by Eric Stimson
After 16 years of political instability in Nigeria, the election of the country’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, appears to signify more of a blessing than a curse.
This past March, voters in Nigeria went to the polls and elected Muhammadu Buhari, a former president, to replace Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent since 2010. This might not seem particularly transformative on the face of it—Buhari has run for office three times before—but Buhari’s victory was met with ecstatic celebration across Nigeria’s north and acclaim from the international media.
In fact, many are now hopeful that the newly elected leadership can convincingly address Nigeria’s many problems and create a new dawn for the country. What makes Buhari—a former military dictator who accomplished little in his time in office—such a savior?
To understand why, it’s helpful to understand Nigeria’s past. Nigeria is a prime example of a country created entirely through colonialism. It can be divided into three main sectors by their predominant religious and ethnic groups: the north, mostly Muslim and dominated by the Hausa and Fulani; the southwest, mostly Christian and dominated by the Yoruba; and the southeast, also Christian and dominated by the Igbo.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British united these very different regions and made Nigeria their imperial bastion in West Africa. Lingering ethnic tensions exploded in 1960, when Nigeria gained its independence, and eventually brought civil war in 1967–70. Since then, Nigeria has mostly been under military rule. Its fortunes have been mixed, but, for the most part, ethnic and religious rivalry subsided after the war, thanks in large part to swift and strict action by the army in the event of any outbreak.
In 1999, Nigeria transitioned to a democratic system. The new millennium saw an oil boom and economic reform in the south, while the north saw little progress. Instead, it has turned more and more to Islam. This culminated in the rise of the terrorist group Boko Haram, which started as a conservative Islamic movement but developed into a vicious insurgency by the 2010s. Due to completely inept government responses, it now has effective control of two states in the northeast.
By the time of this year’s election, there was a growing sense that Nigeria stood at a crossroads. Would it continue as an economic giant and regional power while neglecting most of its people and tolerating the expansion of Islamic extremist groups? Or would it forge a more unified identity, defeat Boko Haram, and do more to improve economic prospects in the north?
The election, unsurprisingly, pitted a Muslim candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, against a Christian, the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. Muhammadu Buhari had previously taken power in a military coup in 1983. He is primarily remembered for instilling discipline in his soldiers and throwing dissidents in jail before he was himself jailed by a rival general in 1985. On the other hand, he is now well regarded for living modestly, his humble manner, and pushing hard against corruption. He promised to follow the constitution and chose a Christian, Yemi Osinbajo, as his running mate.
As for Goodluck Jonathan, he had been elected in 2007 as vice president. In 2010, he became president after the sitting president, a Muslim, died. Many Nigerian Muslims resented Jonathan when he was reelected in 2011 because there had been an understanding when democracy was restored in 1999 that the ruling party, the People’s Democrats, would alternate between Christian and Muslim candidates. He further disappointed them by neglecting the north and doing very little to combat Boko Haram. Moreover, corruption flourished under his rule: $20 billion was stolen from the central bank, and its governor was fired for revealing this to the public. One of the big reasons Boko Haram has done so well is that middlemen chew up the army’s funds, leaving few weapons and little equipment for the soldiers on the front lines.
Nonetheless, it was generally predicted that Jonathan would win reelection, given the chaos in the north, his party’s unbroken grip on power, and a long history of election fraud. But they were proven wrong. The date was delayed from February 14 to March 28 to give the army time to clear out Boko Haram and secure polling areas in the northeast—which secured more votes for Buhari. Rich Christians, tired of the rampant corruption and terrible government services, voted for Buhari as well—Lagos and the rest of Yorubaland were in his camp. Fraud and election violence were kept to a minimum. In the end, the result was not close: 54 percent for Buhari vs. 45 percent for Jonathan.
This represents a potential turning point for Nigeria because Buhari’s opposition party, the All Progressives Congress, will take power for the first time and Jonathan peacefully conceded defeat—not a guarantee by any means in Africa. After 16 years, it looks like Nigeria could safely turn a corner onto the road to stable politics.
Whether Buhari can solve all of Nigeria’s problems is unclear; there are many. Corruption is deeply embedded and as bad as anywhere else in the world. Many northerners are still unsure of whether Boko Haram is worse than the army. Most Nigerians are desperately poor and uneducated. Religious intolerance shows no sign of abating. A simmering secessionist conflict in southeast Nigeria, which Jonathan had tamed, might boil again, especially with oil prices decreasing. Infrastructure like roads and electricity continue to be in a terrible state.
But Nigeria also has some of the biggest potential in Africa. It dominates West Africa and casts a shadow across the whole continent with its booming economy, vibrant mass media, and huge population of over 170 million. Its people are considered entrepreneurial and ambitious, even arrogant. In many ways it encapsulates the contradictions of Africa as a whole. For a country with entirely artificial origins, Nigeria’s prospects for unity and prosperity have never looked brighter.
Eric Stimson is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in History. He serves as the Editor for YPFP’s Programming Department. For more of his takes on foreign affairs, see his blog at Transnational Topics.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.