Will Nigeria's New President Live Up to His Country's Promise?

April 01, 2015

Wow. Muhammadu Buhari’s clear victory over Goodluck Jonathan is huge for Nigeria—and for the continent. Jonathan’s speedy acceptance of the result was graceful and honorable. Despite worries about the election delay (including mine) or that things could go awry, Nigeria appears on the path for a true political transition. After President Goodluck, we say good luck Mr President.

Here are five things I’ll be watching closely to see if President-elect Buhari can capitalize on his win to help Nigeria finally live up to its massive potential at home and abroad. 

  • Early efforts to bridge regional and religious divides. Buhari’s statesmanship will be immediately tested by his ability to reach out to communities representing the 46 percent of the population that supported Jonathan. Buhari has much in his favor here. Nigerian politics is less about ideology and more about shifting alliances and deal-making. I suspect that such negotiations are already underway. Moreover, the election results and relatively peaceful voting also suggest that social fissures are probably less concrete (and thus less incendiary) than many pundits imagined. 
  • Quick, balanced action on the military front. Effectively dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency in the north is Buhari’s most urgent security priority. He will have to reinvigorate Nigeria’s embarrassingly tepid military response and work closely with regional allies who have done the heavy lifting (and haven’t hidden their frustration with the Nigerians). A tougher challenge for Buhari will be finding a decent balance between hard and soft tools.
  • Preventing a second security front in the Delta. One risk of a Buhari victory has always been the possibility of reigniting conflict in the oil-producing Niger Delta. One of Jonathan’s most notable accomplishments was mollifying militant groups in his own home region, largely by buying the peace. As Buhari gears up for anti-extremist war in the north, he’ll need to also ensure that the Delta doesn’t flare up again as alienated groups in the Niger Delta feel further marginalized by Jonathan’s loss. This will require both judicious use of the security forces and meaningful development gestures in the southeast. 
  • Economic rebuilding. Buhari is inheriting a wobbly economy. Despite recent high rates of growth and significant progress on economic reform, the economy has recently been pounded by low oil prices.  The Jonathan government largely ignored its own finance minister’s advice and blew most of the country’s oil savings while prices were still high, leaving the economy exposed when prices plunged late last year. The naira has lost nearly 20 percent of its value against the US dollar over the past five months, dipping below the psychologically-important threshold of N200 to US$1 in February. Buhari will need to quickly put in place a credible economic team to restore confidence. 
  • Surging regional leadership.  Nigeria under Buhari has a real opportunity to finally live up to its aspirations to be a leader on the world stage. Nigerians have often felt disrespected internationally, irritated by South Africa’s presumptive global status, and let down by their own under-performing government. Nigerians have always been proud of being the continent’s most populous country, while last year Nigeria’s economy became Africa’s largest. The 2015 elections will help make it a leader on democracy as well. 

This all said, seasoned Nigeria-watchers know better than to make confident predictions. But a democratic transition of power already marks a watershed in Nigeria’s history. What it means for its future is now down to Mohammadu Buhari.

The author was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa during the Bush Administration.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.