In Defeat, Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan Has His Finest Hour

04/02/2015 10:44 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

Goodluck Jonathan's quick concession statement after losing the Nigerian presidential election of March 29 to challenger Muhammadu Buhari could mark a watershed moment for the country and the entire African continent.

"As I have always affirmed, nobody's ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian. The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else," Jonathan said, after congratulating Buhari on his victory.

This could be the beginning of badly-needed political maturity in Nigeria.

What's been holding much of Africa from realizing the continent's full potential since decolonization in the 1960s is political instability which promotes corruption, tyranny and upheavals. The political and military elite contest for power, often through violent means; ordinary civilians bear the brunt of the suffering.

Civilian politicians tend to hold on to power through rigged elections or by abolishing presidential term-limits to extend their regimes. They end up relying on the armed forces, the police, and shadowy "intelligence" agencies whose sole function is often to torture political opponents or courageous civilians who stand up to such regimes.

Such civilian autocrats provide the convenient excuse for the military to seize power. Illegitimate regimes that are unaccountable to the electorate are corrupt by nature. The corruption extends to accepting bribes from foreign companies since at the end of the day no official is ever punished.

One of Nigeria's most corrupt ruler was Gen. Sani Abacha, who reputedly stole about $4.3 billion. This placed him second only to Mobuttu, of what was then Zaire, who reportedly stole more than $5 billion.

The absence of regular transfer of power fuels political instability and conflict. Without the rule of law, African countries lose out on potential investment capital from the outside world. They also lose their most valuable assets; human capital, as the most talented Africans migrate to work overseas often in the more developed economies of the West.

That's why even though many African countries are endowed with vast natural and mineral resources (Congo alone for example has mineral resources, including diamonds, copper, gold, and cobalt, valued at about $24 trillion), when measured by income per head, Africa remains the world's poorest continent.

The same obstacles that bedevil many African countries have held back Nigeria.

The country has a population of about 170 million; it's Africa's most populous country. In addition to being a top oil producer, it also has abundant arable land but sadly had abandoned agriculture to focus mostly on oil exports; a victim of the so-called petroleum curse.
It also has millions of highly educated people.

And last year, for the first time, Nigeria's economy surpassed South Africa's as the continent's largest one. Before the collapse of the price of oil, The Economist included Nigeria in the list of the world's 20 fastest-growing economies.

There has been much to be bullish on about Nigeria. However, its politics has held its growth in check. Since it won its independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has had more years under military rule than under civilian administrations. Even the new president-elect, Buhari, was once a military dictator between 1983 to 1985.

Still, the election, and the transition, if all goes smoothly, would be historic. It would be the first time in Nigeria that a challenger has unseated an incumbent through the ballot box.

This is no small feat in a continent where typically an incumbent rigs the elections by simply appointing the election commissioners who announce sham results.

Several African countries will be holding elections over the next several months, including: Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Chad, Burkina Faso, Burundi, and Uganda. Sudan, Uganda and Chad are all ruled by long-term dictators.

In Nigeria, Jonathan's fate was sealed by his failure to contain the uprising by Boko Haram, the homicidal fanatical militia, and his inability to effectively combat corruption.

The Boko Haram crises came into sharp focus when the militia kidnapped nearly 250 schoolgirls last April sparking the global "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign that also included a Tweet by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Jonathan failed to grasp the magnitude of the crises when he didn't immediately visit the parents of the victims. He reportedly even continued with his presidential campaign rally appearances.

Jonathan's credibility diminished, not only as his military failed to rescue the girls but even more so, after Boko Haram took control of sizable territory in north eastern Nigeria. In fact, it was only after the intervention of troops from other tiny African countries, including Chad and Niger, that Boko Haram was finally sent on the run.

By then it was too late for Jonathan.

Now ironically, Jonathan's best moment come in defeat, by quickly bow to the will of the electorate.

As Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement after Jonathan's concession, "One of the hallmarks of a functioning democracy is the handover of power from one elected leader to another. I have spoken to President Goodluck Jonathan and President-elect Muhammadu Buhari recently, and today I commend them both on their statesmanship in leading their supporters through this historic vote and putting their country on a more peaceful path forward."

Nigerian voters have also sent a strong message to ordinary Africans throughout the continent.

If Nigerians can vote for a candidate of their choice, even unseating an incumbent president, voters in other African countries can do the same.