BY ROBYN DIXON
LOS ANGELES TIMES / TNS
In a historic breakthrough for Nigerian democracy, President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat Tuesday in a hard-fought presidential election, signaling that he will peacefully turn over power to his victorious rival, Muhammadu Buhari.
Jonathan, 57, the first sitting leader to be defeated at the ballot box, was hailed as a hero by the opposition after he called Buhari, 72, to congratulate him on his victory late Tuesday afternoon, even before the final result was announced.
A peaceful transfer of power in Africa’s most populous nation sends a strong democratic message across a continent where many presidents cling to power for decades.
Nigeria, a country of 170 million, remains balanced between the mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south. When he takes power at the end of May, Buhari, a northern Muslim, will face the difficult task of allaying lingering southern fears and smoothing the divide, particularly along the troubled central belt at the crossroads of north and south that has seen sectarian violence in the past.
Buhari’s election comes at a difficult time for the country, with a sharp decline in government revenue from oil leaving scant money in government coffers.
For decades, officials and corrupt insiders have skimmed billions of dollars from the country’s national oil company. Although Nigeria is one of Africa’s biggest producers, it has to import gasoline.
As military ruler from 1983-85, Buhari ran a harsh anti-corruption drive and ruled by decree, introducing restrictions on journalists and dissidents, who could be prosecuted for criticizing the government.
Still, Buhari’s uncompromising stance on corruption and his promise to take a tough stand on the militant group Boko Haram make him attractive to many. He hammered at those two themes in his first televised address as president-elect Wednesday.
“Boko Haram will soon know the strength of our collective will. We should spare no effort until we defeat terrorism,” he said. He also vowed to fight corruption, saying it undermined democracy and made some people unjustly rich.
“Corruption will not be tolerated by this government.”