Muhammadu Buhari will be inaugurated president of Nigeria today, May 29, in Abuja’s Eagle Square. To call an occasion “historic” is hackneyed. But, this time, it is true.
For the first time in Nigeria’s history, an opposition candidate will become president because of elections that Nigerians regard as expressing the people’s will. Unlike past failures, the 2015 elections worked because of structural reforms and the leadership of the Chairman of the Independent National Elections Commission, Attahiru Jega. Nigerian civil society was thoroughly mobilized in support of credible elections. The international community, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, warned that perpetrators of violence and those who meddled in elections faced serious consequences.
Because Buhari won credible elections by a large margin, his political position at home and abroad is inherently stronger than that of his predecessors. In his successful 2015 campaign, he said he would re-invigorate the struggle against the Islamist radical group Boko Haram that has killed thousands, and fight against Nigeria’s ubiquitous corruption. His campaign symbol was a broom, a sign of his commitment to clean things up. (Nigeria needs it.) Specifically, he has promised to clean up the national oil company, a notorious nest of corruption.
It is important to know that Buhari is a devout Muslim, but he is no fanatic. His personal life style is austere. (His trip last week to London was without an entourage, and he stayed in a holiday flat rather than a hotel palace.) He personally has never been tarred with credible allegations of corruption. A former general, he led a military coup against a corrupt civilian government in 1984. He was then military chief of state for twenty months until he in turn was overthrown by another military coup. Buhari argues credibly that since then he has converted to democracy. He has asked the media not to refer to him as ‘general’ but simply as Muhammadu Buhari. He is a strong Nigerian nationalist in a country where national identity has been declining. Hence, he has said that Boko Haram is primarily a Nigerian responsibility. Nevertheless, he has also signaled that he would like a closer relationship with the United States and Nigeria’s other western partners.
Nigeria’s challenges are great: Boko Haram and a huge population of internally displaced, a potential renewal of an insurrection in the oil patch, ubiquitous corruption, falling oil prices, labor unrest, and generally, a people by and large alienated from their government and their elites. Buhari has appealed for patience from the Nigerian people. It remains to be seen whether they will give it to him.
Nigeria’s challenges will be there tomorrow and for long after. However, today, Friday, Inauguration Day, is for celebrating Nigeria.