Nigeria’s President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, may have emerged victorious in the 2015 national elections, but if the former military strongman understands the result of the polls, he would refrain from partaking in any victory lap. Instead, he might contemplate how to succeed in leading a nation in which half the populace has rejected him four times in a row.
Buhari won the election with 15.4 million votes, of which 12.4 million, over 80 percent, came from the north. However, from the 11 States of the South-south and Southeast he got a meagre 616,838, less than 8 percent of the total valid votes. This is the fourth time he has been roundly rejected by the far south. Since he began contesting for the presidency in 2003, he has never achieved up to 25 percent of the votes from these regions . This obvious rejection of Buhari is as much about him as it is his origin. The Christian dominated south and the largely Muslim north share a history of distrust that stretches back to precolonial times. Apart from the late President Umar Musa Yaradua, no candidate from either side of the divide has won significant support from the other side. Yaradua rode on the influence of then President Olusegun Obasanjo, the sentiment of his running mate—now President Goodluck Jonathan who is from the Niger Delta, and the fact that the election was dominated by northern candidates. If Buhari really means to lead Nigeria into shared prosperity, then he must bridge the divide between the Far North and the Deep South.
The job of bridging the divide will be tougher for Buhari, because he is in many ways, a symbol of mistrust between the North and South. Despite twice fielding running mates from the Igbo tribe that dominates the southeast, he has never been able to gain the confidence of those regions. Seen as the political leader of the conservative bloc of the Muslim north, he has often been accused of sponsoring or acquiescing the ethno-religious intolerance against the southerners residing in the North. He is also perceived as representing the battle for an Islamic triumph in a country half populated by Christians. While Buhari has avowed his commitment to a progressive pluralistic Nigeria and distanced himself from ethno-religious intolerance and extremism, this election shows those sentiments still hold sway in the South. Now, as president, he has the best opportunity to demonstrate to the many who doubt his intentions, that he is committed to a plural secular and all-inclusive Nigeria.
Buhari is not the first to face this challenge. The late Nelson Mandela became the President of South Africa amidst fear of repression by the Whites. The legendary leader, however conquered their doubts with a sincere leadership that was void of discrimination. At the end of his four year tenure, he had laid the strong foundations of a rainbow nation that was open to all regardless of race, tribe, religious affiliation or sexual orientation. Despite starting out as a black emancipation fighter, Mandela climaxed his political career as a leader welcoming of all race. Buhari, like Mandela in 1994, now has four years to win over his most ardent adversaries.
The incoming president has indeed started on the right path of convincing Southeastern Nigerians to believe in him. His campaign team included the likes of Rotimi Amaechi, the governor of the Rivers State– the most populous state in the Niger Delta, and Rochas Okorocha, the governor of the Imo State– the heartland of the Igbo dominated Southeast. His message of anti-corruption also won him the support of a significant number of the middle class of South-South and South-East extraction, majority of those are resident in the cities of Lagos and Abuja. Now, he has to prove that those who supported him made the right choice, and to those who didn’t, that they should, and can, trust him as a leader. To achieve this, he must avoid the cronyism and nepotism that has plagued past governments and remove the corruption and insecurity that has bred popular disaffection against leaders. He cannot afford to fail in the upliftment of the economy and the creation of jobs, both of which are more important to the people on the streets than social sentiments.
Most importantly, Buhari must address the ethno-religious intolerance that dominates the politics of Nigeria and hamper societal cohesion. This problem has been long avoided by Nigeria’s political leaders, many of whom have sought to profit from from the brickwall rather than bridge the gap. Buhari, as a leader of one side of the fence, is in the best position to lead the dismantling of the wall. He may have won the polls, but the success of his presidency rests on his ability to move Nigeria past the rough road of divisive corrupt leaderships and social fragmentation, into a smooth highway of unifying effective governance and peaceful societal cohabitation.