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Nigerian opposition leader Buhari wins the presidency: why this is a big deal

Supporters of Nigerian opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari celebrate the result.
Supporters of Nigerian opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari celebrate the result.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
  1. Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria's opposition leader and a former military dictator, has won the country's presidential elections, the BBC reports.
  2. This is a major moment in the history of Nigeria's young democracy: the first time an opposition candidate has ever beaten a sitting president, in this case President Goodluck Jonathan.
  3. There are still fears that the result could be disputed and could potentially lead to violence between Buhari and Jonathan supporters, exacerbating pre-existing tensions along religious and ethnic lines.

Jonathan would be the first Nigerian president to lose office in an election

Nigeria is a young democracy. Since independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, the country has been mostly ruled by military juntas; civilian rule was only restored in 1999.

Since then, no sitting president has ever been kicked out of power by an opposition candidate. Nigerian politicians have often used the power of their office to sway things their way in elections.

If Jonathan leaves office peacefully, it would be a major victory for democracy in a country where elections are often plagued by rampant vote-buying, as well as the use of political thugs to intimidate or even kill rivals and to rig ballots.

How Buhari won

Buhari's All Progressives Congress party ran by uniting several smaller opposition parties together and campaigning against Jonathan's lackluster record on the economy, corruption, and the fight against Boko Haram.

Buhari sought support from dissatisfied voters across Nigeria's diverse ethnic and religious groups, including people who might otherwise have voted for Jonathan's People's Democratic Party.

Jonathan's critics say it has taken him years to fully take on the Boko Haram insurgency that has largely caused suffering to people in the predominantly Muslim north, where Jonathan, a Christian, is less popular. Buhari, as a northerner, was seen by many voters as more likely to end the conflict. His supporters also say his military past would make him a more competent commander in chief.

Nigerians are sick of the corruption that has spiraled under Jonathan — in one example of how bad things have gotten, the central bank chief admitted last year that $20 billion had disappeared from its reserves — and Buhari's strong anti-corruption message appears to have hit home.

Another factor that may have helped Buhari is that this vote appears to have been cleaner than past Nigerian elections. International observers have praised the election, saying new biometric voter ID card readers helped limit fraud.

Why there are fears of violence

In 2011, when Jonathan and Buhari last faced each other in a presidential election, 800 people lost their lives in clashes between their supporters that spiraled into sectarian killings. So far, this week has been largely peaceful, but the concern of a repeat of 2011's violence speaks to the deep divides in Nigerian politics, which overlap along regional, ethnic, and religious lines.

Buhari is a Muslim from Nigeria's north, while Jonathan is a Christian from the south. Support for both men is partly aligned with these regional and religious identities, though not entirely.

"The fault lines of region, ethnicity and religion run deep in Nigeria," Jideofor Adibe writes in a paper for the Brookings Institution. "There is a pervasive fear that the president of the country will abuse the powers of his office to privilege his region, ethnicity or religion — if not to punish or deliberately disadvantage others."

The result certainly appears to be a likely victory for Buhari. But the situation remains a tense one. If Jonathan disputes the result, or if his supporters allege they have been robbed of victory, there are very real fears that violence could break out. If it does not, though, that would be a good sign for democracy in Africa's most populous country.