Nigeria’s new president-elect Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday hailed polls that will lead to the first democratic change of power in Africa’s most populous nation as “historic” hours after he secured a decisive victory.
In official results released early Wednesday, Buhari won Nigeria’s presidential election by 2.57 million votes, defeating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan in a triumph greeted by joyous street celebrations.
The victory writes a new chapter in the country’s often turbulent history after six military coups since independence in 1960 and 16 years of unbroken civilian rule by Jonathan’s party.
The gripping contest also capped a remarkable transformation for 72-year-old former army general Buhari, who led a tough military regime in the 1980s but now describes himself as a “converted democrat”.
But the election could also reverberate well beyond Nigeria and serve as an example for the rest of Africa, where leaders have all too often sought to cling to power at any cost.
Buhari, in an early morning speech at the headquarters of his All Progressives Congress (APC) party in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, declared “we have put one-party state behind us.”
“Our country has now joined the community of nations that have used the ballot box to peacefully change an incumbent president in a free and fair election,” he said. “To me this is indeed historic.”
Buhari will however be closely watched for any return to the authoritarian tendencies that marked his 1980s military regime. He also faces enormous problems, including the Boko Haram insurgency in the north and all-pervasive corruption.
An eventual return to unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta, relatively calm since a 2009 amnesty, also remains a threat in the continent’s largest oil producer.
But for now, Nigerians rejoiced that they themselves had brought about change through the ballot box.
Thousands spilled onto the streets of northern Nigeria’s biggest city, Kano, in celebration, shouting campaign slogan “Sai Buhari” (“Only Buhari”) as he took an unassailable lead with one state to declare.
Many brandished brooms, Buhari’s party symbol, with which they have pledged to sweep away years of government waste and corruption.
In Kaduna, another northern city that was the scene of rioting after the 2011 presidential election, APC supporters chanted: “Change! Change!”
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said Buhari won with 15,424,921 votes, or 53.95 percent, of the 28,587,564 total valid ballots cast.
Rival Jonathan, 57, of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), won 12,853,162 votes (44.96 percent) in the election held Saturday and Sunday.
The election was hit by glitches in new voter technology and claims of irregularities, after being delayed by six weeks due to concerns of attacks by Boko Haram insurgents. Observers however approved of the overall conduct of the vote.
– ‘First democratic change’ –
With dissatisfaction rife over Nigeria’s security, corruption and the economy faltering as oil revenues dived, voters turned out in force sensing an unprecedented opportunity for change.
In the financial hub of Lagos, in the southwest, Buhari supporters celebrated wildly, some of them on horseback, with fireworks exploding into the night.
“This is the first democratic change ever in Nigeria,” Anas Galadima told AFP, at APC headquarters, where supporters danced and banged drums.
“It’s not about Muslim or Christian or any party. It’s about politicians knowing that if you don’t do the job, we can kick you out.
“I haven’t been this excited since the night of Barack Obama’s election.”
Political commentator Chris Ngwodo said the victory had “instigated the supremacy and primacy of the electorate” in a country where elections had generally been a foregone conclusion for the incumbent.
“The dynamics between the governed and government has changed for good,” he said.
Buhari won because, backed by a strong and well-organised party machine, he had managed to secure national support in a nation split between a largely Muslim north and mainly Christian south, Ngwodo added.
Jonathan conceded in a telephone call to Buhari at 5:15 pm (1615 GMT) even before the final results were declared, earning him praise from politicians of all stripes.
“I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word,” he said later, urging disputes over the results to be settled in court rather than on the street.
“Nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian.”
Buhari praised Jonathan’s “statesmanship” in conceding defeat.
– Key gains –
Buhari has accused Jonathan of a failure of leadership in tackling the Boko Haram insurgency, which over six years has left more than 13,000 people dead and some 1.5 million people homeless.
Military gains against the militants in recent weeks were welcomed but seen as too little, too late by voters after so much bloodshed.
Initial results indicated Buhari had won 94 percent of the vote in Borno state — the region worst affected by the Islamists’ rampage and from where more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted in April last year.
Hundreds of thousands of people defied threats of suicide attacks and bombings to vote, with polling stations set up in camps for people displaced by the conflict in state capital Maiduguri.
Buhari, a Muslim, won massively in the violence-hit north but also made crucial gains elsewhere, including Lagos, which had been targeted by both sides as a swing state.
Buhari has acknowledged that he cannot perform miracles, with poverty widespread among Nigeria’s 173 million people, the ongoing threat from Boko Haram and the oil-dependent economy stalling.
But with his military background, the former leader was seen as a better bet to fight the insurgents, while he has cast himself as an anti-corruption crusader — despite excesses and abuses during his military rule.