A vote for change


Nigerians have defied widespread fears that their presidential election would descend into violence by voting out peacefully their incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. And, for the first time since the return of democratic rule in 1999, they have enabled the first transfer of power between civilians of different parties. Democracy and now two-party politics are becoming firmly entrenched in Africa’s largest, most populous country of 180 million people.

The winner is so-called strongman Gen Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) who served previously as head of state between 1983 and 1985 having taken power in a military coup. The former dictator, a 72-year-old Muslim, took 15.4 million votes to Jonathan's 13.3 million on the back of discontent over corruption, unemployment, and growing desperation at the mishandling by Jonathan and the country's discredited army of the violent Boko Haram insurgency.

Rebels have killed over 7,300 civilians in three states in northern Nigeria since the beginning of 2014, and forced 1.5 million out of their homes. A government offensive in the last weeks of the election, spearheaded by South African mercenaries and allied forces from neighbouring countries, took back much of the territory Boko Haram had held in the northeast.

Buhari, although he did well in the predominantly Christian south, represents the alienated north which has been marginalised economically and politically. Ethnic, regional, and religious fractures have defined Nigerian politics since independence and fed the Boko Haram machine. There was a sense that the north was due its “turn” and Buhari’s election and the peaceful transfer of power can have a significant healing effect. Not all are convinced, however, of his conversion from authoritarianism and support for Sharia law. His 1980s war against waste and indiscipline saw hundreds arrested and, according to Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, was carried to “sadistic levels, glorying in the humiliation of a people.” The new president will be watched closely.