President Muhammadu Buhari is flying to United States on Sunday for a meeting with President Barack Obama to mend relations battered by his predecessor’s failures to fight an Islamist uprising and corruption in Africa’s biggest oil producer.
Buhari’s election in March, hailed as the first democratic change of power in the West African nation that has suffered decades of military rule, has already resulted in pledges from the U.S. to help hunt down stolen funds and increased military aid to fight the insurgency.
Suicide bombings and village attacks blamed on Nigeria’s homegrown Boko Haram extremists have killed hundreds of people at home and in neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon just in the past two weeks.
Buhari’s May 29 inauguration was followed by a surge in attacks by the 6-year-old uprising that aims to form an Islamic state and has killed more than 13,000 people while driving 1.5 million from their homes.
Buhari has also inherited a firestorm of other problems, including near-empty coffers, tens of thousands of unpaid civil servants and an income slashed by halved oil prices. Nigeria, the world’s seventh most populous nation at 170 million, is the U.S.’s biggest trading partner in Africa.
The Monday meeting with Obama is expected to focus on more military aid, recovering stolen funds and reviving flagging investments in Nigeria’s corruption-riddled petroleum industry.
Ahead of the meeting, Buhari, a dictator in the 1980s lauded as the only Nigerian leader not to have enriched himself from state coffers, has been cleaning house.
He laid off scores of former ruling party members that had been given lucrative positions on the boards of state owned companies and fired the entire top echelon of the military he has accused of corruption.
As a retired army major general who put down a small Islamic revolt in the 1980s, Buhari is expected to have more success motivating troops demoralized by poor equipment and bad leadership.
Nigerian soldiers have said they are outnumbered and outgunned by Boko Haram and often are sent into battle with no food and just 30 bullets each.
“Privately, the new security commanders are warning of no quick fixes … arguing that Boko Haram infiltration of the army and civilian structures is a major unresolved difficulty,” political analyst Antony Goldman wrote in African Arguments.
Goldman said a military overhaul could include returning procurement to the Defence Ministry, a duty usurped by the former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki, who is now being investigated for “felony, corruption, misuse of power and possession of firearms,” according to the State Security Service Saturday.
Cleaning up the military may also unblock sales of U.S. attack helicopters. U.S. law forbid the sale of certain arms to militaries accused of gross human rights abuses and Amnesty International has accused the army’s leadership of complicity in the death of 8,000 detainees in the battle against Boko Haram.
Buhari has promised to investigate and prosecute perpetrators.
He has also pledged to tackle root causes that fuel Islamic extremism. The northeast is the poorest part of the country with some of the world’s highest illiteracy rates.
“We’re looking forward to what we can do with a president who has staked out an agenda that we think is the right agenda at the right time,” the U.S. National Security Council’s Grant Harris said last week.