KADUNA, Nigeria — Boisterous crowds packed the streets for the retired general, while young men climbed lampposts, walls and billboards to glimpse his gaunt face. Others danced on careening motorcycles, brandishing homemade brooms, symbols of his campaign.
With Nigeria’s presidential election only weeks away, Boko Haram’s unchecked rampaging here in the country’s north is helping to propel the 72-year-old general, Muhammadu Buhari, to the forefront.
After ruling Nigeria with an iron hand 30 years ago as the country’s military leader, Mr. Buhari is now a serious threat at the ballot box, analysts say, in large part because of Boko Haram’s blood-soaked successes.
“The state is collapsing and everybody is frightened,” Jibrin Ibrahim, a political scientist with the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, said of Boko Haram.
“They are able to capture more and more territory, but also increase the level of atrocity,” he added. “A lot of people are frightened that these people can take over the whole country. So a lot of people are saying, ‘Give Buhari a chance.’ ”
A Buhari victory over President Goodluck Jonathan would be a rare upset for an incumbent in a country where petrodollars have long flowed and the presidency has great latitude to distribute them.
But oil prices have crashed; attacks on schools, markets and entire villages continue unabated; and Nigeria’s army has been thoroughly incapable of stopping Boko Haram, which now controls substantial portions of the northeast and regularly sends the country’s soldiers fleeing.
“We have to solve it; it’s the first problem of the country,” Mr. Buhari said tersely about the battle with Boko Haram during a long day of campaigning this week.
“This should have been an easy one,” added the former general, who is believed to have been a target of bombings in this city over the summer in which dozens were killed. “But it has been allowed to develop over five years.”
There is much at stake in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, even as it falters — the currency has dropped sharply, questions are swirling about the ability to pay civil servants and the country’s oil-money reserves have withered. The campaign has become a vociferous, at times violent, joust between Buhari partisans in the mostly Muslim north and supporters of Mr. Jonathan in the largely Christian south.
Mr. Buhari’s tenure as Nigeria’s military ruler was brief: a 20-month stint in the 1980s, ended by another military coup. Yet it is remembered with trepidation by many Nigerians.
His self-proclaimed “war against indiscipline” was carried to “sadistic levels, glorying in the humiliation of a people,” wrote the Nobel laureate and writer Wole Soyinka. Mr. Buhari forced tardy civil servants, even older ones, to perform frog jumps, jailed journalists for critical articles, and expelled tens of thousands of immigrants from other West African countries, blaming them for the country’s problems.
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The current president and his party, which has held power since military rule ended more than 15 years ago, have made this past a central part of Mr. Jonathan’s re-election strategy, hoping to fan old fears about the general.
Full-page newspaper ads suggest that Mr. Buhari is eager to introduce Shariah law all over the country, beyond the northern states where it already exists (in the campaign, Mr. Buhari has not said that).
Other ads remind readers of the retired general’s coup-prone past. (Historians say that even before Mr. Buhari came to power in a military coup at the end of 1983, he played an active role in the coups that marked Nigeria’s early years.)
But Mr. Buhari’s supporters are far more interested in the instability shaking the north, urging a total overhaul of the lackluster fight against the Islamists. Many of them turned out in this northern metropolis this week for a glimpse of the general, who has traded his medal-bedecked uniform for traditional robes and thick-framed spectacles.
Hadiza Bala Usman, the main campaigner for the return of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last spring, was waiting for the general at the airport here. She helped start the group that pressed the government on the girls’ fate, demonstrating for weeks in a public square in Abuja. Nine months after their abduction, the girls remain missing.
“The resources meant for the military don’t go to the military; the bullets and boots don’t go to the soldiers,” Ms. Usman said. “And what is happening to security, you see it in all the sectors.”
“The support we’re giving” to Mr. Buhari “is for ending the insurgency,” she added. “And so no more children are abducted.”
A retired general in the crowd of supporters, Alhassan Usman, who is not related to Ms. Usman, agreed, expressing anger that Boko Haram had gained the upper hand over Nigeria’s soldiers.
“The issue is lack of discipline; the commander has eaten his money,” he said, arguing that officers take money meant for soldiers, who then see little reason to obey orders.
Mr. Buhari stood as ramrod straight as he had in the days when he rose in a coup against Nigeria’s fledgling, but corrupt, democracy. After taking power, he soon instituted what he called his attempt to straighten out a chaotic nation.
That tarnished past has been, if not forgotten, at least pushed aside by many in the tumultuous jumble of Nigerian history. Mr. Buhari is expected to do particularly well in the Muslim north, his home turf, on Election Day, as he did in an unsuccessful run four years ago.
Still, his campaign faces stiff obstacles. Tens of thousands of people in northern Nigeria have been displaced by relentless violence, and many of them will be unable to vote in the Feb. 14 election. Even if they can, Nigerian elections are prone to violence and fraud.
This week, the streets of Kaduna were packed three-deep with people, many waiting since early morning or trekking miles from nearby villages to see him. Partisans yelled as they climbed on the general’s vehicles, frenetically brushing windshields with the symbolic brooms.
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Mr. Buhari spoke only briefly to the packed stands in a downtown stadium, vaguely promising greater security, prosperity and better education. But the words appeared not to be the point. It was his presence, and an implicit promise of austerity and military action, that the crowd seemed to want, after years of scandalous stories in the Nigerian news media about missing oil funds and high living by officials in Mr. Jonathan’s administration.
“The enthusiasm for Buhari is almost like a religion,” said Nasir el-Rufai, a former government minister running for governor of Kaduna State.
Muhammadu Buhari Credit Pius Utomi Ekpei/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“Look at all these people,” he said, pointing at the crowds pressing up against his own car before the general arrived. “They are all waiting just to see Buhari.”
As military ruler, Mr. Buhari showed little respect for the democratic process, rising to power in a coup that swept aside a civilian government and promising to include the political participation of Nigerian citizens “at some point.”
His government also carried out a bizarre kidnapping plot targeting a former minister who had fled to London. It involved Israeli secret agents, giant packing crates and anesthetic drugs.
In an interview, Mr. Buhari said that the times had changed and that he had changed with them.
“I operated as a military head of state,” he said. “Now I want to operate as a partisan politician in a multiparty setup. It’s a fundamental difference. Whatever law is on the ground, I will make sure it is respected.”
Yet it is Mr. Buhari’s long military career, not the respect for civil liberties he has proclaimed later in life, that will ultimately swing voters wary of his past, analysts say.
“You’ve got the Boko Haram in the northeast, where they bomb churches and marketplaces, and slaughter children,” Mr. Buhari said.
But he also noted the security problems in the nation’s south, where militants at oil fields have created havoc for years. “No highway in the country is absolutely safe,” he said.
Though supporters insist he will knock out the Islamists “in a month,” as Mr. el-Rufai put it, the retired general is far more cautious. He spoke of a methodical approach, declining to say whether he would fire the country’s top military chiefs.
“We have to see the whole picture,” Mr. Buhari said. “We’ll ask them to brief us, one by one. Why haven’t they been performing?”
“Let them justify the use of funds,” he said. “What is the intelligence community doing?”
Referring to Boko Haram, he added, “Where do they get weapons?”
He focused on the individual failures in confronting Boko Haram — the misspent money, the lack of weaponry for the soldiers, their lack of motivation for the fight — rather than on an overall condemnation of the army.
His jaw muscles tightening, he said, “This is not the Nigerian Army I knew.”
A version of this article appears in print on January 24, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Beleaguered, Nigerians Seek to Restore a General to Power. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe