In Nigeria, an Election to Believe In

I guessed wrong, and being wrong has never felt so good. Last week, we Nigerians conquered our fears and doubts and elected Muhammadu Buhari to be our new president. He promises to protect all of us better than the party that held power ever since military rule ended in 1999. And the loser accepted the verdict without violence. Though I wished fervently for this outcome, nothing could have surprised me more.

Two months ago, when it looked as if President Goodluck Jonathan would either win or manipulate the election to remain in power, I was near despair. My cousin Chidera had just called from Gombe, in Nigeria’s troubled north. A bomb had exploded some 200 yards from where Mr. Jonathan had gone to campaign. Chidera could have been killed, just as my parents might have been last year, when a bomb nearby rocked their home in Kano, forcing them to flee south, near me. Once again, I felt the terror that had stalked my childhood as a Christian in the mostly Muslim north during its periodic religion-incited riots.

Today, as a fiction writer living in the south, I have learned to observe people for the wittiest statement, the affecting gesture, the eyes that signal warmth.

Four and a half years ago, I recognized those endearing qualities in Mr. Jonathan, when he began his first campaign for president. He appeared a simple man — shoulders hunched, brows crinkled, eyes misty. He told of poor beginnings, hinting at the possibility of his country, too, rising from nothing. I imagined him, as president, drawing the kids in my village to my grandmother’s black-and-white television. They would watch him say that he, too, once had resources as limited as their own, and they might aspire to grow up to be Goodluck Jonathans. And so, I voted for him.

Two days later, reality intruded. Before the winner was declared, my father called from Kano, distraught. He said supporters of Mr. Buhari, a former military dictator who was Mr. Jonathan’s main rival, had taken to the streets, denouncing the election as rigged. He said that they were burning churches and houses and killing non-Muslims. Later, Christian youths with clubs, guns and machetes attacked Muslims in reprisal. The rioting lasted two days, leaving nearly 1,000 people dead in northern Nigeria.

And things up north would only get worse. Now we have Boko Haram seizing northeastern communities, proclaiming a caliphate and seeking affiliation with the Islamic State. In three years the terrorists have killed perhaps 15,000 people and displaced over a million.

And in the face of such danger, the misty-eyed man I voted for proved cold and ineffectual. He began speaking not with us but at us, and as if he was in a hurry to leave. His eyes were vacant on television; his touching humility seemed mere timidity. When Boko Haram kidnapped dozens of high school girls a year ago, I wished I could reach into my television, shake him, and ask where he was hiding the president I voted for.

Nevertheless, he sought re-election, and again faced Mr. Buhari. He made excuses for Nigeria’s gross insecurity and corruption, pointing everywhere but at himself. Mr. Buhari had a likelier explanation: Corruption had shredded our economy, and funds to train and equip our soldiers had been embezzled, leaving them incapable of fighting Boko Haram. Mr. Buhari promised to re-equip our military, and fight both terrorism and corruption. He insisted he was now a democrat. His popularity grew and grew.

But we did not dare to think he would win — especially after elections were delayed by six weeks and tricks began. For example, the number of hours we received electricity shot up from four each day to around 18, at just about the time I got a text message, “I am GEJ” — Goodluck Ebele Jonathan — on my phone, seeking my vote.

It did him no good. And on Election Day, we were thrilled by suspense over who would win, and by hope there would be no violence. But we held our expectations low, knowing too well that no incumbent had been peacefully voted out of office before. And then, the vote count showed Mr. Buhari the clear winner. Even better, Mr. Jonathan calmly conceded, quieting supporters who had begun to grumble.

I sat, stunned, unsure whether to scream my joy or to laugh. I had never thought Mr. Buhari could win; my vote for him was my little attempt to push back at a system that had failed me. As for Mr. Jonathan, I gave him a personal pardon. In his unexpected act of statesmanship, I rediscovered the man I had voted for in 2011.

Now Mr. Buhari promises us a world that reads something like a storybook — a country free of corruption, where people won’t need to uproot their lives to find safety, where our voices are heard, where we aren’t judged by our religion or ethnicity. And his words felt true enough, as though we could reach out and touch this new Nigerian dream.

But sometimes, I fear that in a few months we may again be stranded between hope and despair. Chidera, now adjusting to life in southeastern Nigeria, says Mr. Buhari will lead Nigeria in a better second act, and will unify north and south. I struggle to be that optimistic. On May 29, Mr. Buhari will assume the presidency. Will he, too, disappoint us? Even if he does, I feel a certain relief. I now know we can peacefully vote out an incumbent. And that emboldens me. It is why I hold on to Mr. Buhari’s fresh promises — for now — and can’t wait to start measuring his performance against them. Or begin preparing myself for the next election.

Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Eyes of a Goddess.

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