Nigeria post-election: Bellwether of African democracy?

Muhammadu Buhari’s historic win has prompted talks of an ‘African Spring’.

Muhammadu Buhari
Muhammadu Buhari won an historic election in March [AP]

Nigeria’s 2015 general elections, which drew to a close this weekend, have been hailed as historic.

The victory of Muhammadu Buhari, in the March presidential poll, was viewed as a landmark – the first time a sitting president had been voted out of office.

Equally important was incumbent Goodluck Jonathan’s acceptance of defeat – not a given on a continent in which rulers have often gone to great lengths to retain power. And, despite some violent incidents at the state level, the absence of a similarly bloody outcome to 2011 – when over 800 died – has been viewed as a notable advance.

Hopes for a new era?

This has inspired hopes for a new era of democratic progress. Citing Nigeria as a trailblazer, it has even prompted talk of an “African spring”.

Recent protests ousting Burkinabe ruler Blaise Compaore and peaceful elections in Kenya have been quoted as further positive signs.

Yet the extent to which Nigeria’s experience will prompt a continent-wide shift should not be overstated.

Nigeria: New hope for old challenges?

Indeed, while some spoke of a breakdown of sectarian voting, noting the gains made by Muslim northerner Buhari in the overwhelmingly Christian south, the run-up to the poll was highly polarised.

Campaigning at all levels saw the usual mud-slinging, and remained some way from being fully issue-based.

Celebration of the poll has instead centred on the absence of large-scale violence – and upon Jonathan’s acceptance of defeat. Rather than real consolidation, this reflects the tellingly low standards by which democracy in the region has come to be judged.

In this context, however, the vote does mark something of a milestone.

It is the first time power has transitioned peacefully since the return to civilian rule in 1999. Citizens defied threats by Islamist militants Boko Haram in the northeast to vote. And the poll was overseen by a neutral electoral commission insistent upon the use of biometric technology.

Democracy beyond elections

Yet declarations of the broader significance of these events, and the democratic progress they signal, should be treated with caution.

Though electoral activity is judged by some scholars to facilitate democratic learning, consolidation is inevitably a much longer-term process.

What will matter more is what happens once a new leader is in place.

In this respect, a common critique in parts of Africa has concerned the prevalence of diminished forms of democracy whereby polls are held to lend a veneer of legitimacy to what may otherwise be highly undemocratic regimes.

As a former military leader who took power through a coup in 1983, Buhari's candidacy was held by opponents to symbolise a return to a repressive past.


Certainly, there have been numerous examples of rulers seeking to weaken democratic institutions.

Beyond Nigeria, an opposing phenomenon has seen other leaders seek to subvert the democratic rules of the game by manipulating constitutional term limits.

US President Obama recently urged DR Congo’s Jacob Kabila to hold timely elections in 2016, amid concerns that the latter plans to defy the two-term limit. Citizens in Rwanda and Burundi – and Nigeria’s western neighbour Benin – fear similar intentions; while elections this week in Sudan will be boycotted over criticism that they are loaded in favour of incumbent Omar al-Bashir.

The long-term view

As such, it is clear that a country does not become democratic purely through the casting of votes. Rather, consolidation is a less tangible process determined by long-term investment in democratic institutions; the entrenchment of a democratic culture; respect for freedom of speech, assembly and organisation; and the absence of attempts to subvert the various organs of a democracy.

In this respect, the hard work in Nigeria lies ahead. The trajectory, however, remains unclear.

As a former military leader who took power through a coup in 1983, Buhari’s candidacy was held by opponents to symbolise a return to a repressive past.

Yet, he has since fought in three democratic contests, and claims to have learned from his stint in office. He presents himself as a born-again democrat. And he won on a campaign to root out corruption – a fundamental source of perversion of state institutions and of popular faith in them.

Similarly, he has promised to strengthen core institutions to enhance the provision of justice and the rule of law.

And post-election, he has reaffirmed these pledges: A “powerful force [that] soon comes to undermine democracy, […] corruption”, he promises, “shall no longer be allowed to stand as … a respected monument in this nation”.

What will be key, upon his accession, is the extent to which he remains committed to this cause, and to strengthening democratic institutions more broadly.

He has warned that progress could take time; yet his ability to overcome entrenched interests to fulfil this pledge will be key to his success in the eyes of citizens.

It will also play a vital part in determining the health and future development of Nigeria’s ongoing democratic experiment. And, in turn, to establishing the true nature of the influence this is likely to exert across the continent. 

Cathy Haenlein is deputy editor of RUSI Newsbrief/associate editor of the RUSI Journal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.