Nigeria just had a peaceful election. This is a big deal.

Slowly but surely, Africa is moving towards democracy, accountability, and the rule of law

Nigeria election
(Image credit: (REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye))

Nigeria's presidential election has been a watershed, the first time that the most populous sub-Saharan African nation is handing over power peacefully and democratically. Muhammadu Buhari won the election fair and square.

Many observers were scared ahead of these elections. Nigeria's democracy is young and fragile, corruption rife, governance poor. Nigeria is also torn by sectarian and ethnic violence, including an all-out civil war with the militant Islamic group Boko Haram. And while the Ebola plague seems to be under control in Nigeria at the moment, it only added further risk to a tense time.

And yet, everything went about as smoothly as expected. This is not only the first time an incumbent president was not reelected, it is the first time there has been a presidential election with so little violence. Overall, the elections were smoothly and properly organized, and voters were enthusiastic. President Goodluck Jonathan graciously congratulated his defeater and is working toward a smooth transition.

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President-elect Buhari is a Muslim, and yet a significant number of Christians voted for him. And the results of some local elections show that the sectarian factor is less important in driving the vote, a welcome omen for the future.

And Buhari is not a perfect person. He is a former military ruler of the country and was known for a poor human rights record. But he is seen as above corruption, and many feel that his autocratic touch might actually be what the country needs to defeat the Boko Haram insurgency — which was reportedly behind an attempt on his life in 2014. And Buhari put forward a more inclusive face this cycle, uniting the opposition behind him and garnering the Christian votes that failed him in 2003.

Meanwhile, the mostly well-intentioned Goodluck Jonathan proved ineffectual against Boko Haram, corruption, and a middling economy. And there was a widespread sense that it was time for a change — time to show the world that Nigeria is a grown-up democracy.

Bit by bit, slowly but surely, under our very noses, Africa, known for extravagant dictatorship and corruption, is moving towards democracy, accountability, and the rule of law. It's been a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process, still enormously frustrating, but over the past decades the trend is unmistakable. Most experts agree governance and corruption is Africa's biggest bottleneck when it comes to development. And once that is improved enough, Africa's excellent demographics mean it will become an economic and political powerhouse.

Nigeria isn't Switzerland yet. Profound divisions — religious, ethnic, North-South, over oil — remain, as well as deep problems. President-elect Buhari was elected on an anti-corruption platform — by far Nigeria's biggest problem — and he has his work cut out for him. And Nigeria is a federal republic. Part of the reason why the election went so smoothly is that many powers accrue to governors, who are up for reelection in two weeks. Very often, governors are at the head of political machines that siphon off money and votes. Many of them will not be afraid to try shenanigans, whether ballot stuffing or violence, to keep their jobs come election time.

In other words, Nigeria still has tough times ahead, but this week held very good news.

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