There was more bad luck for President Goodluck Jonathan on 31 March, as he was forced to concede defeat to Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC) after losing the presidential election by over 2 million votes. Jonathan’s phone call to congratulate his rival – which initially did not get through due to the high volume of calls that the Buhari team were receiving – marked the first time that a sitting Nigerian president has been defeated at the ballot box. The willingness of President Jonathan and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to allow for a peaceful transfer of power ensured that the country avoided the widespread civil unrest that some commentators had predicted.
It was clear some months before the elections that Buhari’s APC had evolved into the strongest opposition party yet seen in multi-party Nigeria. The APC’s success was rooted in the construction of a broad coalition that brought together a powerful alliance of leaders with established profiles and political networks in different parts of the country. This alliance was particularly effective because it integrated leaders that complemented each other’s strengths and minimised each other’s weaknesses. In addition to Buhari’s northern following, the involvement of former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu and current Lagos Governor Babatunde Fashola – represented by Buhari’s running mate, Yemi Osinbajo – empowered the party to do well in the South-West. This alliance was also significant because it combined Buhari’s reputation for responsible government and Tinubu’s considerable personal wealth, which made it possible for the APC to run an election campaign that was both well funded and credible.
The APC initially gained momentum following the defection of a number of governors and leading figures from the PDP, which significantly weakened the position of President Jonathan. The resulting coalition managed to negotiate the selection of its main office holders without suffering a major split. As a result – and in contrast to previous elections – the opposition did not fragment prior to the polls. However, given the many advantages of incumbency enjoyed by Nigerian incumbents, the election remained the PDP’s to lose.
That it did so was largely the result of two main factors. First, the collapse of the oil price and the resulting period of economic decline impacted on ordinary Nigerians and the business community alike. In turn, this eroded any confidence in the economy that was generated by the re-basing of GDP and the resulting announcement that the Nigeria’s economy had surpassed South Africa’s to become the largest on the continent. The second key factor was the president’s waning credibility. Since the 2011 election, the public image of President Goodluck Jonathan has been tarnished by a number of government failures, the most important of which have been economic decline, evidence of rising corruption, and the failure of the security forces to deal with the Boko Haram insurgency.
Taken together with the relative unity of the opposition, and the savvy campaign waged by the APC, this combination of factors served to undermine turnout in the president’s home areas in the South-East and Middle-Belt and drive support towards Buhari in opposition strongholds such as the North and South-West of the country. That these votes actually counted owed much to the determination of INEC’s Chair, Attahiru Jega, to resist PDP pressure – even when personal accusations of “tribalism” were made to his face on live television – and announce results that reflected the will of the people. In the end, Jega’s refusal to be cowed, the size of the PDP’s defeat, and considerable domestic and international pressure on Jonathan to avoid any course of action likely to trigger ethnic or religious conflict, persuaded the president that it was time to go.
However, the victory of the APC and bravery of Jega should not be taken as evidence that Nigeria has held its first fully democratic election. Although the right man won, the polls were far from clean. Evidence of irregularities in the counting process were noted in a number of states, most notably in Rivers State, which has traditionally been part of the PDP’s heartlands, but became more hotly contested this time round after the Governor defected from the PDP to join the APC. Some irregularities were also noted in states that tended to vote for Buhari, but on balance it seems likely that the official results underestimate the magnitude of the opposition’s victory.
All eyes have now turned to Muhammadu Buhari and what he will do in power. Buhari is a 72 year old Muslim from northern Nigeria and is no political novice, having run the country as a military leader between 1984 and 1985. He has a reputation for self-restraint, but also for authoritarian tendencies. On the one hand, Buhari is known for being a stoical Muslim leader who rejects the flashy lifestyle beloved of so many Nigerian politicians. Combined with his efforts to curb corruption during his short tenure as a military leader, and his prudent management of the Petroleum Trust Fund, this lends credibility to his claim that he will reduce widespread government corruption.
The new president also has a reputation for being an effective and strong military leader, which was earned when he routed insurgent groups in the north in the 1980s. Although the threat from Boko Haram today is far greater, his election has led to renewed confidence that law and order can be restored to the north-east of the country. In undertaking this task, the president is fortunate that the recent collaboration between forces from Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, has already made considerable progress in restricting Boko Haram’s movements.
On the other hand, there are also less impressive elements of President Buhari’s past. As a military leader he developed a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian and for favouring order and control over political participation and free discussion. As with many Nigerian military leaders, human rights were often sacrificed on the altar of political stability, or self protection. It remains to be seen whether Buhari’s experience of operating under a multi-party dispensation has made him more accepting of dissent and criticism, as he has consistently claimed. The president is certainly talking a good game: early speeches have focused on the need for reduced corruption, national reconciliation, and responsible government.