Supporters of Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressive Congress (APC) party celebrate in Kano, March 31, 2015.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Nigeria’s election may have ended with a winner and a loser, but it was more about the process than the candidates. And there, great gains were made. For the first time in the country’s short electoral history, an incumbent lost. By holding a politician accountable, Nigerians have made it more likely that their leaders will be responsive in the future. President-elect General Muhammadu Buhari can build on this progress by appointing a cabinet that reflects Nigeria’s ethnic diversity, making good on his reputation as an anti-corruption crusader, and providing quick signals about economic policy to shore up his credibility with investors.

Voting began on March 28 and was extended to March 29. Counting took another two days thanks to technical glitches with a new voter-identification system. But by Tuesday afternoon in Nigeria, with totals for most of the country’s 36 states submitted, it was clear that Buhari had won more votes than outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan. The challenger’s camp soon reported that Jonathan had called to admit defeat and offer his congratulations. Buhari’s inauguration is scheduled for May 29. Assuming a smooth and peaceful transfer of power, the focus will soon move to how he will pick his ministers.

For now, however, the majority of Nigerians seem overjoyed. Twitter and call-in shows were a clamor of happy voices gushing over the historic election. They heaped praise on the Independent National Electoral Commission for overseeing a complicated and thorny process, and gave thanks to Jonathan for reportedly conceding. Nigerians can pat themselves on the back, too, for largely peaceful and orderly polling days.

Indeed, after a long and tense campaign, which featured a six-week delay to the original voting date, there was actually less violence this time than last, in 2011. When Nigerian financial markets opened Monday morning, the prices of stocks and bonds rose in response. The governments of the United States and the United Kingdom warned about troubling reports of politicized ballot, and at various points, both of the main political parties protested elements of the process. As of Tuesday evening, however, these seemed to be minor problems. Turnout proved a big factor for Buhari; in some states in Jonathan’s home region, less than half of voters opted to participate. Jonathan appeared to win a majority of votes in only one state outside his home region in the southeast.

Buhari has been head of state before, as a military dictator from December 1983 to August 1985. He won praise then for appointing a cabinet of technocrats, but that was a different time. Under the current constitution, Buhari must appoint a minister from each of the 36 states, and there are plenty of state governors and party lieutenants that he will need to reward for their loyalty and campaign efforts.

Buhari was known in his military-dictator years for fighting corruption, and in a region that has some experience with that problem, Jonathan’s administration was widely perceived as worse than most. In 2014, former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi accused the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. of illegally hoarding between $10 billion and $50 billion that should have been sent to the national treasury. That led to an independent audit of the state oil company, but few details of it were ever shared with the public. Buhari will face pressure to share the results as soon as possible and to force change within the company.

Nigerians also want an answer to the Boko Haram problem. Buhari knows the militant group’s stronghold well; he was commander of the Nigerian military’s forces in the northeastern part of the country in the 1970s and early 1980s. One thing Buhari could do is maintain current policy, instituted in recent months by Jonathan. Instead of going it alone, Jonathan had the government hire foreign security contractors to lead the military in the fight. Since that policy change, the state has regained control of some of the territory Boko Haram holds.

In economic policy, one area in which the Jonathan administration made progress was the privatization of the state’s electricity sector. Power plants and local utility companies have been sold off, but state commitment to regulatory reforms and to facilitating sufficient supply of natural gas to power plants is needed to spur investment. The electricity shortage is one of the country’s chief problems, and Jonathan might have kept his job had the reform process gone faster.

Although Nigerians speculate on some of the short-term decisions confronting Buhari, the long-term narrative isn’t yet assured. It is only logical to conclude that multiparty politics and booting out an incumbent will mean more accountability and transparency in Abuja, and certainly there has been a deepening of democracy in recent years. But it is up to the next government to lock in the progress.

  • MATT MOSSMAN is an emerging markets political-risk specialist based in Washington, D.C.
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