15/04/2015 8:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Democracy Triumphs In Nigeria: Former Dictator Returns As Elected President

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI via Getty Images
Main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate Mohammadu Buhari speaks after casting his vote at a polling station in the 'Gidan Niyam Sakin Yara A ward' at Daura in Katsina State on March 28, 2015. Voting began in Nigeria's general election but delays were reported countrywide because of technical problems in accrediting electors. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1983, 40-year-old Major General Mohammadu Buhari seized power in Nigeria through a military coup. Within two years Buhari got a taste of his own medicine when he was overthrown in another coup led by his colleague in the army. Today Buhari celebrates as the victor of the March 28 2015 elections in Nigeria getting 15.4 million votes as compared to the 13.3 million that incumbent President Jonathan Goodluck secured. After 32 years and a determined but unsuccessful contest of four elections, the once-dictator is on the way back as President through the ballot.

For the most populous country in Africa and also its largest economy, the results of this Presidential election symbolizes not merely a triumph of democracy, but a fruition of hope of Nigerians that it is their voice that would count and result in peaceful transfer of power at the top.

The 2015 election results reflect what people hoped for but never expected. In my travels through Nigeria over the last four months on work, I had a chance to witness the lively festival-like celebration of the election campaigns of different parties. I also interacted with a wide range of Nigerians. Some strongly backed President Jonathan but most desired change. However, no one believed that the opposition would be allowed to win given the state power and the support of the military with the present government. No one trusted the government to hand over power even if they lost in a country where an opposition party has never come into power.

nigeria elections 2015

The Peoples Democratic Party PDP has been ruling for 16 years since 1999, buttressed by authoritarian use of state power and a co-option of the elite through the spoils system. No incumbent President has lost any election so far. Thus, free and fair elections (and due respect to its outcome) hung as a big question mark throughout the campaign period.

"Free and fair elections (and due respect to its outcome) hung as a big question mark throughout the campaign period."

At one point during the campaign, the election date had to be changed from 14 February to 28 March on the grounds of security. There was huge criticism against the government for this, including reactions from the US and UN. At another point controversy arose over a suggestion that Prof. Attahiru Jega, the respected head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would be replaced thus compromising fair elections.

One should here give all credit to President Jonathan, who after the results from the 36 provinces showed that he was trailing, called Buhari and conceded defeat. Moreover both leaders before elections, under the aegis of international figures like Kofi Annan, had vowed to strive for peaceful elections and also respect the mandate of the people. And indeed this was one of the most peaceful elections in the history of Nigeria. Speaking to the press after victory General Buhari said,"We have proven to the world that we are people who have embraced democracy. We have put one-party state behind us."

Since its independence in 1960 from the British, Nigeria has had a tumultuous history of authoritarian democracy, military coups and civil war. This West African country of 173 million people has strong divisions along ethnic and religious lines.

Even though Nigeria is the sixth largest producer of oil in the world, acute corruption has kept this country in the grips of the resource curse. "Kleptocracy" -- which means that those in power exploit natural resources and steal public money for personal gain -- is an apt definition for the government of Nigeria. A good portion of the oil money goes into the private pockets of a few big men called "Oga" in Nigeria.

"It is expected that Gen Buhari who has the reputation of a no-nonsense efficient administrator and considered personally neat and austere will set Nigeria on the right track."

Apart from leaving its people in poverty and its infrastructure in the pits, corruption has also led to the growth and spread of the militant Boko Haram movement as the military finds itself compromised without adequate resources to counter them, again due to corruption. The current fall in oil prices places Nigeria in a precarious financial position with a bulk of its revenue wiped out. It is expected that Gen Buhari who has the reputation of a no-nonsense efficient administrator and considered personally neat and austere will set Nigeria on the right track.

This victory of the opposition All Progressive Congress APC party in Nigeria is significant in many ways.

- It is a victory for democracy and demonstrates democracy spreading its roots wider in Africa.

- The will of the people prevailed. The ruling dispensation had no other option but to respect the mandate of the people and for the first time in the history of Nigeria hand over power to the opposition.

- People emphatically rejected corruption and misgovernance and have thus lent their voice to expectations of honest and effective governance.

- Peaceful elections have reflected a maturing of the political parties to respect fair democratic processes.

- Nigeria has proved that its own agencies led by the INEC can provide nearly foolproof elections.

- A warning to Boko Haram, which has recently tied up with the ISIS, that Nigerians reject terrorism and that their days under an effective leadership of General Buhari are numbered.

- The international community played a positive role in bringing home to the leaders and political parties the message of peaceful and fair elections.

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