Nigeria's new president takes power, eyes US military support

Muhammadu Buhari is the first opposition candidate to unseat an incumbent in a presidential election. He has vowed to strike hard at Islamist militants in northern Nigeria.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Nigeria's new President Muhammadu Buhari inspects the guard of honor in Abuja, Nigeria, during his inauguration on Friday.

As Muhammadu Buhari stood at the podium in Abuja’s Eagle Square to be sworn in as Nigeria’s new president on Friday, a new chapter in the fight against Boko Haram was about to begin.

In today's audience sat the presidents of Chad, Benin, Cameroon, and Niger, with whom Mr. Buhari will begin working to continue the counter-insurgency strategy started, belatedly many believe, by his predecessor, President Goodluck Jonathan.

Also in the audience was US Secretary of State John Kerry, who reportedly met with Buhari Friday to discuss the Obama administration’s willingness to expand military cooperation. And the attendance of Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the head of the US military's Africa Command, sends a signal of changes ahead after relations frayed with Mr. Jonathan’s administration.

“There was a strain in our relationship, particularly with the army on military cooperation, and we have every indication that we’ll be able to start a new chapter,” a State Department official told The New York Times.

Americans first offered the Nigerian Army assistance after the kidnapping last year of more than 200 girls by Boko Haram. In recent weeks, the Nigerian military has seized control of Sambisa Forest, Boko Haram's haven, and rescued many abductees, but not yet any of the Chibok girls.

In the past, US officials told Congress that funding and corruption challenges within the Nigerian military had blunted its response. “We’re now looking at a military force that’s, quite frankly, becoming afraid to even engage,” Alice Friend, the Pentagon’s principal director for African affairs, testified last year.

Nigeria’s neighbors, especially Chadian President Idriss Deby, have also lodged similar complaints, including a lack of cooperation from Nigeria's government and military in the offensive.

During a visit in January, Mr. Kerry played down reports that the US had grown frustrated with Nigeria's commitment to fighting Boko Haram. "The United States is deeply engaged with Nigeria," he said. "Does it always work as well as we would like or as well as the Nigerians would like? The answer is no."

So expectations are high for Buhari, who is a son of the North, the region that has been terrorized by Boko Haram for six years, and also a former military commander. During his victory speech in March after the election, he vowed to spare no effort to defeat the militants.

But hitting the ground running may prove difficult as his All Progressives Congress (APC) party members have complained of a fractious handover of duties from the Jonathan administration. Insiders told Reuters that they did not receive notes from the various ministries until Monday – just five days before Buhari’s inauguration.

“The outgoing government is not committed to handing over information of significance,” one APC source said. “Nobody is putting a lot of value in what is being handed over.”

Also on Buhari's docket is righting an economy in crisis and battling endemic corruption in Africa's richest and most populous country. The country almost came to a standstill earlier this week after a months-long fuel crisis came to head. Jonathan's administration agreed to pay a debt of $800 million to the Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria on Tuesday.

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