Situated in West Africa, Nigeria is the largest country in Africa by population at around 180 million.

Nigeria — at least the parts of it that supported new President Muhammadu Buhari — is basking in the afterglow an election that some see as the first real validation of its 55-year-old democracy. 

The peaceful transition of power is heralded as a new day in a country that has been prone to military coups d’etat and corruption scandals. 

Many say that’s largely thanks to former President Goodluck Jonathan. When it became apparent that he was more than 2 million votes down, he conceded relatively quickly and called for his supporters to avoid the type of violent outbreaks that have so often plagued the aftermath of previous elections. 

But some analysts warn that Nigeria is still polarized between a mostly Christian south and mostly Muslim north, and that it will take more than the hard-edged pledges of Mr. Buhari, a former army general, to turn the tide against corruption.

Many Nigerians are voting based on tribal affiliation rather than on the issues, said Melvin Foote, president of the Constituency for Africa, an advocacy group in Washington founded in the early 1990s. 

“They’ve got to get to the point where it is one country,” Mr. Foote told Global Atlanta in a telephone interview. 

He sees an all-out leadership shakeup forthcoming and imagines many former Jonathan administration officials packing their bags and heading en masse for overseas homes to avoid facing payback for corruption under the new regime. And he’s not confident that Mr. Buhari’s new officials can avoid an “It’s our turn to eat” mentality as they take positions of power. 

Mr. Foote said oil contracts are divided among states and that officials have dollar signs in their eyes when they take office. 

“If you’re a governor in Nigeria, you get to be a money king. You don’t run so you can improve quality of life; you go because you can be rich,” he said. 

But these hurdles are the very reason the U.S. should step up engagement with a country that is its clear ally on issues like trade, oil, governance and the fight against Islamic extremism, he said. (With 13,000 having been killed in the last five years by the Boko Haram insurgency, Nigeria doesn’t have to be reminded of the high stakes in this fight.)

Mr. Foote was glad to see Linda Thomas Greenfield, the top U.S. State Department official for Africa, travel to Nigeria during the elections, but he wanted to see a higher-level statesman — perhaps either of former presidents Clinton or Carter — visit the country to provide a face befitting the magnitude of the moment. The U.S. should seize it, and its companies should work hand in hand with Nigeria as the country reforms its banking and payment systems and embarks on a plan to back mortgages that would increase the availability of affordable housing. 

“I think we need to be doing more to help as opposed to pointing the finger” at past shortcomings, he said. 

Robin Sanders, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2008-10, said during a talk at Georgia Gwinnett College last Thursday that despite the problems, the elections showed a new sense of hope taking root in the country. 

She cited the willingness of the voters, many of them women, who waited 15 hours in the hot sun without food or water, to cast their ballots. “They believed that they could have a transparent election,” she said. For once, their expectations were fulfilled, added Ms. Sanders, who had just made the 22-hour trip back to the U.S. before her metro Atlanta speech. 

But the long waits were a sign of how far the country still has to go in ensuring an inclusive and efficient democratic process, said Akanmu Adebayo, director of Kennesaw State University’s Center for Conflict Management, who served as an election observer in four Nigerian cities. 

The main cause for delays was a new process of voter accreditation. To fight rigging and ensure that each person only cast one vote, registered voters were assigned biometric cards that had to be validated by fingerprint before they could cast their ballots. While they worked for the most part, the machines malfunctioned on a few occasions.  Embarrassingly, one of those miscues occurred when Mr. Jonathan and the first lady showed up to exercise their democratic rights. 

But even when they worked, voter accreditation still slowed down the process. Voters had to wait in two lines, meaning that some spent all day at the polling units, Mr. Adebayo wrote in a preliminary report shared with Global Atlanta. 

The challenges didn’t stop there. Despite the fact that Dr. Adebayo noticed “two major ironies.”

“First, while voter turnout seemed large, the number of accredited voters was much less than the number of registered voters in the precincts. Second, the number of rejected ballots was unexpectedly large. The most common reasons for rejection were blank ballots (meaning the voter did not mark anywhere), and ink appearing against more than one candidate’s ‘box’ on the ballot,” he wrote, offering a final summary that could be seen as an understatement: “There is a need for voter education.” 

But for every deficiency — votes counted by the light of mobile phones after power outages, the entry of 14 political parties (too many in his view), vulnerabilities in the movement of ballots from polling stations to counting depots — there was a refreshing moment of promise.

Dr. Adebayo praised security forces from various government branches, who were out in force in major cities to restrict unnecessary movement and ensure safety. In the city of Ibadan, the streets were so empty that for a day, children used even the normally busy Lagos-Ibadan highway as a giant soccer field, he said. 

It’s easy to criticize and forget that this could be a turning point for Nigeria and the African continent, he added.

“This is historic. I was glad to be a part of the election. I was glad to witness this history making,” he said, offering another final note: “Hope is a good thing.” 

Read more of Dr. Adebayo’s observations here: Scholar: Nigerian Elections Were Fair, Electrifying and Historic 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...