Over March 28 and 29, voters in Nigeria went to the polls. They elected Muhammadu Buhari, a former president, to replace Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent. While on the face of it it might not have seemed that transformative — Buhari has run for office 3 times before — Buhari’s victory met with ecstatic celebration across Nigeria’s north and acclaim from the international media. Many in Nigeria are now hopeful that the country’s many problems can begin to be addressed more convincingly. There is talk of a new dawn, of a prime opportunity for Nigeria to take a new direction and overcome its flaws.
Why? What makes this guy — a former military dictator who left little lasting accomplishments in his time in office — such a savior?
Nigeria is one of the best examples (probably my personal favorite) of a country created entirely by colonialism. It can be divided into three main sectors. One is the north, a mostly Muslim region, dry and hot, with a history stretching back into the Middle Ages of great empires and somewhat lesser emirates (a term for a Muslim country of smaller ambition and scale than a sultanate). The main ethnic groups there are the Hausa and Fulani, both of whom are spread across that part of West Africa — between the even drier Sahel in Niger and Chad and the more forested south — and are oriented mostly northwards towards their religious brethren in Niger. (DO NOT confuse Nigeria with Niger. They both have the Niger River but are very different countries!)
South of the Niger, Nigeria is more tropical and forested. This area is Christian, although older religions and religious practices linger. The southwest is dominated by the Yoruba, a tribal confederacy with a heritage of kingdoms dating back to at least the 1400s. It has a history of unusually intense urbanization for Africa, and today it’s where Lagos, one of Africa’s biggest cities, is. The Yoruba have a vibrant religious tradition and greatly influenced black culture in the Americas, since they were prime targets for slavers. They generally look westward, towards Togo and Benin.
Further east, where the Niger River forms a delta, another confederacy historically existed, dominated by the Igbo. It’s one of Africa’s most densely populated regions due to its lush fertility. The Igbo never really unified, despite their density, forming city-states instead. And then there are hundreds of other ethnic groups — the Kanuri, the Edo, the Ibibio, the Gwari, etc. — in the corners, edges and zones between these sectors.
These very different regions were united in the late 18 and early 1900s by the British, who made Nigeria their bastion in West Africa (which was mostly under French rule). Although the north and south were originally separated, for most of Nigeria’s colonial history Muslims and Christians were brought together in one strange amalgamation. The British ruled, so Nigerians themselves didn’t have to figure out how to deal with their massive ethnic differences, but the Brits mostly favored southern Christians — closer to the coast and more receptive to Western education — and made Lagos, in Yorubaland, the capital. Unsurprisingly, ethnic and religious divisions began to fester.
They exploded in 1960, when Nigeria gained its independence. It was reworked into a federal republic, with power supposedly shared equally among the 3 main regions, but it didn’t work out very well. At first there was resentment because the north was dominant. Then in 1966 there was a southern-led coup that brought the Igbo to the fore. Fearing that the new dictator would make Nigeria a centralized, Igbo-dominated state, northerners in the military launched another coup to kill him. The Igbo took drastic action by declaring all of Biafra (southeast Nigeria) independent. After a 3-year civil war, which saw Biafra pounded into dust by Nigeria’s far superior weaponry and military organization and large-scale famine and refugees, the renegade region was re-integrated.
Since then, Nigeria has mostly been under military rule. Its fortunes have been mixed: the ’70s were an era of relative prosperity thanks to the spike in oil prices then; 1981 saw the bubble burst, leaving Nigeria with worsening foreign debt and fleeing foreign investors; the ’90s were a time of overall economic recovery but also tightening military dictatorship under Sani Abacha. For the most part, though, ethnic and religious rivalry subsided after the civil war, mostly thanks to swift and strict action on the part of the army in the event of any outbreak.
In 1999 Nigeria transitioned to a democratic system once and for all. The new millennium saw 2 important developments: In the south, another oil boom and economic reform created a thriving environment, propelling Nigeria into the front ranks of Africa’s economies (last year it was calculated to be #1). Although the Niger Delta’s oil earns Nigeria most of its foreign exchange, business is picking up as well, with telecoms, pharmaceuticals, clothing and more becoming thriving industries. Lagos is Africa’s version of Mumbai, a chaotic, gritty megacity crammed with slums but also golf courses, posh shopping malls, and native-run businesses.
Meanwhile, the north isn’t seeing much of this. The north remains an arid, poor region cut off from the south and has retreated more and more into Islam. Anti-Christian riots have broken out in northern and central cities; Christians and Westerners have been regarded more and more as nefarious interlopers. This culminated in the rise of Boko Haram, which started as a conservative Islamic movement (the name means “Western education is outlawed”) but developed into a vicious insurgency by the ’10s. Thanks to completely ineffective government responses, it has effective control of two states in the northeast.
By the time the election rolled around, there was an increasing feeling that Nigeria is at a crossroads. Would it continue as an economic giant and regional power while ignoring half (or really most) of its people and let the Muslims do what they wanted? Or would it forge a more unified identity, defeat Boko Haram and do more to improve economic prospects in the north? Some nervous observers even predicted the impending collapse of the Nigerian republic. (It has happened before.)
The election, unsurprisingly, pitted a Muslim candidate against a Christian. The Muslim, Muhammadu Buhari, had taken power in a military coup in 1983. He was mostly remembered for instilling discipline in his soldiers and throwing dissidents in jail before he was himself thrown in jail by a rival general in 1985. On the other hand, he is famous for living modestly, his humble manner, and pushing hard against corruption. He promised to follow the constitution (he had lost 3 times before, after all) and chose a Christian, Yemi Osinbajo, as his running mate.
As for Goodluck Jonathan, he had been elected in 2007 as vice president. There was an understanding when democracy was restored that the ruling party, the People’s Democrats, would alternate between Christian and Muslim candidates. Unfortunately, the Muslim president elected in 2007, Umaru Yar’adua, died 3 years into his term, and Jonathan was reelected in 2011. That means many Muslims resented Jonathan from the beginning for stealing their spot in the sunlight. He further disappointed them by neglecting the north and doing very little against Boko Haram. Corruption has flourished under his rule; $20 billion was stolen from the central bank, and its governor fired for revealing this to the public. One of the big reasons Boko Haram has done so well is that middlemen chew up the army’s funds, leaving very little weapons and equipment for the soldiers on the front lines.
Nonetheless, it was generally predicted that Jonathan would win reelection, given the chaos in the north, his party’s unbroken grip on power, and a long history of election fraud that has perpetuated said unbroken grip on power. But they were proven wrong. The date was delayed from Valentine’s Day to March 28 to give the army time to clear out Boko Haram and secure polling areas in the northeast — which secured more votes for Buhari. Rich Christians, tired of the rampant corruption and terrible government services, voted for Buhari as well — Lagos and the rest of Yorubaland were in his camp. Fraud and election violence were kept to a minimum. In the end, the result wasn’t even very close: 54% for Buhari vs. 45% for Jonathan.
This represents a potential turning point for Nigeria since Buhari’s opposition party, the All Progressives Congress, will take power for the first time. Jonathan conceded defeat — not a guarantee by any means in Africa (Buhari’s replacement, Ibrahim Babangida, held an election in 1993 and refused to accept the results). After 16 years, it looks like Nigeria has safely turned a corner on the road to stable politics.
Whether Buhari can solve all of Nigeria’s problems is unclear; they are legion. Corruption is deeply embedded and as bad as anywhere else in the world. Many northerners are still unsure whether Boko Haram is worse than the army. Most Nigerians are desperately poor and uneducated. Religious intolerance shows no sign of abating. A simmering conflict in Biafra which Jonathan had bought off might boil again, especially with oil prices heading down. Infrastructure like roads and electricity are awful.
But Nigeria also has some of the biggest potential in Africa. It dominates West Africa and casts a shadow across the whole continent with its booming economy, vibrant mass media, and huge population (over 170 million). Its people are considered entrepreneurial and ambitious (even arrogant by other Africans). In lots of ways it encapsulates the contradictions and woes of Africa as a whole. For a country that really shouldn’t exist at all, it wouldn’t be wise to write Nigeria off altogether.