ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigerians celebrated their newly reinforced democracy Friday, dancing, singing praises and releasing white doves symbolizing peace at the inauguration of Muhammadu Buhari, the first candidate to beat a sitting president at the polls.
To roars of approval, President Buhari pledged to take personal charge of the fight against Boko Haram Islamic extremists and said he will root out human rights violations by the military — abuses that prevented full military cooperation from the U.S. and Britain. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attended the inauguration and a senior State Department official said Washington is ready to increase military aid and send more advisers.
Buhari, a 72-year-old former general who ruled briefly as a military dictator in the 1980s, calls himself a “born-again democrat.”
“We see him as our only hope against this crippling corruption,” said Efo Okorare, curator of an open-air exhibition of portraits of Nigerian leaders, pointing out the many in military uniforms.
Buhari saluted Nigerians, whether or not they voted for him.
“I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody,” he said, to more applause. “I intend to serve as president to all Nigerians.”
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation with its biggest economy and is the largest oil producer, but government coffers have been hit by massive corruption, a devalued naira currency, fallen oil prices and a $63 billion debt which grows as Nigeria borrows more to pay government salaries.
Some nervous politicians feared Buhari’s promise to retrieve ill-gotten gains signaled a witch hunt. “These fears are groundless,” Buhari said, though he accused some of his predecessors of behaving “like spoilt children, breaking everything in the house.”
For the future, he promised to “ensure that the gross corruption” is checked.
Earlier Buhari, resplendent in cream traditional robes, took the oath of office as the crowd at Eagle Square in Nigeria’s capital roared its approval. The former general then inspected troops in the plaza, decked out in colors of Nigeria’s green and white flag, and waved to supporters from the back of an open vehicle.
A 21-gun salute boomed during the handover of power which is a turning point in Nigeria’s democratic evolution. Security was tight. In 2010, two car bombs and a grenade blast triggered by militants from Nigeria’s oil patch killed 12 people at Independence Day celebrations.
The newly elected government “is basking in a reservoir of (international) good will and high expectations,” Buhari said, promising to take advantage of it. “Nigeria has a window of opportunity to fulfill our mission as our great nation.”
Kerry tweeted “Congratulations to @MBuhari & the Nigerian people. A privilege to be here to celebrate #Nigeria’s historic & peaceful democratic transition.”
Many African leaders attended the inauguration along with France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Buhari thanked the leaders of neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger for contributing to a multinational offensive that this year has driven Boko Haram from towns where it had declared an Islamic caliphate.
Suicide bombings and hit-and-run attacks continue by what he called “a mindless, godless group” pursuing an uprising that has killed more than 13,000 people and driven more than 1.5 million from their homes.
As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Buhari said “the command center will be relegated to me and remain until Boko Haram is completely subdued.”
Political science professor Richard Joseph of Northwestern University said Buhari’s victory has hopeful international implications.
Associated Press Diplomatic Correspondent Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from Abuja.
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