The concession of defeat by the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, marked the first time in the nation’s history that an incumbent leader has been ousted at the ballot box. In a West Africa region that has a mixed record with democracy, and a number of upcoming elections during 2015‑16, political leaders will be looking to learn lessons from the region’s political and economic powerhouse.
An incumbent being defeated is not unheard of in West Africa—Benin, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire have seen change following elections—but it is rare. For it to happen peacefully is even more rare; for example, the defeat of Laurent Gbagbo in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010 resulted in significant violence before he was eventually removed from office.
The victor in Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, gained votes on his pledges to curb corruption and tackle the threat from a militant group, Boko Haram, while boosting economic prospects. Public frustration and modest technical improvements in the election authority were enough to outweigh what, like in many African countries, has been formidable incumbency advantages come election time. This will be causing a reassessment of political prospects across the region given that corruption, violence and low incomes are all common issues that incumbent leaders have struggled to address.
The lessons being learnt from Nigeria are likely to be especially strong in Ghana, a country that has historically been heralded as a beacon of African democracy given the conduct of recent elections at which the two main parties have traded power. However, an incumbent president seeking re-election has never been defeated there; the changes of power have been when an incumbent has served the constitutional maximum of two terms in office. There have been distinctive similarities between Mr Jonathan’s political trajectory and that of his Ghanaian counterpart, John Mahama. Both were formerly vice-presidents who came to power after the death of their respective presidents. Both then contested and won a presidential election, but subsequently struggled to turn around disappointing economic performances. Mr Jonathan then failed in his bid to win a further election; Mr Mahama will seek re-election in 2016, but his chances against a resurgent opposition look unfavourable, again mimicking Nigeria. It is notable that the leader of Ghana’s main opposition party, Nana Akufo‑Addo, has spoken in recent days of being able to replicate Mr Buhari’s victory, but that it will take much hard work.
A less direct but still important impact elsewhere
Elsewhere in the region, the impact will be harder to notice. Côte d’Ivoire is holding its presidential poll in October but with the opposition imploding, the country’s two other main parties backing the incumbent, Alassane Ouattara, and the economy performing strongly, an upset at the ballot box appears remote. Similarly, in Togo, where the incumbent, Faure Gnassingbé, is likely to be re-elected on April 25th, the short-term impact will be minimal. Incumbency powers are still strong there and a divided opposition means that there are few serious contenders to Mr Gnassingbé winning a third term. Yet the Nigerian election sets a positive example of peaceful change at the ballot box and this may well influence events at future polls, such as the 2020 Ivorian election, when Mr Ouattara is obliged by the constitution to stand down and the field is likely to be more open.
The influence of Mr Buhari’s victory on events in Burkina Faso and Benin, where presidential polls are scheduled for October 2015 and 2016 respectively (an exact date for Benin’s presidential election is yet to be set), is harder to discern. In neither country will there be an incumbent defending his position, unless Boni Yayi, Benin’s president, succeeds in removing the constitutional term limit that currently bars him from standing again. However, on the back of Mr Buhari’s victory, Nigeria’s credibility as a promoter of democracy in the region will be strengthened and it could use this to influence developments beyond its borders. Voters will also be inspired by the example set by their Nigerian peers, and assuming relatively credible polls take place in Burkina Faso and Benin, this could help to tilt the balance in favour of peaceful regime changes.
Other countries have further to come
In Niger, the last of the countries in Nigeria’s neighbourhood due to hold a presidential poll in the near future, there are several similarities to its much larger southern neighbour. The incumbent, Mahamadou Issoufou, is facing re-election in 2016 and, like Mr Jonathan, has been fighting a Boko Haram insurgency and faced calls to improve management of the country’s natural resources to ensure greater benefits accrue to ordinary citizens. Mr Issoufou has shown more determination than Mr Jonathan to deal with the threat of Boko Haram but economic progress has been modest. The Issoufou administration has also been criticised for trying to undermine the country’s democracy by curbing rights to freedom of speech and assembly, suggesting that he is trying to make the most of his incumbency powers to stifle the prospects of his opponents. Indeed, there are few strong challengers at the moment. The main opposition leader, Hama Amadou, is in exile in France, accusing the government of trying to discredit him by alleging that he was involved in a baby-trafficking scandal. Doubts over the fairness of the election process mean that the example of Nigeria is unlikely to be repeated in Niger.
Overall, the Nigerian example is unlikely to herald a step change in the conduct or outcome of upcoming elections in the region, but neither will it be ignored. Nigeria has been through numerous flawed or skewed elections before it enjoyed the successful recent one, and this may well be the case in other countries too. Many in the region will also look to see if Nigeria can maintain its democratic momentum at imminent state-level elections and beyond. The gains from democracy can be far reaching and have a deep impact, but they can also be lost quickly.