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Is there hope for Nigeria?

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I have never made a secret of my distaste for Muhammadu Buhari – ‘the least awful option’, according to the Economist – and I am not doing so now that he has been declared winner of the presidential election in Nigeria. One of the more notorious dictators during the long years of the military, he now claims to be a born-again democrat. Perhaps so. All will be revealed after he moves into Aso Rock on 29 May, with the proviso that he will be obliged to work within the terms of a constitution he cannot abrogate by decree.

And yet, for all that, I found myself rooting for him over the tense three days of the counting. Like most Nigerians, I was fearful that another four years of Goodluck Jonathan would finally do for this artificial creation of too many languages, religions and ethnicities. Here was a man who wasn’t in control and didn’t seem to care. More than 200 hundred schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram insurgents, and the president was to be seen publicly celebrating his daughter’s wedding; the central bank governor claimed that $20 billion of oil receipts had gone walkabout, and all Jonathan could say was that stealing was not corruption.

But all that is behind us now – or so we hope. Chief among Buhari’s virtues, much touted by all too many Nigerians hoping for a miracle (and who can blame them?), is his supposed probity, allied to his asceticism. In the run-up to the election, much was made of his ‘war against indiscipline’ during his first incarnation, along with his sandal-wearing simplicity in a country whose ruling class has made it the second-highest consumer of champagne in the world, even as the masses struggle to afford clean drinking water. As a former soldier, Buhari is also expected to deal decisively with Boko Haram.

The flaw in all of this is that no one person can transform Nigeria. Only Nigerians can do that, and this was the lesson of last weekend. With a few exceptions, an estimated 49 per cent of the 70 million registered voters (out of a population of 170 million) exercised great patience and restraint at the 120,000 polling stations across the country, a lesson not lost on observers. One of them, Chitra Nagarajan, wrote in the Guardian:

In every single polling unit I visited, people waited for hours without food or water. Temperatures reached 38C… At one unit, I spoke with women who had been waiting for nine hours, and expected to hear their complaints and frustration. Instead, they spoke about how excited they were and how fun they were finding it all: ‘We are exercising our civic responsibility,’ they said. ‘We don’t get the chance to do this every day.’ This joy at being part of the democratic process was something I encountered everywhere I went.

This set the tone for the next three days. Monday and Tuesday became unofficial public holidays as people stayed indoors to follow the results as they were announced in one after another of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. People remained calm but hopeful that their mandate would prevail, and so it was on Tuesday evening when we heard the news that Jonathan had telephoned Buhari to concede defeat. In a subsequent statement Jonathan thanked Nigerians for giving him the opportunity to serve them, and ‘affirmed’ his belief that ‘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.’

I don’t believe he would have imagined behaving so graciously six weeks ago, when he postponed the ballot (scheduled for 14 February) in order, he claimed, to deal with Boko Haram and thereby ensure free elections in the three affected states in the north-east. But the ploy worked against him: why had he prevaricated so disastrously over the past four years? He rose to the occasion, in other words, because Nigerians demanded it of him, just as the chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Attahiru Jega, was given the popular mandate to do his job and is now a hero, more so in some ways than Buhari.

A former US ambassador to the country, John Campbell,wrote a book on Nigeria a few years ago subtitled ‘Dancing on the Brink’. We have indeed been dancing on the brink since independence from British colonial rule in 1960. With this election, it is as if we have suddenly woken up to the disaster we have been courting since independence and are now ready to take ourselves seriously as a nation frequently described as too rich to be poor.

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