PARIS — During the nail-biting four days of an election that many warned would be too close to call, Nigeria was in a collective state of high anxiety. Then, in a twist for Africa's most populous nation, a presidential election that had threatened to end in a bloodbath instead concluded peacefully with the incumbent president defeated.
The man who has been leading the country since 2010, Goodluck Jonathan, conceded defeat and congratulated his rival, Muhammadu Buhari. "I have promised this country free and fair elections," he said. "I have kept my word. Nobody's ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian." Never before in the country's history had a head of state accepted a change in power.
Nobody really knows yet what Buhari's presidency will mean for Nigeria, a country where political life has rarely been violence-free. But what prevailed after the result was announced was a series of joyful demonstrations triggered by Jonathan's "heroic" defeat and the collective hope that it would represent a turning point.
Jonathan in a way contributed to his own loss by reinforcing the powers of the Independent National Electoral Commission, thus guaranteeing that the electoral process would follow a proper course until the end.
Former President Goodluck Jonathan voting on March 28 — Photo: NAN/Xinhua/ZUMA
The president has lost, but Nigeria has won. The result is a signal that Nigerians are finally determined to see their elected representatives answer for their actions. With their votes, they punished waste, unemployment, inequalities, dilapidated universities, and the inability to fight against terror group Boko Haram. That and the crazy money of a corrupted elite that travels in private jets.
Astronomical amounts of money had been distributed to try and buy victory. But Nigerian voters are not so easily bought anymore. They can no longer be driven to polling stations en masse by the simple fear of violence or the strength of their religious or ethnic identity. They voted with admirable patience.
This energy, this will to weigh in on the nation's choices is a lesson of hope for democracies around the world. It's important that it comes from Africa and that they don't owe it to anybody but themselves. No foreign power dictated to Nigeria the recipe for its own hope.
In 2014, the country overtook South Africa to become the continent's biggest economy. It's now up to Muhammadu Buhari to take the challenge to a new level, to build a new democratic model. Of course, with 174 million inhabitants, Nigeria remains a rentier economy that's feebly diversifying. But saying only that would be to ignore the pace of its transformations, some of which are Goodluck Jonathan's doing.
Seen from Nigeria post-election, African heads of state who cling to power and flee from electoral justice look so dishonest, narrow-minded and selfish.
The African giant has administered a great lesson to all countries with rigged elections, reigning families and presidents who "answer the people's calls" never to leave power. May it be a long-lasting one.