Nigeria's Moment of Triumph

The lessons of the election must translate into accountable and transparent governance for all Nigerians.

Nigeria’s March 2015 presidential elections are remarkable for many reasons.

Hundreds of thousands living in violence-prone regions defied extremists and voted. The professionalism, transparency and independence demonstrated by Independent Nigerian Electoral Commission (INEC) provided credibility, in a country where it is usually lacking, and galvanized a fractured country.

Millions demanded accountability and followed proceedings by radio, television and social media. The incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, demonstrated uncommon maturity by graciously conceding on the day the results were announced.

Consequently, pre and post-election violence was minimized. These were arguably the least violent elections in Nigeria’s post-independence history. In elections where process triumphed over politics, many wonder whether we are witnessing the green shoots of a “Nigerian Spring.” Is it wise to muse about a symbolic transition from inefficient state-centric bureaucracies to a citizen-focused governance model that demands transparency in Nigeria?

The smooth transfer of political power does not resolve the host of governance, economic, societal and security challenges Nigeria continues to face.

However, a few developments during the elections offer glimmers of hope. The leading presidential candidates, All Progressives Congress’ Muhammadu Buhari and Peoples Democratic Party’s Goodluck Jonathan, were known quantities, ambivalently viewed as legacy candidates. Although their politics, regional affiliation and records in office were well known, the electoral campaign was far from predictable. The APC ticket was cross-regional and Buhari’s support base extended well beyond Northern states, unlike 2011 when his party was more regionally focused and he did poorly outside the North. 

Goodluck Jonathan, on the other hand, lost the people and lost the votes. Also significant was low turnout in former PDP strongholds, like Lagos State where the turnout was around 25 percent, as opposed to 32 percent in 2011 when the PDP won 66 percent of the vote. Nigerians clearly used the elections to send a message to an administration they believed had failed them.

Goodluck Jonathan's concession was historic. It is the first time there has been a democratic transfer of power in Nigeria’s 52-year post-independence history. Hopefully, this has set a precedence for peaceful democratic transitions in a country more accustomed to political upheaval and violently contested elections.

It took great courage for him to defy the PDP hawks and live up to the commitments he agreed to in the March 26 pre-election peace accords he signed with Buhari. This is a small, but not insignificant, step in Nigeria’s journey towards increased democratization.

If strong institutions with effective leadership underpin effective democracies, INEC (led by Prof Attahiru Jega) provided another glimmer of hope. Even though they were some irregularities and the biometric card readers introduced by INEC to address a major source of electoral fraud were slow, Nigerians had more confidence in the conduct of these elections than any other in their history. It is also important to acknowledge INEC for delivering on its mandate amid significant security threats and for working to ensure that eligible voters among the over one million internally displaced Nigerians were able to exercise their vote. By and large, INEC distinguished itself as being both effective and accountable. This enabled the elections to be validated in the court of Nigerian public opinion, and not just be international observers.

While it is premature to be talking of a Nigerian Spring (in the sense of expectant seismic post-election changes in governance, politics and society), it is definitely appropriate to recognize an opportunity to build on what could be the green shoots of long-overdue governance and institutional reform in this strategically important country. The lessons from a broad-based, citizen-centric campaign must translate into accountable and transparent governance for all Nigerians, not just the privileged few.

INEC has demonstrated that Nigerian institutions can be effective and responsible, with the right leadership. Popular engagement across the demographic spectrum suggests a unique opportunity to get civil society more constructively involved in Nigeria’s democratic processes. The notes of reconciliation sounded in post-election speeches by both Buhari and Jonathan should underpin efforts to bridge regional divides and socio-economic gaps.

Unlike other “Spring” events, the so-called Nigerian Spring is the result of civic engagement and not civil disobedience. Buhari has a unique opportunity to expend political capital and prioritize: a speedy and complete resolution to Boko Haram using both military and non-military means; taking a firm stand against corruption, while preserving human rights; introducing program to reduce inequality and provide jobs; and regaining the mantle of a regional anchor, especially in trade and peace support operations.

Last year, Nigeria became the continent’s leading economy. Would 2015 be the year when Nigeria takes the first steps to becoming the leading democracy? Nigeria cannot do this alone. Buhari will need external partners willing to support efforts to address challenges and take advantage of opportunities. In order to do this, we all need to be prepared to deal with the Nigeria of tomorrow, and not the Nigeria of yesteryears.

Monde Muyangwa is the Africa Director at the Wilson Center. Raymond Gilpin is the Dean at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Wikiregina