Celebrations among Buhari’s base are somewhat low-key this year, nothing compared to the wild jubilations that came with his victory in 2015
On Wednesday afternoon, President Muhammadu Buhari strode on to a red-carpeted podium at the International Conference Centre in the Nigerian capital Abuja, with his wife Aisha in tow, both smiling as the audience cheered.
Professor Mahmood Yakubu, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), was waiting, a certificate in his hand. They shook hands and then Buhari collected the certificate of return to the office of president, usually issued to the winner of the elections within seven days.
INEC had, in the early hours of Wednesday, declared Buhari winner of the presidential election held on February 23, after it was delayed for one week due to logistical and operational challenges.
He defeated 72 other candidates, including former Nigeria’s vice president Atiku Abubakar of the major opposition party the People's Democratic Party (PDP).
Buhari gained 15.19 million votes, while the Abubakar (widely known as Atiku) secured 11.26 million votes.
Pockets of violence which left at least 47 people dead, as well as delays on the day of voting caused by the late arrival of materials and technical glitches affected the smooth conduct of the polls.
“I thank the millions of Nigerians who voted to re-elect me as your president for the next four years,” said 76-year-old Buhari, who was first elected as president in 2015.
“I am deeply humbled and profoundly grateful to you for judging me worthy of continuing to serve you and for your peaceful conduct.”
The opposition’s headache
But the opposition PDP was having none of it.
The party organised a press conference where Atiku was given all the time he needed to share his grievances, his face flushed with gravitas. The silent hall, packed with serious-looking party members, captured their shared feelings.
Addressing the audience, Atiku rejected the finally tally announced by INEC and said that it did not “reflect the will of the people”. The mood in the hall lightened a bit, party stalwarts and others who had gathered responded with sporadic outbursts of applause as he thrust his right hand to his chest.
In an earlier statement, he promised to seek redress in court and questioned the high voter turnout in states affected by terrorism in Nigeria’s northeast. He said troops were deployed to his party’s stronghold to suppress votes and added that “premeditated malpractices” ruined the results.
The next steps would be revealed to the public soon, he said.
Even before the electoral commission’s declaration yesterday, the PDP had, on Monday, scoffed at results as they trickled in from different states, saying those tallies were “incorrect and unacceptable”.
“We have the facts and when the time comes, we begin to release them,” PDP national Chairman Uche Secondus told journalists in Abuja.
The battle in the court
Buhari himself had previously rejected election results and rushed to the court when he lost the presidential elections in 2003, 2007 and 2011.
A former army major-general, he seized power in a coup that ousted the civilian administration of Shehu Shagari in December 1983.
Although the economy wobbled and austerity measures implemented at that time caused job losses and severe hardship, many people remember him for his War Against Indiscipline (or WAI) campaign launched in early 1984 during his 20-month stint as head of state.
Nigerians were forced to maintain orderly queues and dump garbage properly, soldiers wielding horse whips nearby to mete out severe punishment if need be. Civil servants who showed up late for work did frog jumps or received other punishments. Examination malpractice could fetch students a 21-year prison sentence. The death penalty awaited for people stealing oil.
Politicians, officials and businessmen numbering up to 500 were jailed under his watch.
In a climate where politicians are generally perceived as being corrupt, Buhari’s austere lifestyle appealed to millions of Nigerians who, sometimes boastfully, tell others that he is incorruptible. In turn, the PDP had, since 1999, dominated national politics until 2015, and the party was seen as a group made up of corrupt politicians.
In 2015, Buhari defeated then president Goodluck Jonathan and became the first opposition figure to unseat a ruling president since Nigeria returned to democratic administration following years of military dictatorship that started in January 1966, six years after independence from Britain.
He pulled a total of 15.41 million votes compared to Jonathan’s 12.85 million votes.
That victory was, in part, predicated on his reputation as a crusader against corruption. Nigerians, wearied of this evil that has stalled progress for decades, rooted for him. His asceticism even made him more acceptable.
Buhari and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), promised ‘change’, a phrase that signalled an end to many of Nigeria’s problems. He vowed to decimate Boko Haram militants and said corruption was an “even greater evil” and declared that it “will not be tolerated by this administration”.
Throughout his administration’s stewardship, nothing could possibly have caused as much uproar as his decision to suspend the head of the country’s Supreme Court, Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, three weeks before the election, almost immediately appointing an acting chief justice of Nigeria.
Onnoghen was facing charges in connection to the non-disclosure of foreign bank accounts when he became the highest court’s head in 2017. The constitution allows a chief justice to be removed when he is found guilty of an offence or by two-thirds majority of the Senate acting on a presidential directive.
The international community queried his decision, Atiku said it was nothing short of "an act of dictatorship". The Nigerian Bar Association “unequivocally” condemned the president’s actions. Newspapers wrote highly critical editorials. Civil society groups frowned. Nigerian Twitter users used the hashtag #TyrantBuhari to accuse the former military ruler of returning to his dictatorial past.
With allegations of electoral fraud appearing to be common and disputes often arising from elections here, the court, especially the Supreme Court which is the highest in the country, is a key arbiter in addressing electoral disputes, which explains some critics’ misgivings.
“The PDP almost certainly will mount a legal challenge to the result, but it is unclear how much traction it will get in the courts,” explains Matthew T Page, Associate Fellow at London-based Chatham House.
“Although the opposition party may succeed in challenging the result of some down-ballot races, Buhari's relatively wide margin of victory and the relative credibility of the electoral process will provide few openings to overturn the result.”
What lies ahead?
In the wake of the final declaration of results by INEC, celebrations among Buhari’s base are somewhat low-key this year, nothing compared to the wild jubilations that came with his victory in 2015 or the sheer joy intermingled with beads of sweat on the faces of happy supporters, some of whom performed daredevil theatrics with their cars and motorbikes.
Four years after he came into office, critics say his fight against corruption is selective, targeting largely opposition figures. Members of his party accused of corruption walked away without much harm.
Boko Haram is – despite his administration’s claims that the group has been ‘defeated’ – still active in the northeastern region where more than 30,000 have been killed and about 2.5 million displaced in Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
In addition, a deadly wave of conflict between farmers and herders has left thousands dead as has growing armed banditry in Nigeria’s northwest.
Insecurity remains a major challenge for Buhari, alongside erratic electricity, unemployment, corruption, and a struggling economy.
Buhari acknowledged these problems and, in his victory speech on Wednesday. He asserted: “The new administration will intensify its efforts in security, restructuring the economy and fighting corruption.
“We have laid down the foundation and we are committed to seeing matters to the end.”
On May 29, Buhari will start a second term as Nigeria’s president, and it will be another chance to prove his commitment to addressing these challenges that have held Nigeria back for several decades.
“In a sense, President Buhari’s second term begins immediately because the many demographic and socioeconomic pressures Nigeria faces will not wait,” argues Page of Chatham House.
“Unemployment, economic malaise, insecurity and infrastructure shortfalls are plain to see. In his second term, Buhari needs to 'up his game' and build trust by governing more dynamically and inclusively. He needs to communicate beyond his inner circle and empower his subordinates to take initiative and show leadership in tackling Nigeria’s most pressing challenges.”