ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Election officials declared Bola Tinubu the winner of Nigeria's presidential election Wednesday, keeping the ruling party in power in Africa's most populous nation and raising the specter of protests by opposition supporters who already have called for the vote to be voided.
Tinubu, 70, the former governor of Lagos state, appealed for reconciliation with his rivals in a pre-dawn victory speech in the capital, Abuja. The running mate of one opposition candidate, though, signaled a court challenge was imminent.
Nigeria, Africa's largest economy and one of the continent's top oil producers, has seen deadly violence erupt after previous presidential elections. Tinubu urged Nigerians to unite behind his administration after he takes office on May 29.
“I take this opportunity to appeal to my fellow contestants to let us team up together,” he said in a speech broadcast live on television. “It is the only nation we have. It is one country and we must build together.”
Tinubu, though, received only 37% of the votes or nearly 8.8 million, the first time that a president takes office in Nigeria with less than 50% of the vote, analysts say. Main opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar won 29% with almost 7 million, and third-place finisher Obi took 25% with about 6.1 million, according to official results.
Hours after the election result was announced by the electoral body, Obi’s running mate told reporters in Abuja that they will challenge the outcome in court on the basis that it didn't follow the provisions of Nigeria’s electoral law.
“There is an incoming government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that is illegal and unconstitutional,” said Datti Baba-Ahmed, Obi’s running mate. “The only language we know is peace. If Nigerians are going to achieve peace through peaceful protests, (it is) welcome."
Much of Nigeria remained calm Wednesday afternoon amid fears of protests by opposition supporters. In the Kubwa area of Abuja, Tinubu supporters flooded the streets, singing and dancing in excitement. But nearby one Obi supporter expressed her dismay.
"I will join a protest if there is one, because my vote did not count,” said Favour Ben, 29, who owns a food business in the capital.
Abubakar also finished second in the previous vote in 2019, and appealed those results in court although his lawsuit ultimately was dismissed.
Nnamdi Obasi, senior adviser on Nigeria for the International Crisis Group, said that Tinubu will have to contend with challenges to his legitimacy from the onset and will need to ensure an inclusive government and focus firmly on rebuilding national cohesion.
Tinubu “will have to strive to win the support of the larger majority who preferred one of the other candidates, particularly the youth, the Christian groups that were opposed to his Muslim-Muslim ticket and Igbos in the southeast who again feel denied the presidency.”
Tinubu is a Muslim from the south and chose a fellow Muslim as his running mate in order to secure votes from the Muslim-dominated north, which has more registered voters than the Christian south, a strategy that proved effective, analysts say.
Tinubu clinched victory in part because the opposition vote was split and because his party had the strongest push to get people out to vote, said Amaka Anku, Africa director at the Eurasia Group consultancy.
President Muhammadu Buhari congratulated his successor in a statement Wednesday, but said the election wasn't perfect.
“Of course, there will be areas that need work to bring further transparency and credibility to the voting procedure," he said. “However, none of the issues registered represents a challenge to the freeness and fairness of the elections.”
The parties now have three weeks to appeal results, but an election can be invalidated only if it's proven the national electoral body largely didn’t follow the law and acted in ways that could have changed the result.
The Supreme Court of Nigeria has never overturned a presidential election, though court challenges are common, including by Buhari, who doggedly fought his past election losses for months in vain.
The West African regional bloc, known as ECOWAS, called on political parties to appeal to their supporters to exercise maximum restraint and refrain from using provocative language, which would only “exacerbate political tensions, divisiveness, and violence at this critical stage," the group said in a statement.
Observers have said Saturday’s election was mostly peaceful, though delays caused some voters to wait until the following day to cast their ballots. Many Nigerians had difficulties getting to their polling stations because of a currency redesign that resulted in a shortage of bank notes.
Taiwo Ajayi in Abuja, Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, and Sam Mednick in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, contributed to this report.