New president, new hope for Nigeria

Muhammadu Buhari, a 'born'again democrat', salutes his supporters during his inauguration. Picture: AP
Muhammadu Buhari, a 'born'again democrat', salutes his supporters during his inauguration. Picture: AP
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Nigerians have been celebrating their newly reinforced democracy, dancing and singing songs at the inauguration of Muhammadu Buhari, the first candidate to beat a sitting president at the polls.

As Mr Buhari finished taking the oath of office in traditional robes and an embroidered cap yesterday, the crowd at Eagle Square in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, roared its approval. The former general then inspected troops in the plaza, decked out in the colours of Nigeria’s green and white flag, from the back of an open vehicle and waved at supporters.

Supporters of Muhammadu Buhari celebrates after his inauguration. Picture: AP

Supporters of Muhammadu Buhari celebrates after his inauguration. Picture: AP

A 21-gun salute boomed over the square during the handover of power, which is a turning point in Nigeria’s democratic evolution. Security was tight. In 2010, two car bombs and a grenade blast triggered by militants from Nigeria’s oil region killed 12 people at Independence Day celebrations.

Mr Buhari has a wealth of international goodwill. A phalanx of African leaders attended the inauguration along with French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and US secretary of state John Kerry, looking to mend fences broken under the discredited administration of Goodluck Jonathan.

“Glad to be back in Nigeria and honoured to be leading the US delegation for inauguration,” Mr Kerry tweeted yesterday.

Some nervous politicians fear Mr Buhari’s promise to retrieve ill-gotten gains for coffers emptied by massive corruption. Nigerian newspapers have carried unconfirmed reports that some politicians have already returned millions of dollars in hopes of avoiding scrutiny.

“We see him as our only hope against this crippling corruption,” said Efo Okorare, curator of an open-air exhibition of Nigerian leaders, pointing out the many in military uniforms.

Mr Buhari, 72, ruled briefly as a military dictator in the 1980s. He says that, as a “born-again democrat”, he can heal the woes of Africa’s biggest nation, economy and oil producer.

He inherits the leadership of a nation plagued by an Islamic uprising that has killed more than 13,000 and driven more than 1.5 million from their homes. Nigeria is also £40 billion in debt and borrowing to pay government workers.

Mr Jonathan allowed the Islamic insurgency to flourish before agreeing to an international offensive with troops from neighbouring countries this year. His perceived indifference to the suffering caused by the uprising also hurt him.

Neighbouring countries have also complained of lack of co-operation from Nigeria’s government and military in the offensive against Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.

Before the inauguration, Mr Buhari accused his predecessor of setbacks in the fight against extremists.

“The misappropriation of resources provided by the government for weapons means the Nigerian military is unable to beat Boko Haram,” he said.

Mr Buhari, a Muslim from the north, was first installed as president after a military coup on New Year’s Eve 1983. In August 1985, he was himself deposed because his fight against corruption and the life-long jail terms for politicians found guilty by military tribunals proved too draconian even for the coup plotters, who felt threatened.

Political science professor Richard Joseph of Northwestern University in the US said Mr Buhari’s victory had hopeful international implications.

“The world desperately needs a victory against cultist jihadism. Nigeria [under Buhari] can provide it,” he said.

Repairing Nigeria’s decrepit refineries after decades of neglect will be high on Mr Buhari’s list of priorities.

The nationwide impact of the fuel strike crystallised some of the problems he will have to confront, according to Rolake Akinkugbe, head of energy and natural resources at FBN Capital.

“The current low global oil price trend, and past consensus on the need to prioritise long-term investment in infrastructure, should set the scene for a phasing out of subsidies,” he said. “Government finances are strained and Nigeria is clearly at an economic crossroads.”

Before the election, African affairs analyst Ayo Johnson said Mr Buhari’s military background might be what voters needed to feel safe from the deadly Boko Haram militants.

“Many Nigerians will not forget he was a military leader, during a dictatorship,” Mr Johnson said. “Or maybe they will feel that they need a military leader to address fundamental problems such as terrorism.”