On March 28, Nigerians made history. On this day, for the first time since the end of colonial rule in 1960, a president was voted out of office not by the barrel of a gun, but by the people through a democratic election. Retired General Muhammadu Buhari, who had a short taste of power in the early 1980s as a military ruler, defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan in a hotly contested presidential election. The election was postponed by six weeks due to the unresolved Boko Haram militants crisis.
Nigeria's democratic track record leaves a lot to be desired. Winners of previous elections were often accused of widespread rigging and vote buying. The 2011 presidential election was overshadowed by violent post-election protests that resulted in more than 800 deaths.
In addition to Nigeria's complex political landscape and questionable democratic track record, its economy has slid into serious trouble given the collapse of oil prices in 2014, highlighting the country's vulnerability to oil price fluctuations.
Against this backdrop, speculation was rife about violent post-election clashes and election rigging and there were even fears of a disintegration of the Fourth Republic. Reports prophesied the worst for the West African giant. One almost got a feeling Africa's most populous country was facing Doomsday and not Election Day.
But Nigerians have proven the world wrong. In an almost anticlimactic twist, the election was conducted in an orderly manner - apart from minor technical glitches, which are venial for a country of Nigeria's size and development levels.
Buhari, the All Progressive Congress candidate who ran his campaign based on the promise to root out corruption and restore peace and security, was declared victorious on April 1, winning by a comfortable margin of about 2.5 million votes. When President Jonathan congratulated his rival [on his victory] on March 31, this single phone call of goodwill is said to have most likely saved Nigeria from post-election conflict and chaos.
The expectations from hardliner Buhari are high. Nigerians yearn for a strong leader who can restore stability and confidence in the economy. But above all, Buhari has been tasked to root out the Boko Haram crisis in Northern Nigeria that has spilled over into neighboring countries and caused instability in the region. The victory of Buhari was arguably a manifestation of the frustration of Nigerians with the incumbent administration. Despite high economic growth during the past decade, socio-economic conditions for the majority of the 170-million population have not improved significantly. Rampant corruption, economic mismanagement, the abuse of public funds, lack of infrastructure development and violent insurgencies have remained key obstacles to improving the lives of the masses in Nigeria.
While, given the mammoth task at hand, it would be naive to expect that President-elect Buhari will change the fortunes of Nigeria overnight, his leadership is hoped to improve the image of the country. Buhari has to work hard to restore trust in government and democratic processes. This may be challenging for a former military ruler, as his short stint at the helm of the country was mired by ruthless persecution of opposition, human rights violations and extrajudicial executions. Yet, he deserves the benefit of the doubt and his image as an incorruptible disciplinarian may work in his favor.
Without a doubt, conducting a largely free and fair election is a remarkable achievement for Nigeria; however, equally important will be a smooth handover of power on May 29 as this will reassure investors of Nigeria's commitment to democratic processes. One of Buhari's key challenges will be to break the economy's over-reliance on the petroleum sector and to transform the tax system in order to reduce the fiscal exposure to oil revenues.
Most certainly, the Buhari administration will attract much scrutiny as the 2015 election has been a watershed moment for Nigeria and arguably, for the region. Buhari has yet to prove that he is able to put Nigeria back on its growth path and that he can live up to the expectations of restoring unity in a country divided along ethnic and religious lines. Yes, Nigeria's 2015 election result is remarkable; however, Nigerians have to ensure that credible elections will not be a one-off event but become a standard feature of the democratic process of the nation. Only by doing so will Nigeria be able to become a respectable partner for political transformation in Africa and regional stability.
(Simon Schaefer is a senior research and strategy analyst at Frontier Advisory)