Milestone for African democracy

Nigerians pick up the morning's newspapers at a street stall in Kano, Nigeria Wednesday, April 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Last weekend’s election in Nigeria looked to be on shaky grounds, but it has turned out to be a major milestone for democracy in Africa. The joy of the Nigerian people at the outcome was a vivid demonstration of the power of democracy to bring about desired change.

For the first time, Africa’s most populous nation has had a peaceful change of power from one party to another. President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party failed to win re-election by more than 2.5 million votes. It was the first time since the PDP came to power in 1999, replacing a military dictatorship, that it had lost an election.

There was widespread concern that the election would be rigged to President Jonathan’s advantage, but the voting overcame any advantages he was able to exploit.

Mr. Jonathan forced the postponement of the elections for six weeks to allow time for a belated Nigerian army offensive against the Boko Haram terrorist group in northeast Nigeria.

Then, on Monday, as vote counting began, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond issued a highly unusual warning that they had received “disturbing indications” that the vote tally “may be subject to deliberate political interference.”

But UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and several former African presidents representing other international organizations that formally observed the elections said they were conducted fairly, and the outcome was not altered by any interference that may have taken place in the vote count.

The winner with 54 percent of the vote was Mohammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress, a stern former military dictator whose administration was notable for its absence of graft and its insistence on strict discipline. (He required civil servants who showed up late for work do frog jumps as punishment.)

It was clear from this choice that a majority of Nigerians were fed up with the performance of President Jonathan on two issues: the feckless performance of the army in fighting Boko Haram and establishing order in the northeast, and industrial-scale corruption in the PDP-led government. Gen. Buhari, who ruled for 20 months in the mid-1980s, has vowed to defeat Boko Haram in the near term.

President Jonathan’s close circle of advisers, from the Christian south, tried to brand Gen. Buhari, a Muslim, as a supporter of Boko Haram, but most Nigerians, including many Christians, were not buying this slander. Nevertheless, Mr. Jonathan carried most Christian areas of Nigeria, setting up a potential conflict that will challenge the new government.

But in a gesture that greatly relieved tensions, Mr. Jonathan called Gen. Buhari to congratulate him on his victory and issued a statement saying, “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word.” In calling for his followers to cooperate with the new government, he added, “The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else.”

For his part Gen. Buhari praised Mr. Jonathan as a “worthy opponent” and said, “He will receive nothing but understanding, cooperation and respect from me and my team.”

The new president, as well as the departing one, both praised Nigerians for their participation in the election, the winner saying, “It is you, Nigerians, that have won,” by showing “love for our nation and ... belief in democracy.”