Nigerian elections: Two big surprises

For the second week in a row, it looks like I’ve been wrong. Luckily for me, I’m in good company. The mistake goes back to when President Goodluck Jonathan Nigeria postponed the Nigerian elections for six weeks in February, giving the Boko Haram insurgency as an excuse. I – along with the actual experts – scoffed at the idea that six weeks would be enough time to deal with the conflict that had been so drastically neglected by his government. I also suggested that violence would be likely to follow once the elections actually took place. Yet here we are six weeks later, and Boko Haram is apparently badly damaged, and elections have gone ahead peacefully – leading to the victory of General Muhammadu Buhari. So what difference did six weeks make? What was Goodluck Jonathan’s best decision of his presidency? And how will his successor govern?

Gen. Buhari swept into power (Photo: Heinrich Böll)

President Jonathan Goodluck’s promise to crush the insurgency surprisingly seems to have been fulfilled. Last week saw the capture of Boko Haram’s ‘capital’ of Gwoza; the last big city controlled by the militants. Despite a high price in human life, the militants are now apparently fleeing into remote border regions.

The difference has been made by real help from Nigeria’s neighbours: Chad, Cameroon, Benin and Niger. Their multinational force provided troops and aircraft to join a Nigerian push into Boko Haram’s territory and bomb their positions. This appears to have been crucial. However, it is also rather embarrassing for the Nigerian government. They’ve been very reluctant to ask for help in the past, and only accepted after the elections were postponed. Two countries of the countries helping them, Chad and Niger, are also some of the world poorest. For the largest economy in Africa to have to request their help, and then finally succeed thanks to their forces, is a stinging condemnation.

This is one of the main reasons contributing to President Jonathan losing the election to his opponent, General Muhammadu Buhari. This is a huge development for Nigeria, as it’s the first time that a president has been removed peacefully through elections. The way Jonathan reacted to his loss was also incredibly important. He accepted the fact that he’d lost early on, and conceded to Gen. Buhari with good grace. He then called for his supporters to accept the result and move forward together, even as others in his party weren’t being quite so concilatory. In a state with no history of that behaviour, this is a big step, and not one analysts had expected. Jonathan has been hailed for this decision, with his opponent calling him a hero of democracy. There’s no doubt that this will make for a more stable Nigeria.

However, will this stability continue under the new leader? Some signs are good. While Buhari is Muslim, and supported Sharia in the North, he has also promised to intensify the fight against Boko Haram. It’s a fight that’s personal as well, as the militants tried to blow him up last year. Buhari is also well known for hating corruption – one of Nigeria’s biggest problem – with a passion, and has a reputation for being an honest man. However, he is also a military man who has governed Nigeria before, after a coup in in 1983. His record in power is mixed, with a crackdown on freedoms, and economic strife that eventually led to another coup.

Gen. Buhari will have a lot on his plate in the coming months. Aside from destroying Boko Haram, he will have to keep his economic promises and combat corruption. But after these peaceful elections, for now Nigeria is on the right path.

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