Nigeria is the winner, West Africa, too!

Nigeria's new broom
Nigeria’s new broom

Today’s post is by Julia Wanjiru of the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat

During the past weeks, analysts continuously warned about Nigeria’s high-risk elections. The initial poll date was postponed by three weeks in response to security concerns in the three Boko Haram plagued northeastern states. All land and sea borders were closed three days before the contest; expatriates and well-off Nigerians carefully moved their families out of the country, anxious about possible post-electoral violence. But in the end, Africa’s most populous country and number 1 economy managed to organise peaceful elections, which were internationally recognised as “free and fair” and led to the first democratic transition in Nigeria’s history.

Many Nigerians, including those in the diaspora who closely watched the event, were relieved when President Goodluck Jonathan recognised his defeat. On 31 March at 5:15pm, he called his challenger Major-General Muhammadu Buhari to congratulate him, almost nine hours before the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, formally declared Buhari winner of the poll. “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word. […] nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian. The unity, stability and progress of our dear country are more important than anything else,” President Jonathan declared. This early statesmanlike decision to accept the result undoubtedly contributed to avoiding post-electoral violence.

Religious and ethnic affiliations have always played an important role in Nigerian politics. However, all major political parties cover the whole territory and are comprised of Christians and Muslims alike. Within the powerful People’s Democratic Party (PDP) which has governed the country for the past 16 years, a rotating system was established alternating power between a northern Muslim president supported by a southern Christian vice-president and vice versa. In the eyes of many northern Nigerians, this informal power-sharing agreement was broken when acting President Goodluck Jonathan (the first Ijaw president coming from one of the southern Niger Delta minority groups) was elected president in 2011 (see the 2011 interview with Nigerian Ambassador to France). His decision to run for president again in 2015 was perceived as provocation by many PDP party members. With the Katsina State-born new president, power is shifting back to the Muslim-dominated North, re-establishing a certain sense of justice in the eyes of some.

Can Buhari’s victory be seen as a revenge of the Muslim North against the Christian South? Not really. The election results seem to show that the role of ethnic, religious and geographic factors is gradually shrinking. The 2015 election results map indicating the winning parties by state illustrates that the North-South divide is less marked than in the 2011 elections when President Jonathan won with a comfortable majority against Buhari.


These results must be nuanced and interpreted against the backdrop of a very low voter turnout (43.6%) which had a major impact on the PDP results. Almost ten million people who cast their votes in the 2011 elections, decided not to participate in the 2015 poll. While Buhari was able to gain the confidence of 3.2 million additional voters, the incumbent president lost almost ten million votes compared to the 2011 elections.

The PDP results map reveals that even during the 2011 elections the presumed North-South divide was less strong in reality. President Jonathan was able to gather wide support across the nation. He won between 30 to 50% of votes in six northern states, notably in the populous state of Kaduna where the PDP garnered the support of 1.19 million people (46.3% of votes).

PDP results

Similarly, this time, the same opposition candidate, Buhari attracted strong support from southern Nigerians. His newly formed All Progressives Congress party (APC) won in eight traditionally PDP southern strongholds. The most striking example comes from the megacity Lagos where the PDP lost for the first time in its history. This new voting behaviour is further leveraged by influential opinion leaders (e.g. former president Obasanjo) and religious figures who publically distanced themselves from the current government. For example, a Catholic priest openly called for a vote for Buhari: “I don’t care if Buhari is a Muslim and from the North; all I care about is that Buhari can save Nigeria”, he said.

Nigerians largely voted for change. Buhari’s “vote for positive change” slogan convinced many Nigerians who are hoping to put an end to corruption, poverty and the Islamist insurgency in the North. In his acceptance speech, Buhari made a strong commitment: “I assure all foreign governments that Nigeria will become a more forceful and constructive player in the global fight against terrorism and in other matters of collective concern, such as the fight against drugs, climate change, financial fraud, communicable diseases and other issues requiring global response. I want to assure our fellow African nations that Nigeria will now stand as a more constructive partner in advancing the matters of concern to our continent, particularly with regard to economic development and eradication of poverty.”

Beyond Nigeria, West Africa is a winner too. Nigeria has a major impact on the whole West African region far beyond its immediate neighbours. A large part of West African economic activity is concentrated in Nigeria. Cross-border activities closely link Niger to the Hausa economy; Benin and Togo benefit from the vitality of the economic and commercial capital of Lagos and Ibadan. Cameroon and Chad’s trade are also strongly oriented towards the Nigerian market. Nigeria is increasingly making investments in the franc zone, particularly in the banking sector. As West Africa’s largest military power it has historically played a leading role in ECOWAS peacekeeping efforts, though slightly less so now as it suffers its own major security crisis. Boko Haram-related violence is spilling over to neighbouring countries already grappling with a strong influx of Nigerian refugees. A pacified, strong Nigeria will benefit all of West Africa.

Useful links

OECD Investment Policy Reviews: Nigeria 2015

SWAC Maps and Facts:
– Number 22, Nigeria’s presidential election, April 2015
– Number 5, Boko Haram November 2014

Atlas of the Sahara-Sahel:
Historically, the Sahara plays an intermediary role between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Commercial and human exchanges are intense and based on social networks that now include trafficking. Understanding their structure, geographical and organizational mobility of criminal groups and migratory movements represents a strategic challenge. The Atlas is based on an analysis of mapped regional security issues and development objectives to open the necessary dialogue between regional and international organizations, governments, researchers and local stakeholders tracks.

West Africa Gateway/Portail de l’Afrique de l’Ouest:
The West Africa Gateway, managed by the SWAC Secretariat, provides a regional database, a map centre, a document library, a contact database, an events calendar, thematic dossiers, West African viewpoints, interviews etc. The Gateway is also dedicated to sharing information and promoting work produced by SWAC Members.

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