Ten Thoughts on Nigerian President-Elect Buhari’s Victory

Nigeria held national elections over the weekend. As results came through over the past few days, it became clear that General Muhammadu Buhari had defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. The incumbent formally conceded yesterday. I have a few thoughts:

  1. This is a good outcome. It marks the first transfer of power from one civilian party to another at the national level in Nigeria. It strengthens the reputation and credibility of national institutions, particularly the Independent National Electoral Commission, at a time when many Nigerians and international audiences were nervous about the possibility of manipulation, fraud, and violence. I will also say forthrightly that I think Buhari and his team will do a better job than Jonathan and his circle. Nigeria’s problems are not all Jonathan’s fault, but for most of his time in office the key problems (Boko Haram, corruption, inequality) worsened. Buhari is not perfect, but I think the sophistication his team showed on the campaign trail suggests a higher level of competence than was seen under Jonathan.
  2. This outcome surprised me. For over a year, I’ve been telling people in private that I thought the power of incumbency would allow Jonathan’s circle to ensure that they won, including through manipulation. I also thought that Buhari’s reputation as an anti-corruption fighter would make Nigerian elites broadly nervous about the idea of him coming to power, and that enough of them would cling to Jonathan that it would prevent a Buhari victory. About a month ago my tune changed to uncertainty about what would happen, but I certainly did not foresee a clear and mostly peaceful victory for Buhari. I underestimated the strength of Nigeria’s institutions and the determination of the country’s voters. Also, credit where credit is due: various voices predicted a Buhari win, with varying degrees of accuracy in terms of state-by-state forecasts – see New Africa MagazineEurasia Group, and Damina Advisors.
  3. For Buhari, the map and the strategy changed from 2011 to 2015 – it’s not just “north versus south.” Compare the maps from 2011 (when Jonathan also faced Buhari) and 2015. It’s clear that this time Buhari put together a mostly national coalition, or perhaps became the face of a coalition that harnessed his personal popularity, or perhaps both. In any case, what put Buhari in contention was the support he had from influential politicians in the southwest, symbolized by his running mate Yemi Osinbajo and personified by his party’s informal leader, former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu. Southwestern politicians provided not just the votes, but also much of the new strategic thinking that helped Buhari appear to the nation and the world as a candidate ready for prime-time and the big chair (one example of a strategic decision was when his party, the All Progressives Congress or APC, declined to violently protest the six-week postponement of the elections). For his part, Jonathan was unsuccessful in making backroom deals that would restore the southwest to his column. And if the southwest put Buhari in contention, it was the “Middle Belt” or North Central zone that helped put him over the top – winning places like Kwara, Kogi, and Benue testifies both to Jonathan’s unpopularity and to the APC’s success in uniting the opposition and extending its reach into new areas of the country.
  4. Boko Haram was one issue in the election, but not the only issue. Most important, in addition to the opposition’s coalition-building, was Buhari’s image as an anti-corruption reformer. Many Nigerians say that corruption is the core problem in their country, underlying all others – even the problem of Boko Haram, insofar as corruption hamstrings the armed forces and helps provide Boko Haram with talking points. One test for Buhari will be whether he lives up to that image. He will have to strike a delicate balance between showing progress and not alienating necessary allies – so many people have a vested interest in the current system of corruption that it will take creativity and courage to chart a viable path forward on this issue.
  5. Boko Haram’s violence is not as closely calibrated to the political calendar as many people think, nor does the group show evidence of being able to think and plan at a national level. There were some attacks during the voting this year, notably in Bauchi, but they did not severely disrupt the elections. If I were Abubakar Shekau, I would have organized coordinated bombings in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt, Jos, and Maiduguri on election day – a move that I think would have dominated headlines and thrown many voters into a panic. Perhaps Shekau was capable of doing something like that but chose not to, opting to save resources for a later time or to avoid the unpredictable consequences that such attacks could have had for the elections. But to me the lack of well-coordinated and far-reaching attacks on election day suggests that (a) Boko Haram is neither as strong nor as sophisticated as many people think; (b) Boko Haram is and has long been an essentially northeastern group with a limited ability to strike outside that zone; and (c) Boko Haram is under severe pressure from Chadian, Nigerien, and Nigerian forces. It’s also worth recalling that despite all Boko Haram’s talk about hating democracy, the group has never tightly linked its actions to the political calendar. In 2011, for example, it concentrated on assassinating northeastern politicians associated with a former political ally. In general, Boko Haram’s attacks follow a particular logic – one driven by the group’s need to survive and its ambitions to rule the northeast. On the other hand, Boko Haram’s attacks became much more dramatic after the 2011 elections. What they will do now remains to be seen.
  6. One major question will be to what extent Buhari’s party, the APC, can bring a coherent economic vision to federal policymaking, particularly in a period of low oil prices. Two sub-questions are: (a) to what extent will southwestern APC politicians seek to replicate the model they have built in Lagos, where they have emphasized tax collection and service delivery over reliance on oil rents? and (b) to what extent will Buhari seek to implement the policies outlined by Tinubu here, where he talked about running deficits to finance job-creating infrastructure projects? In my view, both moves would be good. If the APC doesn’t create jobs, it will be in big trouble politically.
  7. Buhari’s win testifies to the importance of patience for African opposition candidates. Buhari’s victory reminds many observers of Abdoulaye Wade’s victory over Abdou Diouf in the Senegalese alternance of 2000. Wade ran unsuccessfully against Diouf (and his predecessor Leopold Senghor) four times before he won on the fifth attempt, just as Buhari unsuccessfully ran three times against the People’s Democratic Party (Jonathan’s party, which has ruled Nigeria since the civilian transition of 1999) before winning on his fourth attempt. The message to other African opposition leaders seems clear: you have to build support over multiple elections and outlast the ruling party until popular discontent leaves the incumbents no choice but to bow to the will of the voters.
  8. More mathematically-inclined minds than my own will be poring over the numbers and will have more sophisticated comments to make, but already there has been some speculation about whether the 2015 results call into question any of the 2011 results. 2011 was hailed as one of the best elections Nigeria ever had, but there are questions about the integrity of the numbers, especially high turnout and high Jonathan margins in the South East and the South South (Jonathan is from the latter zone). In any case it seems 2015 was an improvement over 2011 in terms of transparency and integrity.
  9. There is a generation of Nigerian men, born in the 1930s and 1940s, who have decisively shaped Nigeria’s postcolonial trajectory. They include Yakubu Gowon, Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida, T.Y. Danjuma, and Buhari. Buhari’s win reflects the continued influence of that generation, but this decade may be the last where they are still so prominent. The 2020s will likely see the torch decisively passed to a new generation of politicians who did not serve in the military and were born after, or just shortly before, independence.
  10. Don’t forget that state elections are coming up on April 11. The outcomes of those elections will matter tremendously for Nigeria, and will shape the political futures of major states (Lagos, Kano, Rivers, etc.) whose populations sometimes exceed those of many entire African countries.

What do you think of the elections?

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