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Muhammadu Buhari opens new chapter in Nigerian history

Jan-Philipp Scholz, Adrian Kriesch / shApril 1, 2015

President-elect Muhammadu Buhari hopes to turn a page in Nigeria's history after becoming the first politician to defeat a sitting president at the polls. He has called for conciliation across the political divide.

Muhammadu Buhari speaking at a campaign rally
Image: AFP/Getty Images/P. Utomi Ekpei

At the start of the year, the streets were packed in the northern Nigerian city of Kano as hundreds of thousands of people turned out to see opposition presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari. The Emir of Kano, the Muslim leader of Nigeria's second largest city, had to wait two hours in his palace as Buhari's convoy inched its way from the airport into the city. When Buhari finally arrived, spectators forced their way into the palace grounds. The Emir had to withdraw, while Buhari was unable to climb out of his bus.

Such scenes had never been seen before, one woman told DW, adding "We are praying that Buhari will become president." On the evening of March 31, 2015, thousands of Buhari supporters poured on to the streets of Kano to celebrate Buhari's election victory. They and the millions of other Nigerians who voted for Buhari are hoping the new president will be more successful than his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan in tackling the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency.

Buhari's supporters in Kano rejoice at his victory
The northern city of Kano is a Buhari strongholdImage: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

Anti-corruption crusader

Former general Buhari is widely perceived in northern Nigeria to be incorruptible and a stickler for discipline. After completing his military training, he quickly rose up the hierarchy. Military rulers gave him lucrative political posts. He was regarded as a devout Muslim who supported the introduction of Islamic sharia law in the north. Following a coup against an elected government, Buhari led the country from January 1984 until August 1985. He proclaimed a "war against lack of discipline." During his rule, almost 500 people were jailed for corruption and wasting taxpayers' money. State employees who came to work late had to perform knee bends in penance, witnesses reported. Unlike most Nigerian politicians, Buhari did not brazenly enrich himself and lived in a modest house.

But Muhammadu Buhari also had a dark side as dictator. He had people executed, harassed the media and was deaf to calls for a transition to a democratically legitimized government. According to Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, he gave Nigerians the feeling that they were living under an inflexible regime which spread fear.

"Things have changed," said Soyinka's daughter-in-law Lola Shoneyin, an author who regularly accompanied Buhari on his campaign trail. "We have our courts, we have a very active and vibrant civil society, we have the National Assembly," she said in an interview with DW.

Fighting Boko Haram

During his campaign Buhari played down his controversial past. But he did also beneft from his image as a hardliner – especially since increasing numbers of Nigerians felt that defeated President Goodluck Jonathan was just sitting out the country's problems - Boko Haram and flourishing corruption - rather than tackling them head on.

Buhari has repeatedly said he would destroy Boko Haram. In June 2014 his convoy was attacked in the city of Kaduna – an act that bore all the hallmarks of the terror group.

The March 28 election was Buhari's fourth attempt to win against a president from the People's Democratic Party (PDP). But it was the first time that he headed an almost united opposition. However, to make this happen Buhari had to join forces in his All Progressives Congress (APC) with several influential politicians who clearly have different ideas about how to fight corruption.The burden on Buhari's shoulders is enormous. He will be expected to take action against party allies who are soft on corruption, in order to maintain his credibility. In an interview with DW, Manji Cheto of risk analysis group Teneo Intelligence predicted there would soon be a change in high-ranking security personnel. As a former military leader, Buhari "understands Nigeria's military, its weaknesses and strengths, and he is certainly going to want to have people who he can trust and who he can work with," she said.