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The election of a new president in Nigeria held out hope on several levels. For one thing, the defeat of an incumbent was not met with violence, offering hope that subsequent political transitions in other African countries will be as smooth.
For another, the victor is seen as the kind of reformer Nigeria needs in facing down both an Islamist insurgency and endemic government corruption.
Muhammadu Buhari was elected Nigerian president, beating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, 15.4 million to 13.3 million. Jonathan recognized Buhari’s victory and invited his supporters to accept the result.
Immediately after the announcement of the results by the Independent Electoral Commission, the Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria appealed to supporters of the two candidates for calm and to respect the election outcome. The president of the conference, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, asked the security forces to remain on alert in order to contain possible post-election violence and new attacks by Boko Haram.
Part of the reasons for the post-election calm may have to do with the transparency with which the electoral process was carried out. Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja told Vatican Radio that last weekend’s plebiscite had a higher degree of transparency than the past.
He said Nigeria’s new president faces three main priorities: restoring stability to the nation by dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency, tackling lawlessness and stamping out corruption and bad governance.
“We have a very bad record on corruption," he said, "and there’s no doubt this is pulling our nation down.”
Observers are placing a lot of hope in Buhari, who ruled Nigeria in the 1980s as a military dictator. As the New York Times described his background:
He first came to power in a coup over 30 years ago and became one of his country’s harshest military rulers, waging a “war against indiscipline” that prescribed humiliating punishment for tardy civil servants.
He publicly executed young drug dealers on the beach, jailed journalists and expelled thousands of immigrants. He arrested 475 politicians and businessmen on corruption charges, trying them in military tribunals and jailing many for life. His rule lasted 20 months and ended in another coup. …
Mr. Buhari was born on Dec. 17, 1942, in the country’s far north, the son of a village chief. He attended officer cadet school in England in the early 1960s, according to the historian Max Siollun, and took active parts in the military coups of 1966 and 1975, later serving in the successive military governments of the late 1970s, including as minister of petroleum.
In 1983, troops under his command cleared rebels from Chad from Nigeria’s border, and he then refused civilian orders from Lagos to retreat into his own country. A New Year’s Eve coup against the elected president, Shehu Shagari, then brought him to power.
"Buhari is known as someone who is ‘no nonsense’ and can be somebody who is quite strong and direct as a leader," said Holy Cross Father Robert Dowd, a political scientist at Notre Dame who specializes in African affairs. "A lot of Nigerians are hopeful that he will be more effective in addressing the problem of Boko Haram. First, because of how he served as a military dictator, and secondly, he’s a Muslim, he’s from the north, he knows the north. Jonathan was less familiar with the north."
Time will tell, said Father Dowd, Dowd, a fellow of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies Faculty who also directs the Institute’s Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity. "Based on what we know about Buhari, ironically, Christians might fare better than they were faring, at least in parts of the north, under Jonathan."
Cardinal Onaiyekan said another urgent priority was the need to promote “national cohesion” between the nation’s many different ethnic and religious groups.
Father Dowd said that ultimately what matters for Christians is how they relate with Muslims at the grassroots level.
"The president and the government of the day can only do so much," he said. "But where the rubber hits the road is really at the grassroots level. Hopefully, Buhari’s government can do its best to bring Christians and Muslims together in order to understand one another and make violence between Christians and Muslims less likely. The Nigerian Christians I’ve talked to are hopeful that the election of Buhari would be a good thing for Christians."
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.