ABUJA, Nigeria — Here in the Nigerian capital, the rows of campaign billboards promoting President Goodluck Jonathan have been ripped down. In some places, images of the soon-to-be ex-president have been defaced. Mr. Jonathan, with his legacy of economic and military disasters, cannot leave soon enough, in the eyes of many Nigerians.
But at this critical time, with Nigeria battling terrorists, fuel shortages and growing state debts, who exactly is replacing him?
In many ways, the former military ruler who is set to be sworn in as Nigeria’s president on Friday, Muhammadu Buhari, remains an enigma. He seems composed of two such thoroughly contradictory strands — a former strongman who espouses democratic change — that it is hard to know which one will prevail when he takes over the government of Nigeria this week.
Will the Muhammadu Buhari of 30 years ago show himself — the harsh military dictator who jailed journalists, inflicted physical humiliation on civil servants and expelled thousands of immigrants?
In a country that has taken much punishment from bad rulers and continues to do so, he was one of the worst, critics say. As with Mr. Jonathan this week, few Nigerians were sorry to see him go when Mr. Buhari was overthrown in a coup in 1985 after about a year and a half in office.
The Mr. Buhari of today shows little to no contrition for his younger self. He simply says that he has changed with the times and that he is now a thoroughgoing democrat. As proof, he cites the fact that he has submitted himself, as he likes to put it, to the democratic process four times, losing three presidential votes before finally winning in a historic transfer of power from the governing party to the opposition this year.
This Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation that Mr. Buhari implicitly insists he has undergone can be hard to reconcile.
Still, there is a palpable feeling of hope in Nigeria as Mr. Buhari gets set to take over. Mostly, it is simply relief that the hapless Mr. Jonathan is finally exiting.
With Boko Haram still virulent in the northeast, the economy cratering and a crippling fuel shortage stemming from Nigeria’s costly system of oil subsidies, Nigerians are glad to know that Mr. Jonathan can no longer do any damage. Mr. Buhari’s distaste for corruption in general — and the flagrant variety of the Jonathan administration in particular — is also well known.
Despite being one of the world’s leading oil producers, Nigerians have lined up miserably at gas stations because of the fuel shortage, which has been choking the Nigerian economy, the continent’s largest, for weeks.
Some of the country’s mobile phone companies warned that fuel shortages could impact their services because it was hard to supply their base stations. On Monday, one of Nigeria’s biggest banks said it was closing branches early because of the fuel crisis, news reports said.
Though Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, generating thousands of barrels a day, it has to import its fuel because its refineries are dysfunctional.
Instead, the nation relies on dozens of oil importers who buy fuel on the global market, at market price. The government then gives them millions of dollars in subsidies so that the fuel can be sold cheaply at the pump — 43 cents a liter, about $1.62 a gallon.
This has led to large-scale abuses. A parliamentary committee last year found that the subsidy system, with its ever-increasing number of importers licensed by the government, was “fraught with endemic corruption and entrenched inefficiency. Much of the amount claimed to have been paid as subsidy was actually not for consumed” fuel, the committee found.
In recent weeks, the importers stopped distributing fuel because they claimed the government owed them $1 billion, creating the fuel shortage. The situation began to ease Monday, with fuel depots reopening and gas finally making its way to the pumps, after the exiting Jonathan government agreed to pay the oil importers.
“Never in the history of our country has any government handed over to another a more distressed country: No electricity, no fuel, workers are on strike, billions are owed to state and federal workers, 60 billion dollars are owed in national debt and the economy is virtually grounded,” said Alhaji Lai Mohammed, a spokesman for Mr. Buhari’s All Progressives Congress party, in a statement on Sunday.
Two weeks ago, the country’s governors came hat in hand to the president-in-waiting, Mr. Buhari, pleading for money to pay state employee salaries. Their stated impoverishment is due partly to the drop in the price of oil, Nigeria’s dominant source of revenue, but also to their own profligacy.
Most of our state governors are irresponsibly corrupt and reckless and govern without any due consideration to the public good,” the country’s leading political scientist, Jibrin Ibrahim, wrote this month.
The new president’s response was cool. He did not promise to bail them out, indicating that Mr. Buhari is less interested in currying favor with these local power brokers than in being realistic.
“The expectation is too high,” he was cryptically quoted as saying afterward. Only a few of the governors were smiling in the group portrait taken later, and Mr. Buhari decidedly was not.
Last week, Mr. Buhari dropped another hint that it would not be business as usual once he assumes office.
In an interview published Friday in the Daily Trust newspaper, the president-elect said that instead of allowing the powerful state governors to pick cabinet ministers — the color-by-numbers approach of the defeated party, a tactic to mollify these local kinglets — he would be his own man on the ministerial appointments.
“We are hoping that we’ll get good people to be in charge of ministries who can apply themselves to their responsibilities,” the newspaper quoted Mr. Buhari as saying.
It would be a revolution — and not of the brutal type the former general tried to put in place as a much younger man in the early 1980s.