Nigeria has held its rank and just confirmed its status as an African giant. According to the majority of observers, the elections of 28th and 29th March were carried out in a free, democratic and transparent manner.
General Muhammadu Buhari and his opposition coalition, the All Progressive Congress (APC), have managed to become the first opposition group to win an election, beating an incumbent party which has been in power for more than 15 years, despite most observers predicting a narrow victory for Goodluck Jonathan.
It is only fitting at this point, to give credit to the Nigerian people who turned out in force to vote, braving in certain areas, the menace of Boko Haram; to congratulate General Buhari who achieved the first democratic transfer of power in Nigeria; and finally to praise the dignity of Goodluck Jonathan who sportingly recognised his defeat and congratulated his opponent. This statesman-like attitude will, I hope, distance the spectre of the post-election violence which everyone feared.
How was this change possible?
A change of power, still rare in Africa, is nonetheless, a healthy part of democracy because it prevents on the one hand the overstretching of power and its consequences; and on the other hand, because it is a pledge of stability and good governance by allowing a new group to manage public affairs, bringing in new blood, new ideas and, hopefully, new practices.
Three principle factors have allowed the APC to succeed in their bid for change: a popular desire for change, a united opposition and an independent electoral commission.
- The change
The main focus of Buhari’s victorious campaign was an end to the corruption which has paralysed the country as well as the fight against insecurity. The Nigerian people have clearly voted for a change to the current situation. It’s even more striking as Buhari himself was decisively beaten at the polls by Jonathan in 2011. This transfer of power is therefore, the materialisation of the widespread mistrust of a party worn down by a power which has become characterised by corruption.
- A united opposition
Unity of the opposition is often essential against a ruling party, which has the advantage of its incumbency and is able to root itself firmly throughout the country and gain faithful supporters. The APC was formed in February 2013 through the unification of the three main opposition parties, creating a political organisation sufficiently large in terms of presence and means to become a serious rival to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who had been in power for the last 15 years. More than just a simple grouping of opponents, the APC succeeded in becoming a credible alternative to the outgoing regime. The approach taken centred on the common desire for change, the preparation of a credible programme and the democratic appointment of the best possible candidate to make this change happen.
- An independent electoral commission
The transparency of the process, with voting hard to rig due to biometric readers, was a determining factor. Some people warned of potential fraud during the counting of votes, but the vigilance of the Nigerian people who published results in real-time on Facebook and Twitter, prevented the publication of results which didn’t reflect the truth of the ballot box. The people have thus taken ownership of this election from start to finish with the now famous #nigeriadecides.
Power transfer in Nigeria, is this the first phase of a wider change in Africa?
Every country is unique and has its own particular context but in order for this power transfer to be the start of a wider movement, I think that the three points above are essential.
It seems that throughout Africa there is a profound desire for change by people living on a continent where over half the countries have been led by the same regimes or heads of state for several decades.
However, the opposition must be in a position to offer a credible alternative to these parties so solidly rooted in power. This will happen, most notably, through the creation of well-established coalitions with a real following throughout the country, capable of capitalising on the popular desire for change, whilst bringing the opportunity of new political solutions.
Finally, the independence of electoral institutions from all political influence is of the utmost importance. The success of free and transparent elections is determined by several political and technical stages, in particular, the respect and guarantee of a certain number of rights and freedoms, the reliability of polling cards, the guarantee of a secret vote as well as the security of the transfer and treatment of electoral results.