Buhari takes the helm of Nigeria

"You have voted for change and change has come", said the new President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, giving his first public speech in Abuja at the offices of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).

Mohammadu Buhari, the new president of Nigeria, speaks to the press three days before the vote in polling Zidane Niyam Sakin Yara in the district of Katsina Daura, Nigeria. Photo credits: Anadolu Agency - Getty Images

The changes promised, however, are still some way off. The new Nigerian head of state will have to launch a series of reforms in order to maintain the pledges of his electoral campaign. The first of these is to provide work and security to over 170 million Nigerians, many of whom are still afflicted by the scourge of poverty and the nightmare of Boko Haram's Islamist terrorism.

Nevertheless, the victory of the 72-year-old former general has been hailed by the Nigerian press as a historic event, not only due to the margin of Buhari's victory over Goodluck Jonathan (53.2% against 45.6%) but, more importantly, because he is the first opposition candidate, since democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, to unseat an incumbent president. Without doubt, the democratic credentials of Africa's most populous country have been significantly boosted by the successful transfer of power from the sitting president to his elected rival.

Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) also demonstrated its effectiveness in ensuring a regular election process, although there were some reports of interference at polling stations. The fact that for the first time the results were accepted both by the winner and the loser, however, is an important testament to the health of Nigeria's democracy.

Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, expressed his satisfaction when speaking to MISNA, stating, " From today we can walk with our heads held high, knowing that Nigeria is the only country that can lead Africa".

Buhari's election has generally been greeted with enthusiasm but it is worth noting some of the more shadowy aspects of his political career, primarily his past as a dictator during the twenty months between December 1983 and August 1985, when Buhari appointed himself head of state following a military coup that removed the elected president Shehu Shagari.

Since then Nigeria has changed significantly and now the country is governed by a civil and democratic system. The ex-general had actually tried on three occasions to return to government as a presidential candidate, in 2003, 2007 and in 2011, when he was defeated by Goodluck Jonathan. This time around Buhari received more than two and a half million votes more than his rival, who duly accepted the APC leader's victory.

Buhari and the APC prevailed over the incumbent president and the People's Democratic Party in many key states, above all, in the north of the country, from where the former general hails, but also in some states in the south including Lagos, the location of the city considered the economic and cultural centre of Nigeria.

The convincing nature of Buhari's victory was demonstrated by his electoral success in 21 of Nigeria's 36 states. Included among the 21 were the states of Borno and Yobe, territories under the influence of Boko Haram: here Buhari won crushing majorities of 92% and 94% respectively.

Also striking was the result in one of Nigeria's largest states, Kano State, where the former-general received 1.9 million votes against 215,800 for Jonathan, who prevailed in the district of the capital Abuja and won over 90% of the vote in the southern states of Rivers, Bayelsa and his home state, Delta. The now ex-president confirmed the predictions of polls that had him as favourite in the states of Benue, Ondo and Kogi.

Buhari's large margin of victory was a clear reaction to five years of Jonathan's rule, during which the Boko Haram insurrection flourished and Nigeria, after becoming the largest economy in Africa following the rebasing of its GDP, slipped into a deep financial crisis.

Now the new president will have the arduous task of facing Boko Haram in the north and kick-starting the Nigerian economy, which has been hit by the collapse of the Naira caused by the drop in oil prices; Nigeria's oil is responsible for 20% of GDP, 95% of exports and 65% of government revenues.

The strong man of Abuja will also have to meet the long-standing challenges of the fight against corruption, the creation of energy policies to counter the drop in the price of crude, the development of infrastructure and the possible outbreak of rebellion in the oil-rich south: the latter question poses a far greater threat to the stability of Nigeria than the attacks of Boko Haram.

Buhari's military past was the leitmotif for his electoral campaign: he frequently cited his success in the repression of the Yan Tatsine Islamist group, better known as Maitatsine, which, during the early 1980s, devastated some states in the north and laid the foundations for the future growth of Boko Haram.

According to Elizabeth Donnelly, vice director of the Africa programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, based in London, Nigeria must expect Buhari to be a radically different leader from Jonathan. In light of his military past, the new president should be able to reform the regional alliance against Boko Haram and sustain a strong military campaign. But he could have problems with the economic issues: Buhari has limited experience on this front and it is possible that in the short term the situation could require a further devaluation of the local currency in order to improve Nigeria's financial position.

According to the London research group, Buhari needs to take care to delegate the delicate economic decisions to the right people.

Translated by Nicholas Neiger

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