While many frustrated Nigerians had said they wanted to give someone new a try, Buhari , a former military dictator, profited from his upright reputation in an oil-rich nation weary of politicians enriching themselves instead of the people.
Top opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar, a billionaire former vice president who made campaign promises to “make Nigeria work again,” quickly rejected the result of what he called a “sham election.”
As many Nigerians awakened to the win along with the morning prayer, Buhari told colleagues he was “deeply humbled.” He regretted the loss of dozens of lives in “mindless” election-related violence.
“I will like to make a special appeal to my supporters not to gloat or humiliate the opposition. Victory is enough reward for your efforts,” he said. At a later event certifying his victory, he added to applause: “Election is not war and should never be seen as a do-or-die affair.” He congratulated all candidates and the democratic process, “however contentious.”
In a statement shared by aides, challenger Abubakar said he would have conceded “within seconds” if the vote had been free and fair. Instead he alleged “manifest and premeditated malpractices” in many of Nigeria’s 36 states.
He asserted that voting was suppressed in his strongholds in the south and that states threatened by an extremist insurgency generated “much higher voter turnouts” than in peaceful ones. He also objected to the deployment of the military in some areas.
One domestic election observer, the Civic Media Lab, noted that “contrary to normal reasoning” the state most affected by extremist attacks, Borno, saw a 13 percent increase in voter turnout, even as overall turnout dropped. Some residents had said, however, they were determined to vote despite the threat.
Court challenges are nothing new in Nigeria, where Buhari himself doggedly fought his past election losses for months, in vain. The Supreme Court of Nigeria has never overturned a presidential election, Chris Kwaja, a senior adviser to the United States Institute of Peace, told The Associated Press.
The president’s colleagues had expected a challenge. “There’s no opposition that will roll over and play dead,” Hameed Ali, the ruling party agent attending the vote declaration, told reporters.
Buhari’s supporters began dancing in the streets of the capital, Abuja, on Tuesday night as victory became clear.
“He is a man of integrity,” a Buhari supporter in the northern city of Kano, Mohammed Aliyu, said as jubilant people held up four fingers to mark the new term. “He is the only leader in Nigeria today that does not accumulate wealth.”
Buhari received 15.1 million votes, or 55 percent, the electoral commission said. Abubakar received 11.2 million, or 41 percent. The average national turnout was 35.6 percent, continuing a downward trend.
“The rigging was so obvious,” said one Abubakar supporter in Kano, John Orerere. “You cannot expect someone to be smiling after robbing him of his hard-earned result,” said Anthony Chigbo, a political activist in southeastern Anambra state.
But a civil rights activist, Musa Babn Iya, asserted that Nigerians were not interested in going to court but instead were thinking about “how to get out of this hardship” of simply getting by.
Buhari’s party rejected Abubakar’s allegations of manipulation of results. It called on Abubakar, who hasn’t made a public appearance since Saturday’s election, to accept his loss gracefully and concede.
The election, once described as too close to call, suffered from a surprise weeklong postponement and significant delays in the opening of polling stations. While observers called the process generally peaceful, at least 53 people were killed in an attack claimed by the Islamic State West Africa Province extremist group and other violence, analysis unit SBM Intelligence said.
A former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, has said the troubled election gives the candidates grounds to go to the courts.
Many Nigerians have prayed for peace during the unexpectedly drawn-out election process. Some spoke approvingly of the 2015 vote, when President Goodluck Jonathan took the unprecedented step of conceding to Buhari before official results were announced. It was the first defeat of an incumbent president by the opposition in the country’s history.
Now Nigerians, who have been praised for their patience and resilience in this bumpy vote, are settling in for a legal fight.