Nigerians earlier this year elected new legislative leaders and President Muhammadu Buhari, who defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan by 2.5 million votes.
The results were remarkable for reasons that transcend the individual candidates’ careers. It was the first peaceful transition of power to an opposition party in Nigeria’s democratic history. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called it a “decisive moment for democracy.”
Other African nations with upcoming elections — such as Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Guinea — are studying what went right in Nigeria in hopes of replicating the process. Here’s what they are finding:
Kingsley Bangwell, who runs a group called Youngstars, credits a rise in youth activism in the years just prior to the election for creating a more engaged electorate. Students protested corruption in Nigeria’s oil industry in 2012 and the Boko Haram insurgency in 2014. Young people, said Bangwell, grew confident in their ability to “organize around an issue and get the government to listen.”
Youth “drove the campaign of President Buhari,” according to Samson Itodo, founder of Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement. Notably, Buhari was not the youngest candidate — he was almost the oldest. But young voters supported Buhari because they wanted to see “what someone who has … the political will to fight corruption can do to improve livelihoods,” Itodo said.
Between 2011 and 2015, voters took to social media in droves. Before the March election, Nigerian rappers Banky and M.I participated in Twitter chats to raise voter awareness, and both sides used social media to reach young people.
Enough is Enough, a coalition promoting good governance, hosted a concert to which attendees gained admittance by showing their voter cards. The coalition promoted the show on social media with ads encouraging voter registration. “People can be apathetic,” said Yemi Adamolekun, director of Enough is Enough, “so the idea was to use music and comedy to get them to participate.”
Youngstars built a media campaign called “Vote Not Fight,” which reached 62 million people with its message of nonviolence. The speaker of the house and the chairman of the national election commission joined thousands of others in signing on as “peace ambassadors” at the Vote Not Fight website, and the artist 2Face contributed a “Vote Not Fight” video.
Attahiru Jega, chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission at the time of the recent election, had overseen the 2011 general election, and that election had been called “significantly more transparent and credible” than the three preceding ones by a global monitoring group.
Jega gained trust in 2011 by compiling an entirely new voter registry. He required voters to be accredited at the polls prior to voting. This year, Jega’s commission introduced permanent voter cards with biometric information embedded in them. Polling stations had readers to verify voters’ identities.
While a six-week postponement of the election in February raised concerns about corruption, Jega reassured voters. A popular #iStandwithJega Twitter hashtag trumpeted his credibility. In the end, Jega enjoyed trust from both the ruling and the opposition parties … and a lot went right.