But the “hard man” image is not a bad one to have at this particular time in Nigeria’s history.  For one thing, demographics are in Buhari’s favor. Nearly 60% of Nigeria’s population is under 30, which means the more unsavory aspects of his 15 months in power some 30 years ago, have faded with time.

Halting Boko Haram

Even though the Boko Haram insurgency started in 2008 in the northeast region of the country, with some 20,000 fatalities in the last five years, it is only in the last year and especially in the last couple of months that a tipping point has been reached. The tide started turning with the slow response by the Jonathan government to the high-profile kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok back in April and in recent weeks the attack on Baga, which Amnesty International reported claimed up to 2,000 lives.  A survey at the end of year saw security jump to the top of the Nigerians’ agenda ahead of job creation for the first time in three years.

Image for article titled Nigeria’s giving Muhammadu Buhari—an ex-military dictator—what he’s always wanted: A chance
Image: NOIPolls - January 2015

Buhari is widely seen as a strict, disciplined, and strong leader at a time when Jonathan has appeared at times to want to avoid talking about Boko Haram. The fact that he is a Muslim northerner will undoubtedly help win votes in those parts of the country where they have started to believe, perhaps unfairly, that Jonathan, a Christian from Nigeria’s oil-rich southeast, doesn’t care enough about their troubles. In the last year, the gap between the candidates has “closed spectacularly,” says Control Risks’ Barclay.

“It’s still a close election but the trend is in [Buhari’s] favor,” says Mark Schroeder, vice president of Africa Analysis, Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm.

Old soldier, New President?
Old soldier, New President?
Image: (AP Photo/Akintunde Akinleye, Pool)

I again call on security agencies to promptly arrest and prosecute all those found guilty of violence in any form. This is an urgent duty.

— Muhammadu Buhari (@ThisIsBuhari) January 24, 2015

“It’s the economy, General”

The challenge for a Buhari presidency will be when ordinary Nigerians again focus on their usual pet issues: the economy and job creation. While reliable statistics are not easily available, the Nigerian unemployment rate is widely believed to be more than 20%; it was reportedly 23.9% in 2012.

There are other obstacles: Nigeria’s oil-led economy starts to roil from a 50% plunge in oil prices and the Nigerian currency has dropped through the psychological barrier of 200 Naira to $1 to around 208 in parallel markets last week. Buhari’s handling of the economy in 1984-85 was arguably as big a reason for his being overthrown in 1985 as was his poor human rights record.

Yet even when the Nigerian economy was growing rapidly driven by oil at well over $100 a barrel, the ordinary Nigerian did not feel the impact due to mismanagement.  “The gulf between the government elite and the ordinary man on the street is so vast,” Schroeder says.

Now that oil is under $50 a barrel, a focused leadership that eschews much of the wasteful habits of Nigeria’s usual leaders will be more essential than ever. The question is whether Buhari can be the leader that breaks that trend once and for all.

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