Last weekend, Nigerian voters gathered in the valley of electoral decision and made their choice, sending seismic shockwaves coursing through the world’s sixth largest democracy. In the process, prideful party barons were humbled, certain myths were nullified and a ruling party whose leadership once arrogantly predicted its inevitable sixty-year hegemony was brought down to earth with a dull thud. Nigerian democracy in all its chaotic splendour and fractious turbulence delivered a result for the ages. In the last few days, we have become a nation of emergency mathematicians, philosophers and analysts.

In an election cycle that has brought out both the worst and best in us, some people deserve positive mention. One of them has to be Attahiru Jega, the chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission, who was of Zen-like and stoic comportment swatting away the incredible pressures of his job. Nigerian politics is not for the faint of heart and the job of refereeing the bare-knuckle contest for power among Nigeria’s politicians is difficult to say the least.

By leveling the field and refusing to serve as a mere courtier to the ruling party, Jega ensured that many politicians actually worked to earn the people’s votes for the first time in their careers. The introduction of technology into the electoral process, despite its flaws, is a positive move towards improving the process. Jega has inscribed his name indelibly in the annals of Nigerian public service.

In the North East, voters defied the very real threat to their lives posed by murderous terrorists to register their choice at the polls. In Bauchi, thousands of voters surrounded the collation centre defying a dubious curfew declared by the governor in order to prevent any covert subversion of their will. In many places, the elderly braved the elements to vote, among them were some centenarians, who in the span of their lifetimes have witnessed the departure of colonialists, and the democratic dislodgment of an incumbent president.

To be sure, Jonathan’s politics of prejudice deserved to lose. Crude identity politics has always lurked in the shadows of our public square but never in our history has it received such endorsement and patronage from the highest office in the land. It fully deserved the repudiation which it so richly received at the polls. A Jonathan victory, so heavily reliant on cynical chauvinism and bigotry would have set us back several decades, because it would have reinforced our worst and our most retrograde political impulses.

This brings us to the victor. In a society warped by the manic quest for instant gratification, Buhari’s story is an epic odyssey of Lincolnian persistence. Derided by the ruling party, as a “serial loser”, he finally prevailed with his fourth presidential bid in twelve years. Along the way, he morphed into the anointed vessel of disenchantment with the status quo. The journey has been a grueling one. Buhari withstood the most vicious campaign of character assassination ever levied against a Nigerian presidential candidate. He was smeared as a religious extremist and the terrorist mastermind behind Boko Haram; his integrity was impugned and he was accused of academic fraud. Even the tragic loss of his daughter to illness was fair game to partisan hacks.

When distortions and outright lies failed, Team Jonathan took to death wishes, bizarrely alleging that Buhari had a terminal health condition and that his death was imminent. In all this, Buhari refused to be provoked and drawn into the gutter by the ardent buffoonery of some ruling party apparatchiks. Despite the invasive scrutiny to which he has been subjected by ruling party operatives fishing for dirt, it is to Buhari’s great credit that the People’s Democratic Party found nothing with which to hurt Buhari’s credibility.

The opposition All Progressives Congress deserves credit for its organisation, focus and strategic nous and for finally overcoming the chronic discord and dysfunction that has hobbled previous opposition coalitions. This time, they detonated the myth of the ruling party’s invincibility.

Special mention must be made of the concerned citizens, statesmen and civil society actors that campaigned vigorously for peaceful polls – a call that was heeded by the vast majority of Nigerians.
And finally, President Jonathan also deserves positive mention. His congratulatory call to Buhari even before the final state result was announced signalled an impressive willingness to sign off his presidency with a touch of class and has set an entirely positive precedent for our young democracy. The fact is that whether by accident or design, Jonathan has presided over two fairly decent elections and has now overseen his exit from power. It is difficult to imagine some of his predecessors being so permissive about their electoral fortunes. In one sense, it is true that the nation has come of age. But Jonathan’s dignified comportment following his defeat precludes the possibility that the chariot of change will be delayed by any unnecessary melodrama. Years from now, this may even come to be seen as the defining act of his presidency.

Let there be no mistake: none of our onerous national problems will vanish overnight simply because of Buhari’s victory. The president-elect is neither a messiah nor a magician, contrary to the perception of some his more fanatical supporters. There are astronomical expectations which have to be deftly managed. Nigeria remains a nation with an economy in rough waters, with high levels of poverty and unemployment, battling insurgents in the North East and insecurity in the Niger Delta. The extent to which the national treasury has been pillaged to finance a doomed incumbent’s campaign or simply filched by light-fingered officials will have to be evaluated.

These challenges will surely test his mettle. What this transition represents is an opportunity to reset the approaches to addressing these issues with fresh eyes and hands at the helm. Buhari will also restore dignity, decorum and moral authority to the presidency.

The close poll results suggest that Nigeria is a divided country. Some of these divisions have deep roots nourished by historical antipathies and inherited prejudices. Some of them are of more recent vintage fostered and fertilised by the squalid politics of the last four years. Bridging the gap between the Niger Delta and the South East and the rest of the nation is an essential task. It is time to build bridges and not walls. We urgently need to heal the union after the fracture of our society in the Jonathan era. This is why there is no time for gloating or juvenile triumphalism. There is work to be done. Fortunately, Buhari and his vice president elect, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, are not men given to frivolity and they know that they will have to hit the ground running.

But this work is not for the incoming administration alone. The righteous indignation that drove Nigerians to endorse change at the polls must also lead to deeper engagement with society as citizens. The message of change must go beyond altering the personalities at the helm of the state. It must mean a change in our values, systems and institutions.

Some precious lessons have been learned. We have learned that a sitting president is neither a cosmic entity nor an immovable object; he is an individual thrust into high office by a favourable confluence of circumstances, resources and popular opinion, and is liable to be thrown out when this confluence of factors becomes unfavourable. We have learned that playing the ethnic and religious card in the pursuit of the presidency of such a diverse nation is of limited utility.

Above all, the people have begun to realise their true power. Nigeria has been run for so long like a corporation where for some reason the employees had come to believe that they were the employers. This election cycle has served a reminder as to who the real employers are. Never again will incumbency be mistaken for invincibility. And should the newly triumphant party careen into the same hubris that felled their predecessors, they too will be made to rue the day that they subscribed to that error. The people have dragged the elites kicking and screaming over the threshold of history into a more democratic future and long may it continue.

Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and political analyst.