Nigeria's president was declared the clear winner of a second term in Africa's largest democracy early Wednesday, after a campaign in which he urged voters to give him another chance to tackle gaping corruption, widespread insecurity, and an economy limping back from a rare recession.
While many frustrated Nigerians had said they wanted to give someone new a try, President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator, profited from his upright reputation in an oil-rich nation weary of politicians enriching themselves instead of the people.
Top opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar, a billionaire former vice president who made sweeping campaign promises to "make Nigeria work again," quickly rejected the result of what he called a "sham election" and said he would challenge it in court.
As many Nigerians awakened to the win along with the morning prayer, Mr. Buhari told colleagues he was "deeply humbled." He regretted the loss of dozens of lives in election-related violence.
"I will like to make a special appeal to my supporters not to gloat or humiliate the opposition. Victory is enough reward for your efforts," he said.
The president pledged that his administration will intensify its efforts in security, economic restructuring, and fighting corruption: "We will strive to strengthen our unity and inclusiveness so that no section or group will feel left behind or left out."
In a statement shared by aides, challenger Mr. Abubakar said he would have conceded "within seconds" if the vote had been free and fair. Instead he alleged "manifest and premeditated malpractices" in many of Nigeria's 36 states.
He asserted that voting was suppressed in his strongholds in the south and that states threatened by an extremist insurgency generated "much higher voter turnouts" than in peaceful ones. He also objected to the deployment of the military in some areas.
One domestic election observer, the Civic Media Lab, noted that "contrary to normal reasoning" the state most affected by extremist attacks, Borno, saw a 13 percent increase in voter turnout, citing electoral commission data. Some residents had said, however, they were determined to vote despite the threat.
Court challenges are nothing new in Nigeria, where Buhari himself doggedly fought his past election losses for months, in vain. The Supreme Court of Nigeria has never overturned a presidential election, Chris Kwaja, a senior adviser to the United States Institute of Peace, told The Associated Press.
The president's colleagues had made clear they expected a challenge. "There's no opposition that will roll over and play dead. Anybody that lost an election will always complain," Hameed Ali, the ruling party agent attending the vote declaration, told reporters.
Buhari's supporters began dancing in the streets of the capital, Abuja, on Tuesday night as vote counting stretched his lead from the weekend election to nearly 4 million votes over Abubakar.
"He is a man of integrity," Mohammed Aliyu, a Buhari supporter in the northern city of Kano, said as jubilant people held up four fingers to mark the new term. "He is the only leader in Nigeria today that does not accumulate wealth."
Buhari received 15.1 million votes, or 55 percent, the electoral commission said. Abubakar received 11.2 million, or 41 percent. The average national turnout was 35.6 percent, continuing a downward trend.
"The rigging was so obvious," John Orerere, a Abubakar supporter in Kano, said. But a civil rights activist, Musa Babn Iya, asserted that Nigerians were not interested in going to court but instead were thinking about "how to get out of this hardship" of simply getting by.
Buhari's party rejected Abubakar's allegations of manipulation of results. It called on Abubakar, who hasn't made a public appearance since Saturday's election, to accept his loss gracefully and concede. "Let this nation move forward," campaign spokesman Babatunde Fashola told the AP in an interview.
The election, once described as too close to call, suffered from a surprise weeklong postponement and significant delays in the opening of polling stations. While observers called the process generally peaceful, at least 53 people were killed in an attack claimed by the Islamic State West Africa Province extremist group and other violence, analysis unit SBM Intelligence said.
A former US ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, has said the troubled election gives the candidates grounds to go to the courts.
Many Nigerians have prayed for peace during the unexpectedly drawn-out election process. Some spoke approvingly of the 2015 vote, when President Goodluck Jonathan took the unprecedented step of conceding to Buhari before official results were announced. It was the first defeat of an incumbent president by the opposition in the country's history.
Now Nigerians, who have been praised for their patience and resilience in this bumpy vote, are settling in for a legal fight.
This story was reported by The Associated Press with Cara Anna reporting from Kano, Nigeria, and contributions from Ismail Alfa Abdulrahim in Maiduguri, Nigeria, and Sam Olukoya in Lagos, Nigeria, and video journalist Desmond Tiro in Kano.