Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in for his first full elected term at the helm of Africa’s most populous nation faced with the challenge of driving reform and trying to heal regional rifts.
Heads of state from across Africa, foreign dignitaries, religious leaders and traditional rulers gathered in Eagle Square in the centre of Abuja for the ceremony and a military parade to mark the start of his four-year term.
“Together we will unite our nation, improve the living standards of all our people, whether in the north or in the south, in the east or in the west,” Jonathan said in a speech after taking the oath of office, Reuters reports.
The former zoology student won elections last month which, while far from perfect, were deemed to have reflected the will of the people in a nation that had known virtually nothing but military rule and rigged votes for the past half-century.
But the polls also threw religious and ethnic fault lines into sharp relief. Jonathan, a Christian from the south, swept to victory in his home region while his rival, ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, performed strongly in the mostly Muslim north.
Hundreds of people were killed in riots and sectarian violence in northern towns after Jonathan’s victory was announced, with homes, churches and mosques razed.
“President Goodluck Jonathan’s election has seriously polarized Nigeria along ethnic, sectional and religious lines and this will be his challenge,” said Shehu Sani, president of the northern-based Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria.
Jonathan first came to power after the death of his predecessor, northerner Umaru Yar’Adua, last year.
He emerged from the April polls with a credible mandate, having won 59 percent of the vote, but with his ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chastened by a weaker parliamentary majority and the loss of several powerful state governorships.
Buhari, one of the few living former heads of state absent from Sunday’s ceremony, has challenged the result.
Jonathan pledged to create jobs and drive economic growth, voicing commitment to banking reforms, the privatisation of the domestic power sector and promising to develop infrastructure and agriculture in Africa’s third biggest economy.
He also vowed better management of the OPEC member’s oil revenues, saying the creation of a sovereign wealth fund he signed into law on Friday would avoid “boom and bust” cycles.
Jonathan’s relationship with his opponents will be key if he is to galvanise support for reforms and govern strongly. The first big test will be his choice of ministers.
“It is a delicate balancing act,” said Dapo Oyewole, director of the Centre for African Policy and Peace Strategy.
“He has to balance out the regional interests to ensure the cabinet displays a federal character, he has to reflect a religious coloration that ensures different parts of the country are carried along, but he is also going to have to reward some of the people that backed him,” he told Reuters.
Jonathan is the first president from the restive Niger Delta oil region, where expectations are also running high. He brokered an amnesty in 2009 which ended years of attacks on oil facilities, but thousands of former gunmen remain without jobs.
“People are very optimistic based on hope rather than reality,” said Bismarck Rewane, head of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives.
“If those expectations are not managed, a few months down the road he will be getting the blame for things that are beyond his control,” he told Reuters.
Jonathan will also have to deal with the growing threat from radical Islamist sect Boko Haram in the remote northeast, which has been carrying out almost daily killings and fire bombings of police stations with impunity.
Jonathan is serving what would have been the second term of late president Yar’Adua and there is an expectation in the north that at the next elections in four years, a northern candidate will take the ruling party ticket.
But should Jonathan succeed with his reform plans, particularly privatising the power sector and ending chronic power shortages, popular opinion could again swing behind him.
“People will be looking for tangible results and that will be a key determinant of his political future come 2015,” said Oyewole of the Abuja-based think tank.