President Muhammadu Buhari at the United Nations in New York yesterday.
Nigerian beautician Rasheedat Lawal has seen sales at her cosmetics salon plunge since president Muhammadu Buhari came to power but she still thinks the 72-year-old former dictator is the right person to fix Africa’s largest economy.
The ascetic, sandal-wearing general’s first four months in power have coincided with a renewed slide in global oil prices, which has slowed economic growth in Africa’s top crude producer and weakened the naira currency.
For Lawal that means a 20% price hike for the imported makeup and other beauty products at her small Lagos salon - an increase most of her customers cannot afford.
Yet after five years of ineffective and corrupt government under former president Goodluck Jonathan, she is pinning her hopes on Buhari’s pledge to end the corruption that has kept Nigeria’s oil wealth in the hands of a tiny, hyper-rich elite.
“You need to give Buhari some time,” said Lawal, standing in a salon almost devoid of customers. “We want changes. We don’t want to continue what was left behind by Jonathan.”
Buhari made history in March by becoming the first candidate to defeat an incumbent at the polls. Improving security in a country where violence has torn both north and south was one of his key pledges, but since he took over as president on May 29, it has been two steps forward and one step back.
On the plus side, the oil-rich and volatile southern Niger Delta, the back yard of Jonathan, a Christian like most of the Delta population, has stayed calm since the accession of Buhari, who hails from the predominantly Muslim north.
The same cannot be said of the bloody Islamist insurgency in the northeast led by Boko Haram that Buhari vowed to crush.
Since he took over, the group has killed at least 900 people and efforts to find some of the 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in the town of Chibok more than a year ago have come to nought.
However, the army, backed by troops from neighbouring states, has continued a steady recapture of territory from the militants, who have killed thousands and displaced more than 2mn in their six year quest to establish a medieval caliphate on the edge of the Sahara.
The military achievement, highlighted in state media, appears to have made people across the country feel more secure.
Metus Maduka is from the Delta like former president Jonathan and, like many Nigerians, voted along religious and regional lines.
“I had voted for Jonathan because I wanted to support my brother but now I think Buhari is good for us,” said the 26-year-old, speaking on a central Lagos street where he sells cheap jeans.
“He is trying to fix corruption, and security is better now.”
Buhari first came to power in a 1983 coup, and quickly set about “fixing” a country saddled with corruption and inequality via an eclectic mix of economic nationalism and military autocracy.
Neither approach yielded any results in the 18 months before he was ousted in another putsch.
His expulsion of thousands of Ghanaian migrant workers to try to free up jobs for Nigerians hit the economy, and the jailing of opponents and deployment of soldiers armed with whips to ensure orderly queues at bus stops met widespread criticism.
Three decades later, half of Nigeria’s 180mn people still live in poverty and life expectancy is just 52, according to the World Bank.
In the interim, he has declared himself a convert to democracy, losing and conceding three elections, but has failed to appoint a cabinet after four months in office, to the frustration of investors and big business.
The cabinet could be announced this week, political sources say, and Buhari has already taken aim at some of Nigeria’s biggest institutions, including the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the state energy firm accused of losing $20 billion dollars in Jonathan’s time - a charge it denies.
Some senior officials are also feeling the judicial heat, most prominently Senate president Bukola Saraki who pleaded not guilty in court this month to charges of falsification in declaring his assets.
Critics say corruption is still deeply entrenched in Nigeria, but Buhari’s plans to tackle graft have gone down well on the streets.
“Buhari is scaring the corrupt people. You notice a difference now,” said Adeloa Olabode, who runs a one-room textile shop in Lagos’ sprawling Balogun market.
She and others are even starting to think the unthinkable - that since Buhari took over the power supply in Lagos, a sprawling megacity of 21 million people inured to blackouts and the thrum of diesel generators, is getting better.
“We use the generator much less,” said Olabode. “I used to pay up to 16,000 naira for diesel every month. But not any more.”
Nigeria was yesterday warned that violence could resume in the oil-producing south, exacerbating pressure on already stretched resources by Boko Haram in the north,and reduced crude revenues.
The International Crisis Group said the root causes of the insurgency in the strategic Niger Delta remained “largely unaddressed” and action was required to maintain the fragile peace.
“Violence in the Niger Delta may soon increase unless the Nigerian government acts quickly and decisively to address long-simmering grievances,” it said in a new report.
Central to the uncertainty in the region is the government’s $500mn-a-year amnesty programme for former militants who attacked oil and gas industry infrastructure in the creeks in the 2000s.
At the peak of the trouble in 2009, some 1,000 people were killed every year, while the targeting of pipelines and facilities, including kidnappings of expatriate workers, saw crude production halved.
The programme, which provides monthly stipends and training to tens of thousands of former rebels, has been running for six years and ends in December but there have been calls for it to continue.
There were repeated warnings before presidential elections in March about a resumption of violence if Muhammadu Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan, who hails from oil-producing Bayelsa state.
With Buhari now in power, the ICG recommended that he “needs to act firmly but carefully to wind down the amnesty programme gradually” alongside new development and environmental schemes.
Building a “durable peace” should be a government priority, the group said.
Chronic poverty and “catastrophic” oil pollution in the Delta region both fuelled the insurgency and problems remain with poor infrastructure and equitable oil revenue-sharing.
The ICG assessed that government agencies set up to develop the south had “floundered” while efforts to manage oil spills had been “largely ineffective”, it added.
“The conditions that sparked the insurgency could easily trigger a new phase of violent conflict,” said the report, “Curbing Violence in Nigeria (III): Revisiting the Niger Delta”.
Buhari, who has made tackling the rot in the oil sector a priority, has withdrawn pipeline protection contracts from former militants and ethnic Yoruba militia.
The threat to vested interests, local political tensions and the perception of a plot by northern Muslim Buhari to rob the largely Christian south of oil revenue could trigger unrest.
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