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From Nigeria's election, lessons for strengthening democracy

Nigeria’s presidential election, held on March 28, has been won and lost. But lessons from it will continue to be analyzed across Africa and the world for the foreseeable future. This is not only because most people (including Nigerians themselves) were pleasantly surprised by the outcome, but also because the election raised issues that demand closer attention by democracy watchers.

It is important to stress that until the very last minute, most Nigerians feared the worst. Virulent rhetoric had dogged the campaigns across party lines, and there were partisan attempts to discredit the electoral management body (INEC) over the distribution of voter cards. The initial date for the presidential election was postponed, purportedly because of insecurity. After the election, a representative of the ruling party tried to disrupt the announcement of the results by seizing the microphone and insisting that his complaints against the election be resolved first. But in the end, reason prevailed and the president conceded defeat.

There is no doubt that the current level of insecurity in northern Nigeria, together with increased recognition of the need to fight corruption with resolute leadership, made General Muhammadu Buhari’s candidacy attractive in this election season, after rejections in 2003, 2007, and 2011. (We have also seen evidence of the resurgent appeal of “strong” leadership in recent elections in Egypt, Israel, and other places.) But there were other decisive factors: The successful merger of three leading opposition parties with regional strongholds to create the All Peoples Congress (APC), which then became a national opposition party; the transparent conduct of APC’s presidential primary, which put forth General Buhari as the presidential candidate and then defied predictions that the merger would fall apart after the primaries; and of course, the “anybody but President Jonathan” mood of the majority.

An unsung but critical factor in the APC victory was the choice of Professor Yemi Osinbajo (whose work the Ford Foundation has supported since 1997) as the vice presidential candidate. Osinbajo brought with him an unusual but highly effective strategy of campaigning in commuter buses and holding town hall meetings in marketplaces, which appealed to the young and old (particularly in the south) and gave General Buhari the national recognition he needed to win.

With the election successfully concluded, it will be challenging to manage the huge expectations it generated, especially among young people who turned out to vote en masse, many of them for the first time. Realizing this, the President-elect and officials of the APC have started moderating and contextualizing the promises they made during the campaigns. In an interview after his victory speech, General Buhari implored Nigerians not to expect sudden miracles following years of destructive policies. He urged them to be patient with the government they helped elect.

But Buhari’s government in waiting knows that it takes more than speeches to reassure the people, and that the steps its takes within its very first weeks and months in power (following inauguration on May 29) will signal its direction and be subject to immediate judgment. The new government will need to assemble a high-quality team, comprised of the most knowledgeable and trustworthy leaders this incredibly diverse country has to offer—not chosen based on patronage considerations. And it will need to waste no time in communicating the policy frameworks and action plans for tackling the urgent issues that were priorities during the campaigns: namely corruption, insecurity, and youth unemployment.

Finally, President Jonathan’s concession and the positive global response it generated underscore the need to create a climate where Africa’s elected leaders voluntarily relinquish power after they complete their terms in office. Through its annual Ibrahim Prize for Excellence in African Leadership, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation recognizes a democratically elected former head of government who left office after completing constitutionally mandated terms and demonstrated exceptional leadership. It is meant to encourage and reward such behavior, yet in almost ten years of existence, only four leaders in Africa have been considered worthy of receiving the prize. African leaders who have left office of their own accord constitute an exclusive club, and much more needs to be done to expand its ranks.

The Ford Foundation supported the work of several organizations that played critical roles in ensuring a credible and peaceful outcome to this election, including the election management body itself and the Kukah Centre for Faith and Leadership, which facilitated the Peace Accord signed by the leading presidential candidates. And we will continue to support organizations that are helping Nigeria make the best of this moment of promise and possibility—including the consortium of NGOs leading the Stop Impunity Now campaign, which is at the forefront of anticorruption and open government advocacy in the country, and those working on security sector governance reform and youth empowerment.

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