After three failed runs for the presidency, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari accomplished something few Nigerians believed possible: defeating an incumbent in an election that didn’t collapse into widespread violence.
The victory by Buhari, 72, marked the first time an opposition candidate beat a sitting president since independence from the U.K. in 1960. And while more than 80 people were killed during the election campaign, according to the European Union, and there were some allegations of rigging, most international and local observers called the vote relatively free and fair.
“Our long night has passed and the daylight of new democratic governance has broken across the land,” Buhari said Wednesday in a speech in Abuja, the capital, as he received the certificate saying he won the election. “Millions of you have worked for this day. So many have risked life and livelihood and others have died that we may witness this moment.”
As the electoral authorities in Abuja neared the end of announcing the results late Tuesday, celebrations broke out across Buhari’s strongholds in the mainly Muslim north, with people honking car horns and chanting “only Buhari.”
“We are happy about everything and it was peaceful,” said Baba Shagari Elisha, a 27-year-old security guard in Abuja. “It was how God wanted it.”
The relatively peaceful vote breaks a run of bad news for Nigeria this year, as an Islamist insurgency, slumping oil prices and a weakened currency dominated the election and deterred investment.
Nigeria’s stock index jumped 8.3 percent, the most since March 2010, to close at the highest level this year. The yield on the West African nation’s Eurobonds due July 2023 fell 20 basis points to 6 percent by 5 p.m. in London, the lowest since Dec. 5.
Buhari, a retired major general, pledged Wednesday to defeat the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which has killed at least 13,000 people in its six-year campaign to impose Islamic law, or Shariah, on the West African nation.
“I assure you that Boko Haram will soon know the strength of our collective will and commitment to rid this nation of terror, and bring back peace and normalcy to all the affected areas,” he said. “We shall spare no effort until we defeat terrorism.”
President Goodluck Jonathan, who lost by a 52.4 percent to 43.7 percent margin, conceded defeat on Tuesday evening, an unprecedented step in a country accustomed to post-election violence and turmoil.
“I promised the country free and fair elections,” he said in a statement. “I have kept my word.”
The planning for Buhari’s win over Jonathan, a 57-year-old southern Christian started two years ago when three major opposition parties decided to unite to unseat the ruling People’s Democratic Party, which governed Nigeria since the end of military rule in 1999.
That alliance, the All Progressives Congress, helped Buhari make inroads in the southwest, home of the Yoruba people where Christians and Muslims live side by side, as well as in some central regions that he didn’t win in previous elections, said Tunji Lardner, executive director of the West African NGO Network.
Buhari’s victory was also aided by the failure of the Jonathan government to subdue Boko Haram and an economic downturn after an almost 50 percent drop in the price of oil, its main export, since June.
“Jonathan’s government didn’t benefit me at all, we are all one, everybody should benefit,” Cyprian Nnaji, a 29-year-old building contractor, said in Abuja. “Nothing is working.”
Buhari, in his speech, pledged to fight corruption, which he described as “even worse than terrorism.” Nigeria is ranked 136 of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, on par with Russia and Iran.
“Corruption will not be tolerated by this administration and it shall no longer be allowed to stand as if it is a respected monument in this nation,” he said.
Before the vote, Buhari and Jonathan had signed peace accords promising that their supporters would not react violently to the result. After Jonathan defeated Buhari in 2011, about 800 people were killed in post-election clashes.
“The successful conduct of these polls is a testament to the maturity of Nigeria’s democracy,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an e-mailed statement. U.S. President Barack Obama said Jonathan placed his country’s interests first and acted like a statesman in defeat.
Kelechi Uzogu, a 46-year-old Lagos-based banker, was so frightened that the elections would spark violence that he took his wife and children back to his home state of Imo.
“The victory of Buhari and the fact that nobody was cheated in the election helped to calm the country,” he said.
In most areas, the worst fears weren’t realized, and Nigerians voting to change the government, for once, got their wish.
“There are all sorts of tectonic shifts that occured in the political landscape and it has been a long time coming,” Lardner of the West African NGO Network said by phone from Abuja. “Nigerians want to change their political system, somehow the will of the people prevailed.”