigerian politics has been cooperation between the north and the west of the country against the south and the east, with the middle of the country being contested ground. This pattern has historical roots. Buhari’s victory shows its revival, which had been superceded by a north/south divide in the 2011 presidential elections.
Whether under military or civilian rule, Nigeria is run by cooperating and competing elites. Since the restoration of civilian government in 1999, their primary vehicle has been the PDP, which ensured that Jonathan won the 2011 elections. While fundamentally the same leadership class remains in charge, it is not as united as in the past. In the face of mounting corruption, the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency, the collapse of international oil prices, and a general sense that the Jonathan government was incompetent and failing to govern, a substantial portion, but not all, of the elites withdrew their support and established the opposition, APC. Using that political vehicle, they designated Buhari as their presidential candidate. The elites had fractured. Most of the prominent figures within the APC were formerly in the PDP. Jonathan found himself abandoned by political kingmakers such as former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had maneuvered his 2007 PDP selection and election as vice president.
Buhari will be sworn in as president on May 29. He is likely to have a short political honeymoon as he addresses Nigeria’s seemingly intractable problems. Political skill and coalition building will be crucial. Perhaps more abroad than at home, Buhari is dogged by a reputation for having been harshly authoritarian during the twenty months he was military chief of state from 1983 to 1985. There were episodes in which he ran roughshod over the rule of law in his efforts to uproot corruption and counter “indiscipline.” His assault on entrenched interests led to his overthrow in a coup led by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. In a speech at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) in February, 2015, Buhari credibly argued that he is a convert to democracy. That conversion will be essential if his presidential term is to be a success.
In the meantime, there appears to be an era of good feeling in Nigeria, almost unknown for a generation. Even the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, based in the oil patch and close to Jonathan, has congratulated Buhari on his victory. But, there are also ominous reports of a weapons build-up in the Delta that could presage a revival of an insurrection. Boko Haram remains undefeated. Oil prices are unlikely to recover in the short term, reducing the revenue of the state. Nigeria remains a poor country with some of the worst social statistics in the world. In this environment, Buhari will be expected to demonstrate extraordinary political and leadership skills.