He is a former military dictator who briefly seized power in the 1980s and now says he regrets his ruthless past. Spare in charisma and physique, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari faces new pressure to deliver after securing a second term in Africa’s most populous nation.
The 76-year-old Buhari won Saturday’s election despite frustration with what many people have called a slow, insufficient approach to tackling corruption, insecurity and the economy. As he neared victory, the Nigerian Stock Exchange dipped as investors who had banked on a more business-friendly challenger got out.
“We are moving from potentials to actualization,” Buhari intoned in his New Year’s address, nearly four years into office.
The president is seen as unusually upright and reserved in this vibrant country of some 190 million people, where gregarious politicians spend heavily to secure lucrative posts — often becoming ensnared in graft.
“He remains an aloof and disengaged leader, ‘walled off’ from his own government and party, and from Nigerians themselves,” Matthew Page and Sola Tayo recently wrote for the Chatham House think tank.
But many Nigerians, remembering Buhari’s reputation for sometimes harsh discipline, had cheered when he unseated incumbent President Goodluck Johnathan in 2015, hoping he would act on vows to tame corruption and defeat a deadly Boko Haram extremist insurgency. Wielding a broom, Buhari played up the role as cleanup man.
Despite inheriting widespread goodwill, his first term has been difficult, and he faced serious — and unanswered — questions about his health. He spent more than 150 days outside the country for unspecified medical treatment.
A year into his term Nigeria’s heavily oil-dependent economy, Africa’s largest, fell into a rare recession when global crude prices crashed. The recession is over but growth remains slow, and the president was criticized for hurting the currency, the naira, with overly protective measures.
Buhari’s top election challenger, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, appealed to many Nigerians’ hunger for an economic breakthrough by making sweeping claims of lifting 50 million people out of poverty by 2025. That resonated with a country embarrassed by the news last year that it now led the world in the number of people in extreme poverty.
But Abubakar has never shaken corruption allegations from his time in office, and some Nigerians were worried by his proposal to privatize the state oil company.
While Buhari points to progress in agriculture and infrastructure to appeal to his large base of rural supporters, many people grumble that both inflation and unemployment, now at nearly 25 percent, are painfully high. Nigerians can rattle off dramatic changes in prices from before Buhari took office until now, down to the smallest naira.
“They say Nigeria is a giant of Africa. Where is Nigeria now?” asked a frustrated Cosmos Eze, who sells auto parts in the northern city of Kano. Roads are crumbling, power outages are frequent and some public schools appear gutted, the blades of their idle fans twisted from unknown violence.
Buhari’s fight against multiple insecurity problems has had mixed results. Few countries have the variety of deadly threats that Nigeria faces: oil militants and pirates in the south, bandits in the northwest, Islamic extremist groups in the northeast and clashes between largely Christian farmers and largely Muslim herders in the central region over increasingly scarce land.
Buhari has faced particularly sharp criticism over the last one, as many Nigerians worry that he sympathizes with the herders as a fellow ethnic Fulani from the north. Even President Donald Trump brought it up during Buhari’s White House visit last year, noting the “Christians who have been murdered in Nigeria.”
In the north, the military has pushed the decade-old Boko Haram extremist insurgency from many urban centers it once savaged, but Buhari’s administration’s claims that the group has been “technically defeated” have fallen flat. The release of scores of Chibok schoolgirls who had been kidnapped during his predecessor’s term was a rare high-profile success.
A new extremist faction pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group has made a deadly resurgence in recent months, overrunning military bases in the northeast and raising questions about how much support Nigeria’s troops receive from the government.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have again been displaced by the extremists in one of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises.
These problems are wearing Buhari out, some Nigerians say.
“All is not well,” Vincent Ikemelu said outside St. Charles Family Parish in Kano ahead of the election. “If he forces his way to get another term, it will not be good for him.”