Nigeria elections: Buhari scores historic win

By Will Ross
BBC News, Abuja

Image source, AP
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Muhammadu Buhari has become the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election in Nigeria

The race for the presidency is finally over.

"It's great, fantastic, I'm overwhelmed, it's a great time to be Nigerian," says research consultant Simi Fajemirokun in Abuja.

"This party that was only formed two years ago, that has beaten the ruling party. It's something we just never fathomed a few months ago. But here we are, it's happened," she said.

This is a hugely significant moment in Nigeria's turbulent history. Never before has a sitting president been defeated in an election.

Since independence from Britain in 1960, there have been numerous coups and although the 2011 vote was an improvement, most elections have been rigged or even annulled by the military.

High hopes

Of course in a relatively close election, there will be millions of people who are not pleased with the outcome. But the whole process is a sign that democracy is deepening in Nigeria and may be a tonic to other countries in Africa.

Nigerians can start to believe that it is possible to remove politicians through the ballot box.

Many Nigerians have been given a glimmer of hope that their politicians will now feel the need to be more accountable.

"For the first time there are clear repercussions for a certain type of governance," says writer Elnathan John.

"Everyone is excited. The gateman where I stay had a little booklet where he was writing out results, and that's something you wouldn't have seen last time," he says, adding that it would have been pointless.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Buhari supporters have been celebrating the results out on the streets in APC strongholds
Image source, AP
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Gen Buhari has called for "calm, sober celebrations" from his backers

There has been a great deal of concern over possible election violence as both sides were so hell-bent on winning this contest.

The man who has been voted out, Goodluck Jonathan, has played a huge part today in helping to prevent unrest.

He made the phone call to concede victory and to congratulate Muhammadu Buhari when a disputed outcome would have sent the country on a dangerous road.

"I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word," he said later in a statement.

"I have also expanded the space for Nigerians to participate in the democratic process. That is one legacy I will like to see endure," he added, urging people with complaints to follow due process and not to go to the streets.

No doubt some in his camp would have preferred to dig their heels in.

Technology effect

In recent months there were fears that powerful political and even military personalities would connive to prevent this election from taking place at all.

The belief was if they could not ensure a Jonathan victory then they would not risk an election at all.

Muhammadu Buhari in focus:

Image source, AP
  • Muslim from northern Nigeria, aged 72
  • Military ruler of Nigeria from 1984 to 1985, deposed in a coup
  • Seen as incorruptible
  • Poor human rights record
  • Disciplinarian - civil servants late for work had to do frog jumps
  • Survived apparent Boko Haram assassination attempt

First there was the six-week delay in the poll and then reports of plots to install an interim government or even declare a nationwide state of emergency to prolong the president's tenure. Anything but risk Gen Buhari winning.

So the fact that this election happened at all was already a victory for democracy.

There was also huge pressure on the head of the electoral commission Attahiru Jega. He stood firm and will be credited as having played a huge role in the success of this poll.

The biometric card readers which were introduced to register voters may have been maligned for some technical glitches but they were pivotal in this election.

There were still efforts to rig the result but the new technology made it impossible to accept the ludicrously inflated turnouts and results which have been common in Nigeria.

Religious divisions

As the final results were being announced, a former minister from the governing party, Godsday Orubebe, put on quite a show.

Live on TV he launched an embarrassing tirade, lambasting the electoral commission and its chairman Attahiru Jega, accusing him of being biased.

It felt like a desperate last ditch cry from a party that, having been in power since 1999, was struggling to face up to the reality of an imminent loss.

With the main candidates from different religions and opposite ends of the country, this poll has once again brought to the surface worrying religious and regional divisions which can be seen in some of the voting patterns.

"You can't deny that in many cases people have voted along religious lines. You can see it in the areas where celebrations have been going on too," says Shehu Sani, who has just won the senatorial seat in the northern city of Kaduna.

"So Buhari has to run an all-inclusive government and heal the divisions," says the writer- and activist-turned-politician.

Mr John agrees that healing is still needed.

"There is a lot we have not spoken about in this country and the clear divisions have thrown this out into the public. We have settled many things in this country but I do not think we have sufficiently settled the fall out of the civil war," he says.

Image source, AP
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Nigerians will have to wait until 29 May for Gen Buhari to become president

There is now a strange limbo period as Gen Buhari is not due to become president until the end of Mr Jonathan's term on 29 May.

He is known as a strong disciplinarian, but Gen Buhari may have his work cut out maintaining cohesion within the All Progressives Congress (APC).

He will also have to find roles for all of the disparate politicians, many of whom had little in common except a common desire to boot out the People's Democratic Party (PDP), and gain a political office themselves.

Some had jumped ship from the PDP, so their loyalty is already questionable.

Grace period

Gen Buhari will face many challenges when he assumes office at the end of May - amongst them the jihadist insurgency in the north-east and an economy struggling with the drop in the price of oil.

"He will have a six months' grace period at most but his popularity will not be sustained if he is unable to secure electricity for the people and show progress in the fight against the insurgents and corruption," says Mr Sani.

After this historic election, the former military general will know the potency of the call for change could come back to bite him.