In his first public speech since winning the presidency, President-Elect Muhammadu Buhari asked Nigerians on Wednesday to begin to “heal wounds” as they enter the transition process.
“You voted for change and now change has come,” he said in an acceptance speech at his party’s headquarters in Abuja.
President Goodluck Jonathan called Mr. Buhari to concede defeat before the final announcement on Tuesday, a move that likely circumvented post-election violence. In a statement, he affirmed that “nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian.”
Buhari will be sworn in on May 29.
The win was historic: Buhari is the first candidate to defeat an incumbent president since Nigeria restored democracy in 1999. He will be the second to rule Nigeria as both a military dictator and as a freely elected president, after former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
“This is a very good political development in our country. It shows the progress we have made …and what is possible when people want change and work hard at it no matter how long it takes,” says Niyi Akintola, a senior lawyer.
Buhari's All Progressive Congress (APC) party gained the lead halfway through a count that was publicly tallied and broadcast over two days from the electoral commission headquarters in Abuja. He ultimately beat Mr. Jonathan and his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) by over 2 million votes.
Buhari also carried 21 of 36 states, including states that Mr. Jonathan was expected to win like Benue, Ondo and Kogi. In Kano, one of Nigeria’s largest states and a Buhari stronghold, he received 1.9 million votes to Jonathan's 215,800.
Celebrations erupted in different northern cities. With a northern president ruling for only two out of 16 years since the country became a democracy in 1999, the region has lost out on key positions in government, and overall wealth.
The wide margin stands as a referendum of Jonathan’s six years in office, during which the Boko Haram insurgency grew and Nigeria officially became Africa’s largest economy.
Now efforts are turning toward healing a country after a campaign that raised tribal and religious ire. “This was a hard-fought contest,” Buhari said in his speech. “We must not allow them to get the better of us.”
Tackling Boko Haram
As president, Buhari is tasked with ensuring the acceptance of his presidency by all of Nigeria, tackling Boko Haram in the north, and reviving Nigeria’s economy. As a result, says Obo Effanga, a program manager at ActionAid Nigeria, a development agency, he "has little time to even consider a celebration."
“He has to boost citizens’ confidence, rebuild the economy, fight insurgency, fight inequality, cut down on the cost of running the government and stem corruption,” says Mr. Effanga. “He has to run an all-inclusive government that recognizes the whole gamut of our diversities.”
Buhari’s military background was touted throughout the campaign. He cited his experience crushing the Maitasine sect, which ravaged parts of the north in the 1980s, as his credentials for taking on Boko Haram.
“I believe his approach will be different, “says Richard Akinnola, a human rights activist. “When he takes over, things will change because he is a retired general.”
The campaign was prolonged by six weeks to allow the Nigerian Army time to address the Boko Haram insurgency, but many assumed it was a move by the PDP to gain an election advantage. In the end, the Islamist militants didn't succeed in disrupting the election as feared, and a Nigeria-led multinational force has made apparent strides in the last two months.
Nigeria’s economic instability of late, driven by a sharp drop in oil and a potentially combustible election led Standard & Poor's to put Nigeria on watch for a potential downgrade in February.
“The state of the economy has increased the level of uncertainty in the country,” said Ismail Ibraheem, a mass communications professor at the University of Lagos. “I am not sure that I will be able to buy the same things with my salary that I bought a month ago.”
Jonathan Aremu, a former deputy director at the Central Bank of Nigeria says the Buhari’s government will need to address problems like infrastructural decay and a declining currency.
“Everything points towards economic crisis in every sector,” he says. "What we have is largely growth without development.”
Things are already looking up. Nigerian stocks rallied to a 12-week high on Tuesday, Bloomberg reported.
A question of legitimacy
While Buhari’s victory may be generally accepted across the country, pockets of initial resistance are expected in Jonathan's strongholds in the southeast and Niger Delta region.
“In 2011, it was clear President Goodluck Jonathan won squarely, yet some sections of the north protested because they didn’t want to accept it. I foresee the same scenario now,” says Abiodun Oloyede, a political science professor at the University of Ibadan. More than 800 people were killed in protests in 2011 after Jonathan beat Buhari.
It will be especially hard for Buhari to win over the Niger Delta region, the country's oil hub, which favored another Jonathan term, says Betty Abbah, a civil society activist from Lagos.
“The president-elect has a lot of work to do to warm himself into the hearts of all Nigerians across the board.”
But Jonathan’s early concession of defeat should go a long way in enforcing acceptance throughout the country.
“You see, there is always been with this fear that the President may not agree to concede defeat,” said Lai Mohammed, the APC’s national publicity secretary in Abuja. “But I think President Jonathan will remain a hero for many years to come … I think it is momentous occasion and a courageous one on his part also."
Vincent Nwanma provided additional reporting from Lagos, Nigeria