Last week’s historic Nigerian election result—a first-ever, prospective peaceful transfer of power between civilian political opponents—could strengthen democratization efforts across Africa, according to analysts convened by the U.S. Institute of Peace. And it opens new prospects for the continent’s demographic and economic giant to strengthen governance, clean up corruption, and reverse the spread of the Boko Haram insurgency. The U.S. administration should show support for President-elect Muhammadu Buhari by inviting him to Washington after he takes office, the analysts said.

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But hopes also will depend on this weekend’s elections for governors and assemblies in 29 of Nigeria’s 36 politically powerful states. Those April 11 elections “will be critical,” said John Paden, a Nigeria scholar and international studies professor at George Mason University, in an April 2 forum at USIP.  “If those break down and we take our eye off the conditions there, [Nigeria’s improved] international reputation and goodwill [gained from the presidential vote] could easily be squandered,” said Paden, part of a panel that responded to questions from viewers in a webcast discussion.

A Message to Africa   

The March 28-29 vote for a president and National Assembly was one of Nigeria’s most critical exercises of democracy in the 54 years since the British-forged colony became independent. (The country has been ruled by its military for more than half of that time, more than 29 years.) The race between President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, and Buhari, a former army general and one-time military ruler from the north, was a re-match of the 2011 election, in which rioting over Jonathan’s disputed victory killed 800 people. Especially with this year’s election delayed and hampered by the rebellion in northeastern Nigeria of the Boko Haram insurgency, analysts had warned of more violence.

“I don’t think there’s a large country in Africa that has a better appreciation of the United States and what it stands for than Nigeria.” –Amb. Johnnie Carson

But an impartial performance by Nigeria’s election commission chairman, Attahiru Jega, and the introduction of “smart” voter identity cards carrying voters’ biometric data, helped reduce vote fraud and boost the election’s credibility, said Johnnie Carson, a USIP senior advisor who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2009-2013. After election authorities announced that Buhari had won with 53.9 percent of the vote, Jonathan quickly called his rival to concede defeat—another first in Nigerian national elections.

The Nigerian vote “sends a strong message to the rest of the continent about the workings of democracy,” said Princeton Lyman, a USIP senior advisor and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.

The country’s transfer of power from an incumbent to an opposition leader, scheduled to take place formally on May 29, comes as several African states—including Togo, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso—are preparing their own national elections. A former U.S. special envoy in Africa, Russ Feingold, recently called on Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo to reinforce efforts to ensure that upcoming elections in their states are democratic and seen by their people as legitimate.

Buhari, who overthrew a civilian government in 1983 and headed a military government for 20 months, says he is now a “converted democrat.” His candidacy was his fourth in a Nigerian election, and his victory was the result of several opposition parties uniting over the past two years to form a more powerful, national opposition to Jonathan’s long-dominant People’s Democratic Party.

Nigeria’s New Chance

Buhari won also because many Nigerian voters wanted a change in leadership to halt deep and pervasive corruption, and to reduce poverty and unemployment, said Carson, who co-led an international observation mission during the election. “Expectations for President-elect Buhari are extremely high and he will need to display strong political will to make the reforms he promised,” Carson said.

The past year’s fall in world prices for oil, upon which Nigeria’s economy and government finances depend heavily, will constrict Buhari’s resources but also offer him a unique opportunity to begin the diversification of the economy that can attract investment, Lyman said. But any economic revival will require a broad assault on corruption, the panelists said. Carson suggested that Buhari revitalize and de-politicize Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, established a decade ago.

Buhari’s most immediate challenge will be to confront Boko Haram, first by restoring the effectiveness of Nigeria’s military. The armed forces for years have absorbed nearly a quarter of the federal budget. But the army has wilted since 2009 as Boko Haram has progressively seized a swath of northeastern Nigeria. To make quick advances against the militants before the elections, Jonathan’s government agreed to the deployment of an African Union task force including troops from Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin.

Paden, Carson and Lyman all stressed that Nigeria must avoid over-reliance on a military attempt to suppress Boko Haram. Only a broad approach—including a restored military, a crackdown on corruption, economic development programs, and close cooperation with neighboring states—will undercut the appeal of all militancy to those young Nigerians who see no future for themselves in a wealthy country that is deeply mired in poverty.

“This is not a northern Muslim problem. This is a national, all-of-government, all-of-country, all-of-region problem,” said Paden.  

“One good thing [that] comes out of this election is that the Boko Haram problem is no longer going to be politicized,” notably between political factions in Nigeria’s north and south, Lyman said. “That held up the ability of the country to focus, organize, and deal with it.” The incoming Buhari administration will be better able to “look at it as not just a military problem, but as a broad social and economic one, and to enlist the governors on that behalf,” he said.

This election result challenged traditional notions suggesting that Nigeria’s problems are based primarily on divisions between north and south, or Christian and Muslim populations, panelists said. While religious and ethnic identities remain political factors in the country’s politics, the vote result suggests that, in this election, the key issues—security, corruption and the economy—prevailed over identity politics to define a national aspiration for change, Carson said.

That helps give Nigeria an opportunity to address issues like Boko Haram as one nation, rather than as divided regions, the panelists said. Notably because of a strengthening of civil society organizations, “there are far more institutions and elements pulling Nigeria together today, rather than pulling it apart,” Carson said.

A U.S. Role

The United States should use Nigeria’s democratic milestone as an opportunity to build a strong partnership with Nigeria, and should start by inviting Buhari to Washington, Carson said. The Obama administration could use such a trip to strengthen bilateral cooperation on agriculture, manufacturing, transportation and security, he said. Most importantly, Paden added, American policymakers “should be listening” to their Nigerian counterparts.

“I don’t think there’s a large country in Africa that has a better appreciation of the United States and what it stands for than Nigeria,” Carson told the audience. “Nigeria is fundamentally committed to the same kind of democratic values and principles as the United States and should, in fact, be a strong partner to us in Washington.”

The panel discussion was the latest in a series of projects by USIP and its leaders on Nigeria. In January, USIP Vice President George Moose, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, led a pre-election observation mission to Nigeria. In December, the institute hosted a PeaceGame exercise to analyze the political and security situation before elections.


Other observations by the panelists in the April 2 discussion included:

  • On Nigeria’s successful election. Nigerians “respected Professor Jega, the chair of INEC [the Independent National Election Commission] and believed that he would act in a fair and impartial manner,” said Carson. Despite the challenges of logistics and Boko Haram violence, voters showed “a real sense that the election commission would in fact act responsibly, as it did… and present a good election to the people.” Paden added: “This didn’t happen by accident. … It could have gone in a very different direction.”
  • On Nigeria’s corruption and how Buhari could fight it. Tackling “corruption is going to be hard because so much of it is deeply institutionalized,” said Lyman. “I think he’s got to get at the oil sector,…the procurement process, so he can get good infrastructural investments, … and I would suggest and hope that he also creates maybe an advisory committee from [among] the many Nigerians who have been through this, who are committed and can help him as he takes on these tasks.”
  • On the fall in oil prices and the need to diversify Nigeria’s economy. “The big challenges now facing the president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, [are] largely economic, and in terms of his own deep commitment to ending corruption,” said Lyman. “The economic situation is both severe, but also opens up tremendous opportunities. With the drop in oil prices … even below $50 [per barrel], when they had budgeted at $80, then $70, then $65—this is going to change the capacity of the government and all the state governments. The opportunity is to move away from that degree of dependence on oil revenue” by deliberately diversifying the economy and “opening up opportunities in the private sector.”

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