“Today could mark the beginning of governments where the people count.”
Friday’s editorial in Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper conveyed the massive swell of optimism in Nigeria as 72-year-old former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as president – the first opposition leader to take power through an election since independence in 1960.
Buhari told Nigerians, “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody,” signaling his determination to rid Nigeria of the corruption that has pervaded government for decades, siphoning off billions of dollars, while 110 million of the country’s 170 million population live in extreme poverty. “I intend to serve as president to all Nigerians.
“I will discharge my duties to the best of my ability, faithfully and in accordance with the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the law,” Buhari said, taking the oath of office in Eagle Square in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, three decades after having served as the nation’s military ruler and then being ousted himself in a 1985 coup.
He quoted lines from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” about seizing opportunity and about promising to tackle the country’s massive problems decisively. Spelling out an ambitious agenda, he vowed to tackle “gross corruption” but added he would not go after old enemies.
“A few people have privately voiced fears that on coming back to office I shall go after them. These fears are groundless. There will be no paying off old scores,” he said.
Buhari’s austere, abusive style as military dictator saw him jail journalists, critics and opponents, yet his election has fired the hopes of Nigerian youth and the nation’s growing urban middle class, who are exhausted by 30 years of poor governance and corruption.
Many crave a strong hand to defeat terror group Boko Haram, crack down on corruption and restore a sense of public accountability.
Buhari comes to power at a time of crisis, with Boko Haram continuing to ravage northeastern Nigeria, a collapse in government revenue due to falling oil prices and a slump in Nigeria’s currency.
“The country that Muhammadu Buhari takes control of today, in the estimation of some, has literally fallen under,” wrote Nigerian journalist Charles Kumolu on Friday. “It is a country where the primary ingredients of a functional state are in many cases in immeasurable deficit.”
The problems are so entrenched and formidable that the job appears something of a poisoned chalice. His two predecessors, Goodluck Jonathan and Umaru Yar’Adua, seemed crushed by the position, and Yar’Adua died in office. Before them, Olusegun Obasanjo, a tough, astute power broker, talked a lot about corruption and good governance, but ultimately achieved little reform.
“At home we face enormous challenges. Insecurity, pervasive corruption, the hitherto unending and seemingly impossible fuel and power shortages are the immediate concerns. We are going to tackle them head on. Nigerians will not regret that they have entrusted national responsibility to us. We must not succumb to hopelessness and defeatism. We can fix our problems,” the new president said.
At the top of Buhari’s to-do list is to eradicate Boko Haram, the Islamist militant organization he described as “a mindless, godless group.” He said he can’t claim to have defeated Boko Haram until nearly 300 school girls kidnapped last year, and others who were abducted, are found and freed.
Buhari also plans to restructure the military, which has grown corrupt and is accused of frequent abuses against the public. He promised to ensure that soldiers face disciplinary action in cases where rights are violated.
In recent months, the military has made inroads against Boko Haram, with the help of the armies of neighboring countries – whom Buhari thanked - and foreign mercenaries, but the group remains capable of carrying out devastating attacks.
In Nigeria, state governors are very powerful, controlling vast budgets, employing huge bureaucracies and influencing the president’s appointment of ministers. Buhari has indicated he will not accept the old system – where state governors put forward their own, usually pliant, figures, to be rubber-stamped by the president. That, though, could put him on a collision course with some state governors.
The governors in the oil-rich Niger Delta are all opposition figures, raising the possibility of intransigence and instability, potentially even a renewed rebellion, and a return to past turmoil when rebel groups tapped into pipelines, stealing vast quantities of crude.
The immediate crises Buhari faces include millions in unpaid salaries for government workers and a decision on whether to retain popular fuel subsidies, a huge drain on the budget, that provide Nigerians cheap gasoline. Many are also expecting Buhari to set up an inquiry into $20 billion unaccounted for in the state oil company’s accounts.
Other problems include servicing the country’s $63-billion public debt and improving shoddy infrastructure. Buhari said perennial electricity blackouts that undermine businesses will not be allowed to go on.
“At home the newly elected government is basking in a reservoir of goodwill and high expectations. Nigeria therefore has a window of opportunity to fulfill our long-standing potential of pulling ourselves together and realizing our mission as a great nation,” he said.