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Hopes high over Obama-Buhari meeting

Hopes high over Obama-Buhari meeting

Nigerian president must build on difficult start 

by Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu in Washington

Mon 20 Jul 2015

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari's meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington today is an important symbolic step that marks development of genuine democracy in Africa.

Buhari has taken over in an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power in a country that, with 179m people and GDP of $569bn, is Africa’s most populous nation and its largest economy.

But Nigeria is afflicted by a predatory political class, corruption and military dictatorships that, for many of its 52 years as an independent nation, have led to the country performing well below potential. It is no coincidence that Obama's trips to Africa have bypassed Nigeria.

Nigeria is beginning to reclaim the respect of western governments and its natural leadership role in Africa. But huge challenges remain, from the depredations of the terrorist group Boko Haram to the near-absence of electric power to drive economic transformation, high unemployment and a dilapidated public education system.

Many Nigerian institutions have been progressively weakened by their use as instruments for partisan political power games. The private sector is virile, but the absence of transformational public policy means that the country's economic growth, at an average of 7% annually for the past decade, benefits only an elite few. Poverty remains widespread.

The solutions for many of these challenges lie at home and not in Washington. Yet Buhari's meeting with Obama can help break down the mistrust that existed between Washington and Buhari's predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. This mistrust affected the extent and effectiveness of US-Nigerian military and intelligence collaboration to combat terrorism. Perhaps Washington will now back more wholeheartedly Nigeria's home-grown anti-terrorist efforts.

Buhari is a rarity in the Nigerian political firmament. The former military ruler, who ran Nigeria with an iron fist for 20 months in the mid-1980s before he was ousted by another coup, is now a born-again democrat. He was elected largely on the basis of his anti-corruption credentials.

But his start has not been auspicious. Immediately after he was sworn in on 29 May, Nigeria's Democracy Day, his party, the All Progressives Congress — an amalgam of different opposition parties united only by a burning desire to sweep away the Jonathan administration — nearly imploded from an internal wrangle over leadership posts in the country's parliament.

Precisely because expectations of him are so high after years of disappointing leadership, Buhari's honeymoon with Nigerians will be brief. He has just four years to make a dent on Nigeria's problems before facing the voters again. Civil society organisations have already established a ‘Buharimeter’ to measure his performance.

Despite a difficult start, Buhari can make a strong transformational impact if he can bridge the ethnic and religious divide between Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south. He must achieve a constitutional restructuring that addresses a distorted federalism that has hobbled Nigeria's potential. Only if his values outlast him on the Nigerian political canvas will he have succeeded in his mission.

Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu, a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, is a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. Moghalu is a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the author of Emerging Africa: How the Global Economy's 'Last Frontier' Can Prosper and Matter.

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