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The significance of the Nigerian election results go way beyond Nigeria

Nigeria managed last week to cut through problems of political culture and sectarian tension that have helped to hold many African countries back for years.

Supporters of the presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressive Congress party celebrate in Kano on March 31.
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

The headlines out of Africa this past week seemed distressingly familiar. Early Thursday morning, five gunmen from the Somali extremist group Shabab attacked a college in northeast Kenya. One of their first targets was a Christian prayer group. 

When the killing ended 11 hours later, 147 students and four attackers were dead. 

From Pakistan to Nigeria and on to Kenya, schools — places of hope in some of the world’s poorest countries — appear to have become a newly favored ‘soft’ target for Islamic militant groups.  But as abhorrent as this latest bloodshed was, it may not have been the most significant story in Africa last week. 

Across the continent in Nigeria, a country of huge potential and chronic disarray, election results made it clear there will be a change of leadership. For the first time in Nigeria’s nearly 55 years as an independent country, voters threw out a government – mostly because it performed poorly. Rather than alleging fraud or promising a fight, the defeated incumbent conceded. Not only that, but the loser was from the Christian south while the victor was from the Muslim north, a former military man who promised to crush the Islamic insurgency that has raged there for years. 

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There are plenty of questions about incoming president, Muhammadu Buhari, and daunting problems face him. But Nigeria managed last week to cut through problems of political culture and sectarian tension that have helped hold many African countries back for years. It’s safe to say the rest of the continent was watching closely.

In Kenya, the recriminations started almost immediately over the attack. Why was security so poor at a college near the Somali boarder where many of the students were Christians? Why wasn’t security strengthened after reports emerged of an impending attack? Why did it take so long for a nearby army unit to arrive? And why did it take the arrival of a crack police unit many hours later to finally end the bloodshed? 

Those are the kinds of competence-based criticisms that ultimately doomed the re-election bid of Nigerian incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. Voters rightly wanted to know why his government didn’t seem to have a strategy, and the ham-fisted army no capability to defeat Boko Haram, which captured territory and spread terror in northern Nigeria, including kidnapping scores of schoolgirls who are still missing. 

Only in recent months — with the election looming — did armies of Nigeria’s neighbors get involved, and the country’s own military started making some progress. Boko Haram has lost a lot of ground. It turned out to be too late for Jonathan’s political career, but his decision to concede rather than fight the result may ultimately be far more important for his country. His decision almost certainly saved lives that would have been lost in post-election violence.

Buhari was Nigeria’s military ruler briefly more than 30 years ago, gaining a reputation as inflexible and incorruptible.  Some worried that he had a radical Islamist agenda — a fear that seemed to dissipate after an apparent attempt by Boko Haram last year to assassinate him. 

Buhari will have to try to ensure that officials in Jonathan’s government don’t loot the treasury on their way out the door, and that his team doesn’t start filling its pockets the moment they walk in. He will have to find a way to compensate for the low price of oil, on which Nigeria depends for so much of its income. And voters who wanted a no-nonsense former military many in charge will want to see him make good on his promise to destroy Boko Haram.

That’s likely to be difficult. And this is where Kenya’s bitter experience this past week is instructive. Groups like Boko Haram and Shabab often become more violent and unpredictable, even as their military capabilities decline. Shabab has suffered many defections and deaths — from military action by a somewhat stronger Somali government, from Kenya and other African countries who have forces on the ground in Somalia, and by U.S. airstrikes.

But the goal of terror attacks is to make a disproportionate impact compared to the attackers’ numbers, and compared to the government’s ability to respond. It only takes a handful of attackers to leave a horrendous trail of bloodshed. 

Even if Buhari can beat back Boko Haram, and make his country function more efficiently, it’s unlikely he can completely eliminate its attacks. Some probably will be sensational.

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The same is true for Kenya. Sharper security work may have prevented Thursday’s attack on Garissa University College, but couldn’t ensure that other attackers elsewhere wouldn’t be able to slip through the net. In the meantime, Kenya authorities, like those in Nigeria and so many other countries, stand accused of abusing people in the name of security.

It’s worth noting the words of the BBC’s Mary Harper about Shabab fighters after a trip to Somalia last year: “Like mosquitoes, they will sting where it hurts and will be difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate.”

What governments can do is prevent as many attacks as possible, and give citizens competent government that treats them fairly while focusing on broad improvements in their daily lives.

That would be progress in Africa — and just about anywhere else.