Nigeria Is What Democracy Looks Like

03/31/2015 01:36 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2015
AP Photo / Jerome Delay

Muhammadu Buhari has defeated President Goodluck Jonathan to become the new president of Nigeria, according to election results Tuesday. This is the first time in Nigeria's fifty-four-year history that an incumbent president has been voted out of office.

The international community has praised the closely-watched election as largely peaceful and fair, despite technical hitches and isolated violence. This is momentous not only for Nigeria and the continent of Africa, but also for those around the world who believe in the tenets of democracy and in the fundamental right to the ballot box.

We must recognize the bravery and heroism of the Nigerian voter. In Borno, the Northeastern Nigerian state devastated by the murderous rampage of Boko Haram, the terrorist organization threatened before the election to shoot those who voted and to bomb polling sites. And yet, in Borno's state capitol of Maiduguri, internally displaced people reportedly walked for miles to vote. A polling site set up for those internally displaced reportedly became an emotional reunion for those reunited with loved ones they thought massacred by Boko Haram.

"In this moment, I am encouraged. My countrymen and women have inspired me, and I am grateful."

The people of Borno, whose children were stolen and murdered in Chibok, whose markets have been bombed, whose homes ransacked, whose women raped, who have bore the brunt of Boko Haram's carnage, stood undaunted. Hundreds of thousands of people rejected extremism and exercised the most fundamental of human rights.

Images of perseverance and people power pervaded social networking sites. Great-grandparents voted, those who couldn't walk to the polling sites were aided by nurses, the enterprising set up shop and fed the masses and the young passed the time by dancing. And when they couldn't vote on Saturday, many made the journey back to their polling site and stood in lines for hours the next day when voting was extended.

Sporadic violence did not deter them. The rain did not deter them. The scorching hot sun did not deter them. The long lines did not deter them. Military intervention and possible intimidation during voting by officers who serve Jonathan did not deter them.

"Sporadic violence did not deter them. The rain did not deter them. The scorching hot sun did not deter them. The long lines did not deter them."

The scene in Nigeria was exactly what people power should look like. It was beautiful, it was vibrant, and you may now feel free to think me naïve for my rose-colored analysis. Idyllic political paradise Nigeria is not, you may say, and I'll agree with you. I'll agree that one election will not resurrect a tumbling naira and a struggling economy, it will not end pervasive corruption, and it certainly will not magically disappear Boko Haram. To be honest, the choice for president wasn't a particularly thrilling one.

Jonathan has been an ineffective president since 2010, and Buhari is a military man who orchestrated a coup d'état in 1983 and governed without the democratic consent of the people of Nigeria until 1985. Consequently, Nigeria's choice was between an ineffective incumbent and this new president who has dictatorial tendencies. That, I should add, is debated by his supporters who believe he is a democrat who will bring about transformative change to Nigeria.

However, what transpired on voting day solidified the belief for me that Nigerians are moving Nigeria in the right direction. From #OccupyNigeria in 2012, a nationwide campaign that forced the hand of Jonathan when he tried to eviscerate fuel subsidies, to #BringBackOurGirls in 2014, where grassroots activists shamed Jonathan and forced his administration to publicly affirm the value of Nigerian life, this election is yet another example that shows that Nigerian people are serious about holding their government accountable. The days of Nigerians putting up with mismanagement, incompetency and a kleptocratic elite are dwindling and a new day is coming, if it's not already here.

"As Africa's largest economy, with over 173 million people, Nigeria is a bellwether for the viability of the continent's democracies."

And guess what? A new day in Nigeria means a new day in Africa. As Africa's largest economy, with over 173 million people, Nigeria is a bellwether for the viability of the continent's democracies. As one analyst puts it, as goes Nigeria, so goes Africa. Simply, a free and fair election absent of post-electoral violence is one that will embolden struggling democracies throughout the continent. With tense elections coming up later in the year for the Ivory Coast, Togo and Burkina Faso, Nigerians who voted are setting an example for their neighboring countries.

Finally, the implication of the Nigerian election goes far beyond Africa. Besides Nigeria's immense role in the fight against global terrorism, Nigeria is also the world's 26th largest economy. Even with its current struggling economy, Nigeria is still projected to have the highest real per capita growth among emerging countries between 2010 and 2050. That means that the nation with the largest black population in the world will have more clout and bargaining power in the international community. That's a big deal.

Further, with nearly 80 percent of the country being arable and with a young and entrepreneurial population, a stable Nigeria has the potential to be both the world's breadbasket and a source of innovation.

"This is the first time in Nigeria's fifty-four-year history that an incumbent president has been voted out of office."

Maybe it was this belief in Nigeria's potential that emboldened the millions who stood in lines for hours and ignored the cynicism of those who discounted their political power. If so, I hope this belief in our potential and in a better tomorrow for Nigeria will continue to sustain the country in the upcoming days as we pray for a peaceful post-electoral season, as we wait for Goodluck Jonathan to concede and as we collectively think of creative ways to raise hell for those in office who refuse to follow the will of the Nigerian people.

I cannot predict the way forward for Nigeria. The tumultuous history of my country means that anything can happen at any time, and I am anxious about post-electoral violence.

However, in this moment, I am encouraged. My countrymen and women have inspired me, and I am grateful. With each and every vote, I am thankful that they waited, voted and tilted the arc of democratization a little more towards a more just and equitable world.

Nigeria Election