The very good news from Nigeria is that after all the apprehension and uncertainty that accompanied the campaign, the outcome is the best the country could have hoped for. The right man is out, the right man is in, and in by a margin which will make it difficult for his rule to be contested on the grounds that he achieved it through electoral fraud. The civilities exchanged as the results pointed more and more clearly to a victory for Muhammadu Buhari reflect well both on him and Goodluck Jonathan and will further reduce the possibility that the election will be seriously questioned.
It has to be said that Nigerians rose to this occasion. There had been fears of widespread violence. In fact there was relatively little violence. The parties honoured the pledge their leaders signed, in front of Kofi Annan and other witnesses, to refrain from actions or language that could precipitate it. There had been fears that the vote would split along the religious and ethnic fault lines in Nigerian society – north and south, Christian and Muslim, in particular. In fact both candidates attracted significant support from outside their “natural” constituencies. There were anxieties, expressed by Wole Soyinka in a recent Guardian interview, that the voters would be overly influenced by lavish spending on negative campaigning, particularly by the incumbent side. In the event, the voters saw past the placards and the mudslinging.
There had been worries, too, that the new voter card system brought in to reduce the fraud evident in earlier elections would not work on the day. There were indeed glitches, but in general it worked well. Indeed, by making multiple voting and ballot stuffing difficult or impossible, it could have been the most critical element in ensuring what may well go down as the cleanest election so far in Nigeria’s history. The country’s independent national election commission performed admirably, reacting forcefully to attempts to intimidate it or paint it as partisan. Its efforts were reinforced by ordinary citizens who made it their business to oversee the count in the polling places, but not in the partisan way sometimes seen in the past.
What is even more heartening is that this first handover of one civilian Nigerian government to another may herald the establishment of a stable two-party system in Africa’s most populous country.
Optimism is in order, but it has to be qualified. There could still be trouble as the former ruling party faces up to the loss of its patronage and perks, especially if President Buhari pursues the corrupt in the way that he did in the years when he was first president. Corruption is clearly a massive issue for Nigeria. Yet there is a vast range of other problems. The country has been battered by falling oil prices, its foreign reserves have been run down, its infrastructure is shamefully incomplete in spite of all the good years when the oil money was rolling in, and its security institutions have proved incapable of dealing effectively with challenges to state power in the north-east by Boko Haram and in other areas.
The memory of an apparently unconcerned President Jonathan equivocating over the abduction of schoolgirls by Boko Haram while the army flailed about unsuccessfully and even found itself outclassed by soldiers from much smaller allies in dealing with the insurgents, must have counted very much against him in the minds of voters. The armed forces, ill equipped, badly paid and suffering from poor morale, are in desperate need of reform, but are also in a surly mood. President Buhari, as a former military man, may be able to deal with this in a way a head of state with a civilian background could not. Yet doing so will be yet another drain on Nigeria’s diminished resources.
President Jonathan lost the election because he failed so signally to adequately address these problems. The new government will have to move quickly to head off both a looming fiscal crisis and the immediate security crises at the same time, and then embark on a process of economic restructuring that would tax any country. President Buhari has won a clear victory and has the prospect of continuing popular support even if some of his policies will inevitably have to be austere. But his inheritance is a daunting one.