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Truth to power

Buhari wins as Nigeria turns its back on Jonathan

Celebrating Buhari’s win on the streets of Jos. EPA/STR

In the end, the margin was too decisive. Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent president of Nigeria, had no choice but to telephone his challenger Muhammadu Buhari and concede defeat.

It was a rare moment of grace in an election characterised by Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s grand old man of letters, as the election of the Vs: vicious, violent, venal.

He had a point. Too much money was spent, a remarkable variety of dirty tricks were played, and very little love lost between a president who proved too small for the office he inherited and an ageing former dictator turned democratic saviour.

Yet Soyinka might, in retrospect, admire the dogged determination of his fellow citizens, who went to the polls in their millions despite rumours of fixing, and despite attacks by Boko Haram that left dozens dead.

No plan

In the end, only about 300 of the elaborate electronic verification units failed in an election with tens of thousands of polling stations. And the same machines, since most of them did work, were probably a key safeguard against rigging.

Soyinka might have despaired at the unedifying campaign, and he might complain that a general election in Africa’s most populous and richest country could still revolve around two major candidates with severely tarnished records.

But the real complaint should be that neither man actually stood on policy platforms that explained how they would take the country forward.

Neither properly addressed the drop in oil incomes, the underdevelopment of alternative productive sectors, and the huge gap between oligarchs and the poor. Not even Buhari, a man of the north, could say persuasively how he would improve the lack of development in the northern states that, in the end, voted overwhelmingly for him.

Fighting chance

So Buhari has his work cut out. First of all, he will certainly take the fight to Boko Haram. He will do this militarily, but also because he is in a position to leverage northern unity in this fight – bringing together generals, traditional rulers, Islamic leaders, and northern technocrats like the former central bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, sacked by Jonathan for complaining about corruption.

Meet the new boss, who is in fact a previous boss. EPA/STR

He will try to rein in corruption, though his chances of success are hard to gauge. Nigerian corruption has become, at its highest levels, extremely sophisticated and technologised – and is part of a global network of laundering through chains of phantom companies in a dozen jurisdictions. Corruption, in short, works, and making it not work will be harder than it looks.

Perhaps he will look to Xi’s example in China and focus on gathering a number of famous scalps to prove he is serious. But as Xi has found, netting a few individual crooks is one thing – dismantling the structure of corruption quite another.

Chin up

Still, there is plenty to be optimistic about. Buhari garnered much support in Lagos State, so the financial sector appears to be with him. There will be wind in his sails; he will move swiftly to reassure investor confidence, international markets and global financial institutions. He will seek entry to Beijing for the 2016 G20 summit and in general will try to show that Nigeria has finally arrived as a mature world player.

But the new president will have to learn about the outside world fast. Foreign policy was not an issue in this election – indeed, his party’s foreign policy platform was written by outsiders hired to prepare those parts of the platform that were deemed unimportant to the immediate needs of the campaign (declaration: I was myself approached at an early stage to do this.)

This will have to change now a Buhari government is to be formed. As Nigeria moves on from the Jonathan era, its status in the world will be as important as Buhari’s performance on the home front.

Nothing is certain about the coming years, except that change is long overdue. Whatever Buhari’s tenure looks like, no-one will long lament the passing of the Jonathan era: a lightweight in a heavy seat was never going to take such a dense and complex country forward.

Where this triumphant former military dictator of 72 will take it instead remains to be seen.

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