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Nigeria's Big Chance

by Jay Loschky and Robin Sanders
Nigeria's Big Chance

FEEEDS Advocacy Initiative, Gallup and Allafrica.com are hosting an event on Thursday in Washington, D.C., to examine Nigeria's recent presidential election and critical issues for the wider African electorate.

Nigeria's big chance has arrived. Gone are both the one-party dominant system that has ruled Nigeria since 1999 and the remnants of the military junta that midwifed the country's transition to uncontested People's Democratic Party rule more than 15 years ago. Contrary to the expectations of many inside and outside the country, Nigeria has broken the string of contested elections dating back to 1999 and has voted in an opposition candidate for the first time in its history. While President-elect Muhammadu Buhari's supporters celebrate Nigeria's democratic step forward, the country's new president will soon have his hands full tackling Nigeria's multiple, severe crises of security and governance. But unlike following past elections, Buhari will govern with a clear mandate from Nigerian voters and must rule with the goals of his electorate in mind to meet heightened expectations for change.

Ahead of Buhari's swearing-in on May 29, Gallup surveys in Nigeria shed light on the election's implications, President Goodluck Jonathan's fall from the public's favor and the challenges that the Buhari presidency will face.

Nigeria's Elections Are a Positive Sign for Future Democracy

There was nothing inevitable about this election's outcome. In fact, Nigerians have long doubted the credibility of their own elections. Outside of a brief bounce in 2011 brought on by a slightly more credible presidential election, few Nigerians have been confident in the honesty of their elections since Gallup first began asking this question in 2009. In 2014, only 13% of Nigerians said they believed in the honesty of their country's elections, the lowest level measured among all 32 sub-Saharan African countries that Gallup surveyed in 2014. Certainly, advocates of democracy in the region can be encouraged by the finding that if democracy can prevail amid even the greatest of cynicism, successful elections may be possible in other countries as well.

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Jonathan's Government Failed to Reassure on Terrorism, Corruption

Jonathan likely lost crucial support from the Nigerian public for at times appearing uncommitted or even powerless in the fight against Boko Haram. Many of Jonathan's detractors, especially in the country's north, accused the president of not taking the Boko Haram threat seriously enough early on, only overrunning the terror group's main headquarters in Gwoza days before the national election occurred. In the aftermath of the Chibok incident in April 2014, in which Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls, two in three Nigerians (67%) said that their government was not doing enough to fight terrorism. Among Nigerians who approved of Jonathan's leadership at that time, less than half (45%) believed the government was doing enough to fight terrorism, compared with 16% of Nigerians who disapproved of his leadership.

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As Boko Haram escalated its attacks in the country's Northeast after December 2011, confidence in key security institutions slowly fell in tandem with confidence in the country's leadership. Between 2011 and 2014, confidence in the military slowly dropped from 78% to 57%, while confidence in the local police fell from 49% to 33%. The Nigerian government's continuing inability to resolve religious violence in the country's Middle Belt and to reduce crime in urban areas has left it unable to provide basic security for many of its own citizens. Buhari must rebuild confidence in the country's key security institutions early on and roll back Boko Haram gains if he is to satisfy the expectations of those who elected him to office.

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Concern about government corruption has been steady in Nigeria since Gallup first began asking this question in 2008. Close to nine in 10 Nigerians each year say corruption is widespread in their government. Jonathan's perceived failure to take on the country's ingrained client-patron networks and tackle corruption left him vulnerable to his critics and unpopular among the many Nigerians who feel left out by the country's oil-dependent economy.

In 2014, nearly nine in 10 Nigerians (86%) said corruption was widespread in their government, similar to the 91% who felt this way in 2013 when Nigerians were tied for the second-most likely in the world to respond this way. The accusation in 2013 that $20 billion had gone missing from government coffers only added to the view that corruption had risen to previously unseen heights in the last several years. For Buhari, who is regarded by his own supporters as incorruptible and is remembered by many Nigerians for his anti-corruption efforts in the 1980s, tackling the country's systemic corruption is likely to be his greatest challenge.

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A Positive event for Regional and Global Democracy

As Africa's largest economy and most populous country, Nigeria's recent presidential election could be seen as a watershed moment not only for Nigeria but for other African countries in transition as well. Nigeria's successful election bucks a global trend that has seen democracy backsliding in recent years -- while at the regional level, democratic gains in Nigeria have the potential to set a powerful example for other multi-ethnic, multireligious states.

Buhari has a challenging job ahead of him. Free and fair elections and the establishment of multiparty politics are key to advancing Nigeria, but they aren't the final goal. Nigeria's challenges are many and the new president must take on deeply -rooted and powerful interests if he is to satisfy the country's electorate. To succeed where Jonathan's government failed, Buhari must tackle the country's mounting security and corruption woes head-on. His ability to do so may not only indicate Nigeria's ability to advance further on its democratic path, but may be the biggest predictor of his own political fortunes in the years to come in a country where presidents might now lose elections.

Jay Loschky is Regional Director for Africa at Gallup.
Ambassador Dr. Robin Renee Sanders is CEO of the FEEEDS Advocacy Initiative and previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria and the Republic of Congo, and was U.S. Permanent Representative to the West African Regional Organization ECOWAS.

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