It is official. The people of Nigeria have spoken and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari has won the Nigerian presidential election. Buhari will take over the presidency from Goodluck Jonathan, whose party (Peoples Democratic Party) has held power since 1999. This is the first time in Nigeria’s history where there may be a peaceful transfer of power between civilian leaders of different parties.
The good news for Nigeria’s democracy comes at a time when the country is plagued with corruption, gross inequality and the devastating Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast. Indeed, for a while it seemed that Nigerians would not be able to cast their vote. The presidential elections were originally scheduled for February 14 but delayed until March 28. Although the official reason was to allow for a military offensive against Boko Haram to ensure the safety and presence of voters, many feared it was a plot to derail the democratic process.
So what does this historic election mean for Nigeria and the issues plaguing the oil-rich West African state?
First, it is estimated that Buhari won by more than 2 million votes, giving him around 55 percent of the vote compared to Goodluck Jonathan’s 45 percent. This decisive and, some say, landslide victory bodes well for postelection stability. There should be little dissent across northern and southwest Nigeria, the most populous and commercial areas, respectively. Minimal pre-election violence points to early signs of stability. In this 2015 election cycle, it is reported that 15 people were shot compared to the violence in the 2011 elections, where over 800 people were killed in Muslim majority areas. And in terms of election legitimacy and corruption, Secretary of State John Kerry and British foreign minister, Philip Hammond, said in a joint statement that there is no evidence thus far of “systemic manipulation of the process.” These are encouraging indicators for the future of Nigeria.
Buhari, a former military general and survivor of a Boko Haram assassination attempt in July 2014, is expected to increase efforts to aid the joint offensive military campaign against Boko Haram that has had success in recent weeks. Buhari was openly critical of Jonathan’s failed strategy to defeat or even just slow Boko Haram’s insurgency and highlighted his inability to return the 276 kidnapped girls. Given Buhari’s military background it is clear he will push for an aggressive military campaign against Boko Haram; but even more promising, his election could undercut Boko Haram’s support in northern Nigeria.
Boko Haram derives much of its support from the grievances of Muslims in the north who feel that Jonathan’s policies favored the Christian population in the south. Within this stark regional and religious divide, where poverty rates reach up to 87 percent in some northern states, some northern Nigerians became somewhat sympathetic to Boko Haram’s radical message. However, over the past three years support for Boko Haram has generally diminished because of unprecedented violence by the group.
Just a month before the election, Buhari vowed not to negotiate with Boko Haram. “If they are interested in peace, how can they kill 13,000 Nigerians?” he asked. If Buhari, a northern Muslim himself, enacts socioeconomic policies to address the northern states’ objections, and manages to reduce the overall north-south divide, he could strike at the heart of Boko Haram’s grievances.
Buhari made strong campaign promises. He ran with a clear objective: to secure the country and root out all forms of corruption. The people of Nigeria have voted and trust him to carry out his promises: no more insurgency, sabotage and millions of dollars on stolen oil going into the black market every day. But electoral promises can be difficult to keep once in office. While early indicators after the election point to prospects of increased stability and unity in the country, it is too early to tell what impact the former military general, and now newly elected president, will be able to have in Nigeria.
Elizabeth Bennett, Albany, NY, is a graduate student at New York University’s Department of International Relations. In 2013 she received a B.S. in Economics from Bentley University. She specializes in U.S. national security and terrorism focusing on South Asia.