Q&A: What’s Next for Nigeria After Presidential Elections?

BY Larisa Epatko  April 18, 2011 at 4:21 PM EST


A demonstrator in northern Nigeria holds a poster of presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari (Seyllou Diallo/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s win in Saturday’s presidential elections unleashed riots in some parts of the West African nation and underscored the challenges that lie ahead.

Election officials announced Monday that Jonathan received 22.5 million votes — almost double that of his leading challenger, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. Some of Buhari’s supporters responded to the loss by torching houses and cars of his opponents in cities in the north.

Saturday was Jonathan’s first actual election. As vice president, Jonathan, who is from the country’s southern oil-producing Niger Delta region, replaced President Umaru Yar’Adua, who died last year from kidney problems related to a chronic illness.

Despite the violent reaction on Monday, the elections themselves were largely peaceful and followed parliamentary elections on April 9 that also proceeded relatively smoothly. “The fact that they’ve been able to pull off two consecutive weeks of elections that were reasonably orderly, had a low level of violence and delivered prompt credible results is a major achievement and possibly a turning point in Niger’s democratic politics,” said Peter Lewis, associate professor and director of the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

He explains more in this Q&A:

Is President Jonathan’s win surprising?

PETER LEWIS: Not really. I think there was a general feeling that he had the advantages of incumbency and that in his short presidency over the last year he had taken some positive steps and established a positive profile that won confidence among many voters. And he had strong support from his own Niger Delta region and from many of the southeastern portions of the country.

So in terms of geography, incumbency and the profile he established, he was generally well-regarded and most people expected him to win the presidency, although not everybody expected him to win in the first round. There was some speculation that General Buhari or some other opposition coalition might force a runoff, but that turned out not to be the case.

Judging from the results of the parliamentary elections, in which the ruling party lost a number seats, are Nigerians generally more supportive of President Jonathan than his People’s Democratic Party?

LEWIS: I think there’s a lot of ambivalence about the PDP. Many people feel that the party has been heavy-handed and has been responsible for a lot of election fraud and corruption in the past. And I think that in this case, the vote is certainly for the candidate rather than for the party.

How much of an impact will the riots in the north have?

LEWIS: General Buhari certainly had overwhelming popular support and identification in the northern states, and that’s reflected in the final vote count and in the number of states that he carried with strong majorities. And many of his supporters are aggrieved or dissatisfied with the final result. The violence, however, is not likely to be sustained. And I think the riots will run their course in the next few days or couple of weeks at most.

There’s another opportunity for the north to gain additional seats in the governorship elections on April 26, and that may also satisfy some of the political yearnings on the part of northern voters. Also, I think that General Buhari, although he can be somewhat politically polarizing to some southerners, has not encouraged a sense of antagonism or confrontation, and he has not incited violence. So I don’t think that there’s a strong leadership or a strong organizational base that’s pushing the violence.

On the other hand, it does point to a big challenge for President Jonathan looking ahead. He will have a major challenge in trying to reach out to northern constituencies and to engage all Nigerians with his government.

What else will President Jonathan have to do for the country during his term to maintain support?

LEWIS: I think a starting point is the credibility of elections, and if there is an opportunity for free and fair elections that can be witnessed by voters at the polling places and in their constituencies, and if there’s an opportunity for political pluralism rather than a dominant party monopoly, then that’s going to do a lot to encourage different constituencies to have a stake in the system.

Also, if he delivers on the economy, on promises such as electric power generation, on conflict management in places like the Niger Delta, and some conflict management mechanism for the north, where there’s been Islamic militancy, then I think that also will win the confidence of more Nigerians.

I think the task also will be to engage various elites in the North and to visit the North and to make a serious effort to win the confidence of people from all over the country.

Why is stability in Nigeria important to the rest of the world?

LEWIS: Nigeria is 150 million people, it’s the anchor of West Africa, it’s the most populous country on the continent. It’s a major contributor to peacekeeping and conflict management across the region. It’s the third-largest economy on the African continent and the second largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a major oil exporter, producing more than 2.5 million barrels a day, and a source of more than 10 percent of U.S. oil on a daily basis, and an important producer within OPEC.

So for all of those reasons — its size, its positive political and security role within Africa, its generally cordial relationship with the United States and its role in global energy markets — Nigeria is simply a critical country whose stability and whose vigor and dynamism is very important.

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