Nigerians and the international community alike feared the worst after Nigeria’s election was postponed by more than six weeks earlier this year. There was a palpable sense of tension throughout the country, with voters seemingly more polarized than ever. Questions and rumors circulated unfettered. With Nigeria’s security agencies focused on a renewed fight against Boko Haram, who would secure the polls on Election Day? Was this a last-ditch effort by President Jonathan to counter criticism that he was too “soft” on jihadists? Might the elections never happen, or would they be significantly tampered with, as is so common in the region?
To the surprise of many, the elections went forward successfully and relatively peacefully, with perhaps the most notable moment being President Jonathan’s swift acceptance of defeat. The event marked one of the few cases in the electoral history of the entire African continent where an incumbent was unseated by a challenger. By accepting defeat, President Jonathan ensured the country avoided the post-election violence that many – both within Nigeria and outside of the country – feared. These elections substantiated the notion that incumbents can be defeated through the vote. As Africa’s largest democracy, Nigeria set the bar high for a continent with several major elections occurring in the next year.
President-elect Muhammadu Buhari faces major challenges upon taking office. Before the elections, the International Monetary Fund projected that Nigeria’s economy would grow by 4.8 per cent this year, down from 6.3 percent in 2014. Citing seven months of declining oil prices, rising political tensions during the build up to elections, and continued threat from Islamist insurgents in the Northeast, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Nigeria’s credit rating to B+ from BB-. The value of Nigeria’s external reserves fell below $30 billion in March, according to the Central Bank of Nigeria’s figures.
But there is reason for optimism. Nigeria’s non-oil economy has grown significantly over the past 15 years. Following President-elect Buhari’s victory, Nigeria’s benchmark stock index climbed 15 percent, to levels not seen since November 2014. According to a report by Ernst & Young, Nigeria has attracted the most FDI capital and the 2nd most FDI projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. The report predicts that privatization of the power sector will significantly increase levels of investment into electricity generation and distribution, potentially transforming the business environment in Nigeria.
Although relations between Abuja and Washington have been strained of late, now is the time to reengage. President-elect Buhari was elected on his promise to stem corruption and defeat Boko Haram – two major issues that have strained the U.S.-Nigeria partnership in the past. The U.S. should recognize this commitment and support Nigeria both militarily and economically. American investors and business leaders should be encouraged to explore opportunities in Nigeria and the State Department should consider supporting improvement of the Nigerian military at a command and control level.
Nigeria has built a track record of successful democratic elections, none more important and significant than its last. It’s time U.S. government and investment do its part to support our partner in building a more peaceful, stable, and democratic country for all.