For months, there were doubts that Nigeria would survive 2015. Headlines fixated on the winds of Boko Haram’s terrorism combining with the ethnic and religious tensions that divide the north and the south to create a storm of rampant violence that would tear the country apart.
But over the weekend, Nigeria, a country of 170 million, gave the world a largely peaceful and credible election, with its most transparent vote to date. Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) of the All Progressives Congress defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party for the Presidency.
This election represents the first time since 1999, when Nigeria returned to civilian democracy, that an opposition party has defeated a sitting government party. Jonathan, whose party had never lost an election under civilian democracy, has seen his national popularity and international image plummet over his administration’s struggles to contain Boko Haram as well as his failures on tackling corruption and the economy.
This is also the first time that Nigeria used biometric card-reading technology, to help cut back on vote fraud and rigging. Though there were hiccups and malfunctions — even Jonathan couldn’t get accredited electronically at first, and there were reports that polling agents didn’t remove the protective film from touch screens — these instances did not dramatically alter the outcome of the vote. Also, Nigeria’s Transition Monitoring Group used “Quick Count” statistical verification methodology and confirmed that the results were accurate.
This election challenges the notion of Nigeria’s ills as based on North vs. South, Christian vs. Muslim divides. Buhari, a Muslim northerner, made inroads into states that went for Jonathan, who is Christian and from the south. Tolu Ogunlesi explains brilliantly how Nigeria’s political geography is much more complicated and adds: “Across Nigeria, issues ranging from electricity shortages to armed robbery are much higher on the list of everyday concerns than religious differences. It’s not unheard of for Christians in northern Nigeria to pursue complaints against Muslims in Shariah courts, knowing that justice will often be swifter than in conventional tribunals.”
Of course, this is not to say that religion and ethnic identities don’t factor into political outcomes. But perhaps this time, the issues prevailed over identity as the national desire for change, for solutions to Boko Haram’s terrorism, deeply entrenched corruption, economic woes and youth unemployment, was made clear. Nigerians lined up for hours to await registration and then to cast their votes. Images of Nigerians made homeless by Boko Haram waiting patiently to register and vote is inspiring to many of us who take our own democracy for granted.
Too often, the expectation is that Africa elections go hand in hand with chaos and violence. Yes, the elections were far from perfect, and yes, violence did occur. The country must still manage a peaceful transition of power from Jonathan’s party to Buhari’s. But the big story for the world today is that Nigeria proved that conducting elections takes practice, and the country’s election this past weekend now stands as a positive example for democracy for the rest of the African continent.
*Karen Attiah works in The Washington Post’s Editorial department