Nigeria Leads Africa's Democratic Transition

Africa Digest

The much anticipated 2015 presidential elections in Nigeria have come and gone. On March 28, fourteen political parties took part in the efforts to elect the leader of Africa’s biggest economy. President-elect Muhammadu Buhari made history as the first opposition candidate to unseat a president through the ballot box. Kelechi Deca recounts the other aspects of the poll that altered the electoral landscape of the country

When the President of Senegal Macky Sall expressed dissatisfaction over his country’s seven-year-term for a president, calling instead for a five-year-term, to be in line with other neighbouring countries in the region, many across Africa took note. Even fingers were pointed at long serving African leaders, making them quite uncomfortable. A week later, the Rwandan President Paul Kagame suggested that his country might even look into the possibility of curtailing the term a president may serve in office.

When the Johannesburg bourse showed a spurt of positives after information tricked in that Nigeria had successfully conducted its Presidential and legislative elections, many across Africa also took note. Africa has, in the last few years, shown signs of bonding together both for positives and negatives. Whatever happens in one country today has reverberating impacts on another faster than before. To this end, the just concluded Nigerian elections will have far greater impact across the continent, not just because Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy, or its most populated, but because Africa is becoming more closely knit.

A Paradigm Shift

In a continent well known for irresponsible elections, the Nigerian election was a paradigm shift. Never had any election in the continent attracted such a huge following both online and offline. It had far more observers from across the world than any other elections conducted in recent times in the continent and set records both on Facebook and Twitter as one of the most followed elections. Little wonder its impact has been total. Nigerian stocks surged to their highest in five years, leading gains among world equity markets with Nigeria’s first peaceful shift of power from an incumbent to a challenger since independence from Britain in 1960.

Nigeria is among the many countries in the world sitting on multiple shift plates with each plate having enough capacity to set the country on fire. To many outsiders, Nigeria is divided between northern Muslims and southern Christians, who make it less complicated. But that is not true, because Nigeria is a country with over 500 language groups and 250 ethnic nationalities.

Like many other countries colonised by Britain, many in Nigeria demand to know the reason behind the amalgamation of the distinctively feudal north with individualistic republican south. Nigerians are yet to understand the purpose behind Britain’s amalgamation of two different peoples into one. Behind these two different groups are several other ethnic nationalities covered by the larger umbrella. Ethnic and religious strife is not uncommon in Nigeria, thus every official policy tends to recognise this difference.

The predominantly Muslim northerners have deep distrust of the Christian south, which has led to the country evolving a system of rotation since 1999 when Nigeria returned to democratic rule after 16 years of military rule under General Muhammadu Buhari. But this chain was broken in 2011 when after the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua, his Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan, despite widespread complaints from the north, contested against Muhammadu Buhari and won.

This election is perhaps one of the most bitterly fought in the annals of the country’s electoral history. The election, which came after a controversial six-week postponement following claims for the need to push out insurgents in the nation’s north east, was highly divisive creating different camps. However, it finally turned out to be largely a referendum on key national issues pertaining to the state of the country’s economy and security.

A Call for Change

After successive losses in 2007 and 2011, General Buhari insisted he would not run again for president, only to cave in to pressure from his associates and a coalition of opposition parties that came together in 2014 to form the All Progressives Congress (APC) to wrest power from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which had been in power for 16 years. The choice of Buhari achieved multiple results. First, for a country plagued by corrupt, indisciplined leadership, a person as incorruptible as General Buhari is seen as a saviour by many Nigerians.

Trouble started for President Goodluck Jonathan when Islamic insurgents Boko Haram took over 12 local government councils, and claimed to have converted the region into an Islamic Caliphate. Many Nigerians saw the government as unresponsive to the security plight of large swathes of Nigeria’s north east region. The militants kidnapped over 250 girls from a school in Chibok town, an incident that caused an international outcry with global leaders calling for the release of the girls. President Jonathan’s inability to provide answers reinforced the belief that he was a weak leader, while Buhari was strong.

The fall in oil prices, which provides approximately two-thirds of government revenue and 90 percent of foreign income, threatens the economy, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting growth for 2015 at 4.8 percent, about half the average of the past 15 years. This forecast increased government borrowings and talks of bankruptcy, which did not help in anyway. Despite privatisation in recent times, people are yet to see the fruits of power reforms.

All these factors led to a call for change and Nigerians were eager to exercise their decisive mandate amid the introduction of technology such as the Permanent Voters’ Cards (PVCs) and the Smart Card Readers (SCRs), by the electoral body, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). But violence reared its head in several places, with the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria (NHRC) stating that over 50 people were killed as a direct result of the elections. But many viewed these statistics as far better than previous elections.

This year’s election was probably won and lost on social media, even before citizens received ballot papers. Many relied more on social media than traditional media for updates and results. Muhammadu Buhari-associated topics trended more easily on Twitter than Goodluck Jonathan’s, forcing the PDP social media camp to sponsor trend topics on Twitter and several posts on Facebook. The high penetration rate of smartphones impacted the political race positively and empowered citizens with an instrument-turned-powerful-medium to recount the mood accurately.

Significance of the Elections

The importance of these elections is not lost on Nigerians, which mark the country’s fourth successful transition from one civilian government to another in the last 16 years. The elections will strengthen the democratic process, and also help build the much needed institutions in the country. The Nigerian electoral body will get ample opportunity to revaluate these elections, and make improvements in problem areas for gubernatorial and state assembly elections on April 11.

There are clear indications that Nigerians have set a new precedent. Elections will no longer be characterised by traditional campaigns, and politicians will now be more circumspect in the way they conduct their private and public lives. Nigeria’s electoral landscape will never be the same again.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.