Africa Watch

The Nigerian Presidential election – hope and apprehension

Muhammadu Buhari (72)
Muhammadu Buhari.jpg

Nigeria’s presidential election has been described by some as Africa’s “Berlin Wall moment” – only time will tell if it is a justified appraisal.

The euphoria that erupted in Nigeria when former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari (72), after three failed attempts, successfully defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, is captivating.

The euphoria is not limited to the millions of poor Nigerians hoping that the new administration will change their fortunes. It has also caught the imagination of the international community, with many analysts predicting a new and bright future for Africa’s biggest economy and most populous country.

Boost for democracy

For the first time since democracy was reintroduced in 1999 after years of military rule, an opposition party, the All Peoples Congress (APC),  has defeated the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

The grace with which President Jonathan acknowledged and accepted defeat not only showed mature statesmanship and earned him a lot of praise, it constitutes a much-needed boost to further galvanise democracy in Nigeria and across Africa. 

The successful completion of the election also signified a serious setback for Boko Haram. 

Threats by Boko Haram initially delayed the election, originally scheduled for 14 February 2015. It also promised to thwart any further attempts to have elections. 

Despite some violence and bombings, Boko Haram failed in its undertaking and was delivered a telling psychological blow with Buhari elected as president.  

Daunting challenge

How long the euphoria will last, is anyone’s guess and President Buhari is facing a daunting challenge – one much more intense than the one after he took power in 1983’s military coup.

Nigeria has to grapple with the indiscriminate violence and anarchy perpetrated by Boko Haram, serious economic woes and flourishing corruption. Transparency International ranks Nigeria 136 out of 175 states in terms of perceptions of corruption.

During his campaign Buhari promised to resolve these challenges, a feat none of his predecessors could accomplish. Some critics remain sceptic, pointing out that Buhari remained vague during his campaign on how he would take Nigeria forward.

Neither did he properly address the drop in oil income, the underdevelopment of alternative productive sectors, and the huge gap between rich and poor.

He also failed to explain how he would improve the lack of development in the northern states that voted overwhelmingly for him, which might leave him with an expectation deficit.

Nigeria is notoriously difficult to govern, given the complexities that prevail in a highly diverse and divided country.  

Buhari does not have time on his side and he will have to hit the ground running after his inauguration on 29 May 2015.

Expectations are high and failure to deliver on election promises within a short period of time can soon cost him the goodwill of those who voted him into office.

Boko Haram

Although they could prove a tough nut to crack, President Buhari’s first priority and ostensibly easiest challenge might still be the defeat of Boko Haram.

Military action against Boko Haram to date has been deplorable, probably because it had clear connections to elements in the Jonathan government. 

Combined with a lack of political will and commitment, it allowed Boko Haram the leeway to cause havoc. It killed more than 7 000 civilians in the past year alone and displaced over three million more while consolidating control over large swathes of north-eastern Nigeria.

President Buhari has to take the fight to Boko Haram. Nigeria has the manpower and military hardware to obliterate Boko Haram. As an ex-military man and a Muslim he is well-prepared to dislodge Boko Haram and can rely on international, continental and regional support. 

It is yet unclear whether the ex-South African military personnel, recently deployed by the Jonathan administration to help fight Boko Haram as part of a bigger international contingent with apparently noticeable success, will stay on as part of the new president’s plans to round up Boko Haram.


To improve the ailing economy will be a much bigger challenge. As long as the oil price, the mainstay of the Nigerian economy and responsible for about three-quarters of its revenue, remains under pressure, the Buhari administration will find it extremely difficult to generate the necessary funds to inject into the economy, improve an inadequate infrastructure, create jobs and fix an extremely unreliable and erratic electricity system.


Even more difficult will be any attempt to stamp out corruption.

President Buhari’s disdain for corruption is well-known, proven by his heavy-handed anti-corruption drive after the 1983 military coup.  

As a democratically elected president he will find it much more challenging to curb corruption within the confines of the law, as opposed to being able to act almost without any constraints as military dictator.

As one commentator wrote: “He will try to rein in corruption, though his chances of success are hard to gauge. Nigerian corruption has become, at its highest levels, extremely sophisticated and technologized. Corruption, in short, works, and making it not work will be harder than it looks.”

To win the election required horse trading and trade-offs on a massive scale, incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with Nigerian party politics. If President Buhari should commit himself to fight corruption he will enter a political minefield. Sooner rather than later he will alienate and infuriate individuals and interest groups that were vital to his election victory.

To break the shackles of corruption will require unsurpassed courage. Only time will tell if President Buhari was as good as his promise.     

by Garth Cilliers

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