May 30, 2008, 6:27 AM
The victory of opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria’s presidential election could mark a turning point toward genuine democracy for the country, improving the image and moral standing of Africa’s troubled giant.
The defeat of President Goodluck Jonathan, whose People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has run Africa’s most populous nation since it returned to civilian rule in 1999, was the first time a Nigerian head of state lost power to an opposition challenger through the ballot box.
“It’s not the result that we wanted but it’s a good day for Nigeria if we show the world we can run a credible election,” said a minister in Jonathan’s government, who did not wish to be named because others in the PDP were angry about the result.
Jonathan telephoned Buhari on Tuesday to congratulate him on winning this weekend’s election, a spokesman for Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) said.
Now Africa’s biggest economy, Nigeria has nevertheless been held back by the legacy of three decades of army misrule: a mix of corruption, weak institutions, political, ethnic and religious violence, and a dearth of infrastructure.
Nigeria accounts for about one in six Africans and a fifth of African GDP, giving it huge potential influence on the continent and beyond, but instead for decades it has been a by-word for corruption and chaos.
It ranks 136th out of 174 on Transparency International’s index of perceived corruption, a problem that affects Nigerian society from top to bottom and cannot be turned around overnight, even by the austere Buhari.
Nevertheless, a transfer of power from one political party to another, achieved through voting rather than violence, is a marked improvement on previous elections since 1999 which were widely believed to have been rigged in favour of the PDP.
“It will help reinforce perceptions across the continent that the old ways are much harder to get away with,” said Antony Goldman, a business consultant with high-level contacts in Nigeria. He highlighted the role of voters armed with mobile phones and Internet connections in preventing vote-rigging.
While the challenge in turning Nigeria around is as daunting as ever, it would be a positive outcome if the ruling class no longer felt it could stay in power regardless of performance, analysts said.
“In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.”