First appeared in beyondbrics, the Financial Times blog on April 14, 2015

On the African continent, peaceful transitions of power through free and fair elections are a true rarity. Despite the odds, General Muhammadu Buhari delivered an impressive victory over incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan in last month’s presidential election in Nigeria and is set to take office next month.

While Buhari’s coalition party, All Progressives Congress (APC), won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly, last month’s elections are certainly not the final word in Nigeria’s electoral process. On Saturday, April 11, Nigerians returned to the polls to vote for both State governors and State Houses of Assembly. These were local elections, and the saying that “all politics is local” certainly holds true in Nigeria. During the country’s local elections, the APC once again defied the odds, and gained control of a majority of the country’s governorships.

While Nigeria boasts Africa’s largest population and economy, the national economy is driven by just a handful of states—especially Lagos, Kano, and Rivers. Lawmakers seated in those assemblies and governors’ mansions largely control the economic steering wheel for Nigeria with broader implications for all of Africa. The initiative to reform and the power to push Nigeria forward lie at the State level.

Consider Lagos state, which accounts for a significant portion of Nigeria’s revenue base. Indeed, its economy (approximately $91 billion) is nearly double that of Ghana. State level politicians are also closest to their constituents and have much to say about how the government finance pie is sliced. This makes President-elect Buhari’s anti-corruption platform highly dependent on who and what types of governors get elected. Nigeria might be the continent’s sleeping giant, but it’s the charismatic politicians at the state level who have the ability to awaken the giant. Much-needed education, economic, industry, transportation, petroleum, security, and agriculture policy reforms all find their way either from or back to the State level in Nigeria.

The governors in particular have the power to shape policy. Nigeria’s regional economic disparity runs deep. The Southern states, in general, offer a more competitive marketplace. Yet the desire to create investment opportunities and improved business environments is not limited to the South. Nigerian entrepreneurs and those in the diaspora community are looking to build a freer market to advance themselves and their country economically.

Over the weekend, the APC won handedly in Lagos and Kano, while the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) failed to secure a majority of the gubernatorial seats up for grabs. The PDP did win back control of oil rich Rivers state along with the other four main oil-producing states, although the APC is contesting the results in Rivers. Politics in Rivers has been contentious in their year’s elections; the state’s previous governor switched political allegiances in 2013 from the PDP to the APC. Critically, for the PDP to maintain the party network and financial structure in opposition, they will need to drive real change in their now-limited areas of political control. Otherwise, their base of support may erode completely.

The APC and coalition partners lost the previous national elections, yet the coalition was able to demonstrate the ability to govern successfully at the state level, particularly in regards to revenue collection and service delivery. That record was a key to the party’s success during both the national and state elections.

Of course, since all is fair in politics, the APC could also fall prey to a similar political merry-go-round of defections the PDP experienced during the last years of President Jonathan’s administration. These defections could be particularly complicated if Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign attempts to tackle the abuses of the upper-echelons of Nigeria’s political elites, many of them now-elected into political office.

The presidential elections proved many political prognosticators wrong, in that the whole affair came off largely peacefully. Despite scattered allegations of vote rigging—most notably in Rivers state—international observers deemed the elections to be fair and credible. Then President Jonathan and his PDP supporters did what many said would be unthinkable—they accepted their loss at the ballot box.

Local elections this round, while an improvement to years’ past, were still marred by violence and vote rigging. During the state elections the stakes rose for the PDP to retain relevance, and the APC needed to control strategic states to implement Buhari’s vision for Nigeria. The control over money and resources, along with ethnic clashes added to state election tensions.

The March 28th poll was a bright spot for democracy in Africa. But April 11th was the litmus test in determining if Nigeria’s 4th republic is truly maturing into a democratic leader for the region. While the prognosis is good, the reality on the ground in state’s such as Taraba, where the election results were deemed inconclusive highlight analyzing Nigeria’s democratic maturation requires more than just an initial glance. The Western media often focuses on the predations of Boko Haram, but many of Nigeria’s biggest challenges have nothing to do with the security situation. Most Nigerians entering the polling places weren’t thinking about Islamic terrorism; they were thinking about the economy and which candidates were best suited to implement policies to expand opportunity and prosperity. Now the country’s Governor-elects will have to start delivering on those economic promises with credible policy implementation.