With doves and a broom, Buhari promises change to Nigerians

Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as Nigeria’s president on Friday – the first ever democratic transfer of power in Africa’s most populous nation. In his inauguration speech, the former general acknowledged the challenges on his plate with cautious optimism.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Chief Justice of Nigeria Mahmud Mohammed swears in Muhammadu Buhari (C) as Nigeria's president while Buhari's wife Aisha looks on at Eagle Square in Abuja, Nigeria May 29, 2015.

The last time 72-year-old Muhammadu Buhari took power in Nigeria, on New Year’s Eve 1983, he did so at the barrel of a gun — a military dictator ushered into power after a coup against an elected president.

On Friday morning, Mr. Buhari once again became the leader of Africa’s most populous country — this time under markedly different circumstances. Standing rigidly before the chief justice of the Nigerian Supreme Court, the lanky, bespectacled man who calls himself a “converted democrat” pressed his palm against a Quran and solemnly swore to “be faithful to the constitution of the Republic of Nigeria” as its new president.

“Nigerians have shown their commitment to democracy and are determined to entrench its culture,” Buhari told the crowd assembled at Abuja’s Eagle Square. “Together we cooperated -- to surprise the world that had come to expect only the worst from Nigeria. I hope this act of graciously accepting defeat by the outgoing president will become the standard of political conduct in the country.”

In a country wracked by the Boko Haram insurgency and a crippling electricity crisis where nearly 70 percent of the population lives in poverty, Buhari’s words struck a rare hopeful chord. Fifty-five years after independence from Great Britain, his inauguration marked the first time that Nigerians had witnessed a democratic transfer of power from a sitting president, the cowboy-hat toting Goodluck Jonathan, to an opposition candidate. 

“He’s our Mandela, I really believe that,” says Zainab Nwaorgu, who arrived at the inauguration in a vivid red dress patterned with the logo of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress — a broom sweeping away the country’s corruption and mismanagement. “I voted for him because I really believe he can change the country that much.”

“We can fix our problems" 

That will be a tall order for the former general, who has inherited Africa’s largest economy at a distinctly fragile moment. A crippling fuel shortage has threatened to shut down industry, telecommunications, and transportation here over the past several weeks.

As arriving dignitaries arrived in Nigeria’s capital over the last few days, they passed row upon row of cars queued thirstily in front of the city’s gas stations. Suppliers had withheld fuel saying the outgoing government owed them up to $1 billion. (Just before the inauguration, Mr. Jonathan’s government finally agreed to pay, and supplies are slowly returning.)

“We face enormous challenges. Insecurity, pervasive corruption, the hitherto unending and seemingly impossible fuel and power shortages are the immediate concerns,” Buhari said, facing rows of soldiers drawn from a military tasked with the stumbling fight against Boko Haram. “We must not succumb to hopelessness and defeatism,” the new president promised. “We can fix our problems.”

As he spoke, the crowd seated around the square tittered and cheered, waving Nigerian flags emblazoned with the new president’s face and wagging oversized foam fingers printed with an acrostic spelling their leader’s name: Bring UHope And Restore our Integrity. Outside the gates of the square, hundreds gathered clutching literal brooms, which they punched into the air each time the new president named a scourge he would tackle — corruption, electricity shortages, terrorism. 

A checkered past

Few seemed concerned with Buhari's record of human rights abuses in the 1980s. During one of his campaigns, called “war against indiscipline,” Nigerians were publicly whipped if they didn’t form lines at bus stations and banks; civil servants who came late to work had to perform frog jumps in front of their colleagues; and cheaters, counterfeiters, and arsonists were sentenced to decades-long jail sentences — and sometimes even death. 

But some recalled elements of that rule fondly. “In his time, people waiting for buses queued like they do in other countries,” says Anne Amadasun, an optometrist. “But I think he’ll do better this time on the rights issues, and if he doesn’t, well, we’ll deal with him,” she said with a laugh. 

After just 20 months as Nigeria's military ruler, Buhari was ousted by another general in 1985 and imprisoned for over three years. After Nigeria restored democracy, he ran three times unsuccessfully for president until his victory in March. 

On Friday, after the swearing-in ceremony, Buhari crossed the stage and took his place beside a cage full of doves, which the booming voice of the MC announced represented peace in the country. But as the new president pulled open the gate of the cage, some of the doves seemed not to have gotten their marching orders, and stayed rigidly still on their metal platform. 

Then a soldier rattled the bars and they took off in terror, flapping frantically upward into the still tropical air.

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