Nigeria saw the most competitive presidential election in its history this week with Muhammadu Buhari defeating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. The outcome marked the first time that an opposition candidate defeated the ruling party in democratic elections, according to the BBC.
When the transfer of power takes place, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari will take be taking over Africa’s most populous country at a critical time–Nigeria struggles with corruption scandals, economic woes and insurgencies by the militant Boko Haram group.
Women in the World spoke to New York-based journalist Alexis Okeowo who has lived in and covered Nigeria extensively. She’s also writing a book about people standing up to extremism in Africa, and, in our discussion, she weighs in on what the Nigerian election outcome means for women, specifically the girls from the campaign Bring Back Our Girls.
Women in the World: What are your immediate thoughts about the election results?
Alexis Okeowo: There wasn’t a big voting turnout, 70 million out of 170 million were registered and a lot of votes were cancelled, so it was only about 27-28 million votes at play here, but in places where Boko Haram held territory, like in Yobe state, almost 50 percent of people cast votes, which is a very big deal. Buhari is perceived as military man who can bring in discipline in the army and a man with an iron fist. There are a lot of generals stealing money meant for soldiers on ground. Buhari managed to get a religious plurality in votes. Nigeria is a place where, despite tensions, people will vote across religious lines.
WITW: As the anniversary of the Boko Haram girls coming up, what do you think Buhari will do?
AO: Especially after the girls’ kidnapping last year, Buhari called Nigeria a failed state and he said it was time for an overhaul of the fight against Boko Haram. He hasn’t said anything directly about the girls, which is smart because there is nothing really you can say since he can’t promise to get them back.
WITW: What do you think happened to the girls?
AO: I think they are spread out all over the area- Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, all these desert-like places where Boko Haram operates, and they have just been paired off with men, kind of like how they have been doing in the past. Eventually maybe some girls run away and come back pregnant or with kids, but most of them can’t escape.
WITW: Do you think the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, represents anything else?
AO: This election feels like a logical next step; the campaign was the first time Nigerians were really questioning the government about this war against BH and the way they were fighting it and what the results were. It was also the first time there was an outpouring of concern over that and also, at the same time, some pushback. And although it didn’t result in the girls coming back, it was the first time the government was put on the spot.
It was a big deal for the Nigerian government to hold press conferences and talk about the operations they were conducting to find the girls. Before, they didn’t answer any questions about anything, they didn’t have to, but the fact that they had to respond to critics in some kind of way was a big deal and that momentum kind of carried on. If that hadn’t happened last year, maybe it would have been a closer presidential race.
WITW: Do you see any correlation between the campaign and corruption?
AO: Bring Back Our Girls is a sort of response to corruption, its about ordinary people pushing back against it and being fed up with it, which raises the question: is Nigeria going to be an example for other places like the Congo thats dealing with similar issues- where citizens are grappling with whether they are going to keep their current governments? What is going to happen to those rulers?
WITW: What’s the role corruption paid in not bringing back the girls?
AO: The most rampant corruption is within the military. I think that at the end of the day Boko Haram could have been defeated years ago if soldiers on the ground had been equipped properly with weapons they need and basic salaries. Soldiers on ground complain they don’t have enough bullets, meanwhile generals have huge homes abroad. That is a big part of the reason why they haven’t been able to defeat Boko Haram till date.
Even now there is this coalition of armies from Niger and Chad and they have taken over most of the towns once held by Boko Haram, and they are waiting for the Nigerian army to get there and resume control.
When Boko Haram began in 2001, through 2009, that group was a response to corruption and the Nigerian government just ignored it – they saw them just as rabble-rousers and continued to ignore them, their demands and the region, thus allowing this group to fester and grow. When the government finally did a crackdown on them in 2009, that’s what really blew everything up. So it was corruption in government policies during that first decade and now its within the military.
WITW: Do you think it’s reached a tipping point where Boko Haram has become an intractable problem?
AO: It actually just depends what happens in these next few months, because now there is some cohesion among these countries’ armies that is not going to hold for long because they will want to go back to their countries. Someone needs to take over from them.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.