Sometimes, the best thing a leader can do is admit defeat. That’s what I learned from the 2015 Nigeria presidential election, which pitted incumbent Goodluck Jonathan against former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari.
In the months leading up the election, Nigeria was in tumult. Boko Haram was wreaking havoc in the country’s north. The violence was so bad that Jonathan postponed the February elections until April. The heavy military presence in major cities, especially those designated as flash points, had the country on edge. People prepared for unrest by stocking up on food and other provisions. Those who could afford to left the country for fear of violence. In my home city of Calabar, an uneasy calm hung in the air. When Buhari’s victory was announced, the first time in Nigeria’s history that a sitting president had been voted out of office, the world held its breath for the expected backlash.
Then, nothing happened. A collective sigh of relief could practically be heard across the region as Nigeria began its first peaceful transition of power.
An Election to Remember
Nigeria’s democracy is still relatively young, and elections have almost always brought controversy, often precipitating protests and violence that destabilize the country for weeks. A democratic civilian government was established just 16 years ago, replacing a series of military dictatorships that ruled after the country gained independence in 1960. Like many formerly colonized regions, Nigeria has struggled to operate as a cohesive whole given the forced consolidation of different ethnic and religious groups into a single nation under British colonial rule.
In 2011, the presidential election divided the country in half—by politics, geography, and religion—triggering a slew of violence across the northern states that left over 800 people dead. Many worried that no matter what the result of the 2015 vote, violence would erupt somewhere. A victory for Buhari, a northern Muslim representing the All Progressive Congress (APC), could disrupt the oil-producing Niger delta. The re-election of Jonathan, a southern Christian, could reignite violence in the north, similar to the 2011 riots.
This time, however, it was different. Jonathan immediately conceded defeat, accepting the end of both his six-year presidency and the 16 years of leadership of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). “Nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian,” the former president said in a statement released after the election results were announced. “The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else.” Surprising many, Jonathan asked his supporters to accept the outcome and conveyed his best wishes to Buhari, who was sworn into office at the end of May.
The 2015 election also offers some hope that Nigeria’s irreconcilable religious divides might yet be converted into a culture of national unity. Buhari, a Muslim, secured northern support while also making inroads in the southwestern states, due to the formidable coalition that gave birth to the APC. His campaign pledges, to fight corruption and quell the Boko Haram insurgency that has terrorized the country since 2011, transcended geographic and religious alliances.
Political Progress, Not Perfection
This election marked another important step for the Nigerian political system: the integration of technology into the polling process as a way to prevent corruption. The Independent National Electoral Commission introduced the permanent voter card, which used biometric data to reduce the risk of ballot stuffing and fraud endemic in previous elections. With permanent voter cards in hand, people felt more certain their vote would count. This was progress, but the process was far from perfect. Many of the card readers did not work as expected and voters had to wait in line for hours to cast their votes. When card readers failed to work altogether, polling stations resorted to manual voting, causing unprecedented delays in the release of results.
Some Nigerians claimed that these technical failures meant the elections were still not free and fair. But Jonathan’s quick concession allayed these concerns. His swift acceptance of defeat surprised Nigerians and media across the globe that predicted he might try to exert his influence to stay in power. Though he was not a perfect leader—his presidency was clouded by accusations of corruption and weak responses to Boko Haram—Jonathan’s willingness to accede to the democratic process was an important act of leadership for Nigeria and Africa. His concession set a precedent for the continent’s political leaders and may encourage more democratic transitions of power elsewhere. In some ways, being the first Nigerian president successfully voted out of office may be his greatest achievement. What’s more, choosing to leave office graciously, and with a statement of peace and purpose, reinforces that the country’s leaders should value the good of the country more than personal gain.
Over the past decade, Nigeria has struggled to live up to its full potential. Though it is Africa’s largest economy, faltering oil prices have underscored the risks of fossil fuel dependence. The Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed nearly 18,000 people and which continues to gain traction in northern states, is growing. As a country rich in both natural resources and determined individuals, Nigeria is in a unique position to lead the region, yet to do so requires an authentic leader who can overcome corruption, guarantee security, and invest in strengthening the country’s economy and infrastructure. Buhari is well-positioned to lead. He has the trust of the people, charisma, and an honest reputation. Yet, Nigerians will not easily forget Buhari’s militaristic past, characterized by repressive and unlawful governing tactics. While he has reconciled some of his past indiscretions, being democratically elected President does not automatically mean Buhari will be a good leader. Choosing to lead collaboratively, transparently, and authentically will be critical to enacting the positive political and economic change Nigerians so desperately seek.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Florian Plaucheur
Ann Oden is the Nigerian Country Director for PYXERA Global. Ann has over 20 years of experience in international development, most recently with USAID Nigeria where she served as Senior Program Management Specialist for Education. Prior to that, Ann held posts with the Department for International Development and Cross River State Government. Ann is also a renowned gender rights activist and advocate with a track record of successful work with international development agencies, NGOs, and community-based organizations in Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the United States.