A supporter of the presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressive Congress party celebrates in Kano. Picture: Goran Tomasevic
A supporter of the presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressive Congress party celebrates in Kano. Picture: Goran Tomasevic
Nigerian president-elect Muhammadu Buhari, left, waves in Abuja. Buhari hailed polls that will lead to the first democratic change of power in Africa's most populous nation as "historic" hours after he secured a decisive victory. Picture: Stringer
Nigerian president-elect Muhammadu Buhari, left, waves in Abuja. Buhari hailed polls that will lead to the first democratic change of power in Africa's most populous nation as "historic" hours after he secured a decisive victory. Picture: Stringer

Abuja - President-elect Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday hailed his historic election victory after Nigerians broke the cycle of one-party government and military rule with a democratic transfer of power at the ballot box.

The 72-year-old defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan by 2.57 million votes in a win described by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as "testament to the maturity of Nigeria's democracy".

Buhari also singled out Jonathan for statesmanship in conceding defeat, which was hailed as an example for the rest of Africa, where leaders have all too often sought to cling to power at any cost.

"Our country has now joined the community of nations that have used the ballot box to peacefully change an incumbent president in a free and fair election," Buhari said in a speech in Abuja.

"To me this is indeed historic," the former military ruler-turned-democrat told supporters, adding: "We have put the one-party state behind us."

State assembly and gubernatorial elections are still due on April 11 before Jonathan's mandate expires on April 30 and Buhari is sworn in on May 29.

Philip Hammond, foreign minister for Nigeria's former colonial master Britain, said: "It is now important for both parties to ensure the transition to a new government remains peaceful."

Buhari's victory, confirmed in the early hours of Wednesday, came after a gripping contest hit by glitches with new voter technology, claims of irregularities and fears of Boko Haram violence.

Mass poll-related unrest which has blighted the aftermath of previous votes in Africa's most populous nation failed to materialise.

Instead Buhari supporters thronged the streets, many of them brandishing wicker brooms, his party's symbol, with which they have pledged to sweep away years of government corruption and waste.

The victory wrote a new chapter in Nigeria's often turbulent political history after six military coups since independence in 1960 and 16 years of unbroken civilian rule by Jonathan's party.

In Kaduna, a flashpoint state in the north central region where many of the 1,000 people who lost their lives after the last elections in 2011 were killed, there were jubilant scenes of celebration.

Muslims in the religiously mixed state bought cows, chickens and sheep to slaughter but some reflected on the huge challenges that lie ahead for the incoming president.

Student Muhammad Sani Albari told AFP: "Today it's like we've gotten our freedom.

"We have been ruled for the past 16 years by the... PDP (Peoples Democratic Party. They have been ruling us and no jobs, no good roads, no hospitals, no infrastructure.

"There is nothing here to talk about."

It was a different story in Jonathan's home town of Otuoke, in Bayelsa state, in the oil-rich southern delta region, where near total support for the president was not enough for him to cling on to power.

"We are sad and disappointed that our son lost the election," said Elijah Ateki, chairman of the Otuoke community development committee.

"Since it is the will of God that Buhari should win, we have no choice than to accept. We are not going to cause any trouble over it because we cannot question God and the voice of the people."

But others in the Christian south raised fears of marginalisation by Buhari, a northern Muslim, laying bare Nigeria's religious and ethnic fault-lines that he will have to work hard to overcome.

Niger Delta militants, who wreaked havoc in the maze of creeks and rivers of the Delta in the 2000s, have threatened to take up arms again if a government amnesty that paid them off is not renewed later this year.

Buhari will also be watched closely for any signs of the autocratic crackdown on corruption and "indiscipline" that characterised his 20 months as head of a military regime in in the 1980s.

Focus for the moment, however, was on the unprecedented opposition victory that came after mounting dissatisfaction at Jonathan's handling of the Boko Haram crisis, corruption and the economy.

"Nigerians give Buhari mandate to change Nigeria," financial daily BusinessDay said on its front page, assessing that in conceding defeat peacefully, Jonathan's biggest legacy would be democracy.

"To desperate politicians and those within the political class who believe that power is not transient, Jonathan may seem naive and bespoke of a weak leader," it said in an editorial.

"But for us, it is a demonstration of uncommon strength and political maturity... Jonathan has earned the reputation of a president who delivered genuine democracy in Nigeria."

AFP