Nigerian election: opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari sweeps to victory / Monica Mark and David Smith / The Guardian UK
31 March 2015
The Nigerian opposition leader, Muhammadu Buhari, has swept to victory in the country's presidential election, a political earthquake that inflicted the first defeat on an incumbent in the history of Africa's biggest democracy.
By Tuesday night Buhari had polled more than 15m votes, well clear of the sitting president, Goodluck Jonathan, on 12.8m, with all of the country's 36 states declaring. As Buhari's supporters took to the streets to celebrate, Jonathan called the challenger to concede defeat.
The stunning result, which followed a uniquely competitive, expensive and at times vicious campaign, was hailed by analysts as a milestone for multiparty democracy on the continent.
But there was still uncertainty over whether elements in Jonathan's Peoples Democratic party (PDP) would relinquish power after 16 years or resist in the courts and on the streets. One former state minister briefly disrupted the results on Tuesday, seized the microphone and shouting angry claims of bias. The PDP has alleged widespread irregularities at the polls, including the use of underage voters by the opposition. Post-election violence in 2011 left 800 people dead.
Buhari, a 72-year-old Muslim, first tasted power a generation ago as a military dictator, only to be ousted after 20 months and jailed. The former army general has campaigned as a born-again democrat intent on cleaning up the corrupt politics of the continent's largest economy and most populous nation.
On Tuesday he watched the results from his home in Abuja, barely talking as governors and others around him were in increasingly high spirits.
His All Progressives Congress (APC) party carried Nigeria's two biggest cities, Lagos and Kano, and chalked up heavy victories in its northern strongholds. Jonathan fared better in his southern home territory, including the oil-rich Niger delta, but was far less effective than Buhari in persuading his support base to turn out.
Jonathan said on Tuesday night: "I thank all Nigerians once again for the great opportunity I was given to lead this country and assure you that I will continue to do my best at the helm of national affairs until the end of my tenure. I have conveyed my personal best wishes to general Muhammadu Buhari.
"I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word. Nobody's ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian. The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else."
Overall, Buhari won 21 states, while Jonathan took 15 along with the territory of the capital city, Abuja. For the tenacious opposition candidate, victory was all the sweeter after three previous election losses, including at the hands of Jonathan in 2011.
The president called him to concede defeat, according to the APC. Lai Mohammed, a spokesman for the opposition party, said: "He telephoned Muhammadu Buhari to congratulate him on with his victory. He will be a hero to concede because the tension will go down dramatically."
It is hoped that Jonathan's rapid gesture will reduce tensions. Mohammed told supporters at the APC headquarters in Abuja that at "exactly 5.05[pm] the call came through. So anybody who now tries to foment trouble is doing it on their own."
John Oloyede, a legal expert and pundit on Nigeria's Channels television, said: "He is the first Nigerian ruler, head of state, to congratulate somebody who is going to take over from him. This is the kind of change that Nigeria has been yearning for. On this kind of change, this conduct, Nigeria will be able to build and move to a higher level.
"I feel elated as a Nigerian. We are making good on our words, the president has made good on his word, and by the grace of God we will have peace."
As the picture became clear, there were celebrations at the APC headquarters. With traditional grass brooms the opposition party's symbol, a group of young boys, including one who had no legs, swept to the beat of drums and traditional guitars outside.
Supporters thronged in, including Ismael Saleh, 26, who raised the broom in his hands and beamed at the sky when asked for his reaction. "I feel like I'm in heaven. I have been watching this for three days anywhere I could find playing it — see?" He pulled out scraps of papers with the results scrawled on it. "I don't have a job but Buhari has promised he will provide. We've done our part so now he must do his."
A group of women in brightly coloured hijabs sang in the local dialect: "When Buhari dey for power, Nigeria go better." Among them was Zainab Galadima, who said: "I was expecting it, but I can't believe it's happened. Nigeria has gone so low in standards that corruption isn't even considered wrong anymore.
"The same party has been ruling for 16 years and everything has got worse, so somebody else should have a chance," she said.
A first-floor balcony, from which Buhari was expected to address the crowd, was draped with party and national flags. His wife, Asha Mohammed Buhari, told Agence France-Presse (AFP): "We are working towards a new Nigeria, as my husband promised."
But she warned: "It's going to be tough. Expectations are high."
A cavalcade of motorbikes and cars with their headlights on and horns blaring paraded through the streets of Kano, northern Nigeria's biggest city, AFP reported. Drivers performed stunts, filling the air with thick smoke, as veiled women and the crowds shouted "Sai Buhari" (Only Buhari) in celebration.
There was also joy in Buhari's home state of Katsina. One man, Danjuma Katsina, said: "Everybody here has gone to buy a goat or a cow so we can celebrate. People were losing hope about the country, this election was our only hope.
"I believe Buhari is a man of integrity and even his vice-president is a clergyman, so things will be different now."
He said he was not worried about the results being contested. "The whole country is going to erupt in jubilation. We are not worried at all."
But the result was a personal disaster for Jonathan, 57, earning him an unwanted place in history as Nigeria's first democratically unseated leader. He was dubbed "the accidental president" when greatness was thrust upon him with the death of president Umaru Yar'Adua five years ago.
The first paragraph of the fedora-wearing Jonathan's political obituary will surely make reference to his failure to stop a deadly insurgency by the Islamist militants Boko Haram, including his lacklustre response to the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok.
His defeat was welcomed by leading Nigerian author and political commentator Wole Soyinka. "It was inevitable," he said. "The groundswell of discontent was bound to overwhelm the Jonathan group sooner or later.
"Unambiguously, it is good that the Jonathan government has been removed. It was impossible. Even a plunge into the unknown was preferable to what was going on. We were drowning."
Despite his reservations over an ugly election campaign, the Nobel laureate added: "The opposition behaved itself very well and enabled the democratic principle. They fought the good democratic fight and that was very cheering. This business of the right of incumbency, which had been a sickening culture in this country, is finished and that's a marvellous event. So I'm very upbeat about what happened."
The outcome is likely to reverberate across the continent, from South Africa — where the seemingly unassailable African National Congress has held power for 21 years — to countries such as Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe, which critics say pay mere lip service to the concept of opposition politics.
Adekeye Adebajo, a Nigerian academic and executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in South Africa, said: "It really is an incredible achievement in Nigeria's history. In 55 years, no ruling party has allowed itself to be ruled out of power."
He added: "It is an example to the rest of the continent because Nigeria has the biggest economy and biggest population. It sends a message that corruption and security — as in not protecting civilians from Boko Haram — are things that can be punished at the ballot box. If you link accountability to performance, it is very significant."
Emeka Anyaoku, a Nigerian who is a former secretary general of the Commonwealth, said Jonathan's swift concession would reduce the likelihood of violence. "He has demonstrated by that act an uncommon grace and nobility," he told Channels television. "He's done our country proud and I believe has set a worthy example to fellow African countries."
The result follows a series of political upheavals in Africa that, analysts say, suggest incumbents can no longer ignore the will of the people and cling to power indefinitely. In Ivory Coast in 2011, the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to accept election defeat but was eventually removed by force and now awaits trial at the international criminal court.
A year later in Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade exploited a controversial court ruling to seek a third term as president, but protesters took the streets and he was defeated at the ballot box. Most dramatically, last October, Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaoré tried to amend the constitution to extend his 27-year presidential rule but thousands of people took to the streets and stormed parliament, forcing him to flee.
Jeffrey Smith, Africa programme officer at the US-based Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, said: "A Buhari victory is highly significant and a potential watershed moment, not only for Nigeria, but for the entire region. This would, by my count, mark only the eighth time in the history of sub-Saharan Africa that a challenger has unseated an incumbent by means of elections.
"These opposition victories, save for Senegal in 2000, have all come since 2010, which signifies an unprecedented growth of political maturity in the region.
"Of course, Nigeria is, by far, the biggest and most influential example to date, and I think this could potentially have positive effects for the region. There are of course lingering concerns about post-election violence, much like we saw in Ivory Coast in 2010, but thus far, Nigerians should be applauded for the manner in which they have conducted themselves.
"The Nigerian electorate defied the many ominous and foreboding headlines, as well as ongoing domestic strife, and have set a positive example for the region."
Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, said: "I congratulate Muhammadu Buhari warmly on his election victory. I welcome wholeheartedly the statement from president Jonathan conceding the result.
"I also applaud the Nigerian people. It is an extraordinary sign of Nigeria's strength and resilience as a country that there has been this election with its outcome accepted so clearly despite all the challenges Nigeria faces." He added: "It gives all of us who care about Nigeria great optimism and confidence in its future."
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