This one is big. Not just because Nigeria is big – although it is; the extent to which it overshadows the rest of West Africa is not immediately obvious from looking at a map – but because until now it has never really looked like a democracy.
Now it might. Last Sunday’s presidential election resulted in a decisive victory for opposition candidate General Muhammadu Buhari, who defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan by about 2.5 million votes, 54% to 45%. Jonathan has conceded defeat and indications are that the transfer of power will proceed peacefully, with the new president to be sworn in on 29 May.
If it does, it will be the first time in Nigeria. And while the continent has made great strides towards democratisation in the last 25 years, an opposition victory at the polls is still relatively rare anywhere in Africa.
From his title, you might infer that General Buhari is a less-than-ideal representative of democratisation. And as it happens he’s already ruled Nigeria once before, in 1984-85, as a military dictator with a poor human rights record.
But that’s the point. All the available material in Nigeria is unsatisfactory. If the country is going to realise anything like its potential, people are going to have to change, including – especially – people at the top.
Not that Nigeria is exactly emerging from dictatorship. It’s been a sort of semi-democracy since another former military ruler, General Olusegun Obasanjo, took power following elections in 1999. He was followed by Umaru Yar’Adua, and when he died in office he was succeeded by Jonathan, who won re-election in 2011.
All of these elections have been nominally democratic, but in reality they have lacked credibility. The winners have all come from the same party, the People’s Democratic Party (broadly centre-right), and no-one really thought any other result was possible.
Certainly Obasanjo was an improvement on his predecessors. But the high hopes indulged for him at the time – by, among others, our own Malcolm Fraser, who had been his colleague running the eminent persons group on South Africa (the irony of appointing a former dictator to encourage another country to transition to democracy was not lost on everyone) – have not really been met.
Ditto with Jonathan, whose election (against, again, Buhari) seemed reasonably clean – he claimed only 57% of the vote – but who in office has been lacklustre, plagued by corruption and seemingly ineffective in the face of the violent insurgency by the fundamentalist Islamic movement Boko Haram.
The insurgency was the excuse for postponing the election from its originally scheduled date of 14 February; it’s been reported that if it had been held then there was an expectation that Jonathan would have lost, but the extra time gave him the chance to throw all the resources of incumbency at the problem. It seems not to have helped much.
The enthno-religious division is never far away in Nigeria. Jonathan is a southerner and a Christian; Buhari a northerner and a Muslim. The pattern of voting largely reflects that, although Buhari certainly mustered a respectable vote in Christian areas (the electoral commission hasn’t posted detailed figures yet, but the BBC’s map shows Buhari taking a number of southern states).
Whatever one thinks about Nigeria’s long-term viability as a united country, it seems plausible that for the immediate goal of defeating the fundamentalists, a Muslim president will be better placed. But the big thing is the establishment of a robust democracy, where the country’s large and stubborn problems can be addressed at the ballot box and the people can change their government without bloodshed.
As the BBC’s Andrew Harding puts it, “An electorate that has savoured the rich experience of ousting an incumbent by the mere act of voting cannot easily be persuaded to forget it.”
In the region Ghana and Senegal have shown that it can be done; this week Nigeria looks to be joining them.