Can Buhari win over his enemies to unite a deeply divided Nigeria?

As the president is sworn in for a further four years, the challenges of tackling corruption, poverty and conflict grow ever more intense

Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari has been sworn in, the former military dictator taking a new four-year tenure after a keenly contested election in February.

When the results were announced, it cleanly split national emotion into joy and sadness – a divide that now has knitted back together into widely felt indifference.

Though the result is still being contested in court, Buhari emerged with 56% of the vote, a good enough margin to avoid a runoff against the nearest opposition candidate, the former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, who had 41% of the votes across Nigeria’s 36 states.

But the victor remains buried beneath an avalanche of issues facing an administration that has narrowed its priorities to fighting Nigeria’s corrupt institutions and individuals, and promoting economic stability and security.

“We have laid down the foundation and we are committed to seeing matters to the end,” said 76-year-old Buhari, a former military dictator, prior to the polls.

But there is no easy road to progress. Nigeria’s worsening poverty is a tough as well as a crucial starting point. This nation has 86.9 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty – the highest of any country in the world – and this has changed little despite the multiple social interventions initiated since Buhari took office in 2015.

Institutional corruption and elitist exploitation have slowed Nigeria’s growth in the past six decades, partly worsened by numerous military governments.

The country’s return to democracy in 1999, and self-styled commitment to cleanse the public sectors of corruption, leaves a huge weight on the new government.

The past four years were nearly a failure. The president has been accused of specifically targeting opposition politicians and critics in his anti-corruption fight. And Nigeria is still ranked 144 out of 180 countries in the latest corruption perceptions ranking from Transparency International.

To close this gap, the government also has to deal with improving and sanitising governance, government structure and public institutions. The fight against corruption has to be holistic, less selective and far more consistent with the rule of law to earn public trust.

“Buhari’s anti-corruption efforts seem to have lost momentum and remain focused on opposition figures,” says Matthew Page, associate fellow at the London-based thinktank Chatham House. “He must institutionalise and depoliticise his anti-corruption efforts.”

Those other priorities, however, are set against Nigeria’s worsening security issues. Boko Haram militants have scaled up attacks recently in north-eastern Nigeria, to mirror the new waves of banditry and kidnapping impacting the north-west region of the country.

Resolving insecurity is a key issue. This crisis, upon which the government has earned votes, has seen unstable progress. The military has struggled to sustain significant victories gained in the fight against ten years of violence that has left 35,000 dead and displaced 2.5 million people.

An estimated 7.7 million people, half of whom are children, badly need humanitarian aid, in the most affected north-eastern Nigerian states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. In Nigeria’s overcrowded camps in Borno, the hub of the insurgency, and across the border in Chad and Cameroon, people have little hope or resources, and young people are prime targets for militia recruitment.

A woman cooks inside her home at Malkohi refugee camp in Jimeta, Adamawa state. Photograph: Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images

Nigeria made a shaky recovery from recession in 2017, yet despite boasting the largest economy in Africa, a large percentage of Nigeria’s young population are jobless – 20.9 million in 2018, against 17.6 million in 2017, according to figures from National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

This, according to Page, is due to the government’s “state-centred, protectionist approach” to economic interventions, which has created a challenging investment climate.

Buhari has pleaded for more time, blaming setbacks on the rot inherited from previous administrations.

Matters are further complicated by Buhari’s health difficulties. He promised to end medical tourism, yet his own health complications, shrouded in secrecy, mean that he spends months outside Nigeria.

Critics says the president’s health issues, which lead to several medical trips in his first tenure, including a three-month stay in London in 2017, mean that he has lost control of the government to “cabals” in his party.

Even when Buhari has shown signs of leadership, the nation seems too deeply divided to follow. Historic differences have deepened as a result of what some criticise as ethnic and religiously induced political appointments made by the president. Some significant minority regions feel marginalised.

“This government has created too many enemies,” says Professor Jonah Onuoha, of the University of Nigeria. And some of them have all the “power and money to cause his government a lot of troubles in the next four years. But if he can unite Nigerians behind his cause, he will do well.”

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