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Supporters of Muhammadu Buhari celebrate his victory in the Nigerian presidential election in Kano, Nigeria.Samuel Aranda/The New York Times

When I met Muhammadu Buhari for a conversation in February, his quiet charisma was evident. He was polite, soft-spoken, modestly dressed in a traditional flowing robe and sandals, and eloquent about Nigeria's problems. When he headed to the airport, his entire convoy, including his security detail, was just three vehicles – a humble display by the extravagant standards of Nigeria's elites.

It wasn't difficult to see why the country's next president has something of a cult following in his heartland here in the northern states, where the 72-year-old Muslim piled up a huge majority of local votes on the way to his election victory this week. The retired general is seen as selfless, disciplined and incorruptible. His nightly routine is a seven-kilometre walk through quiet suburban streets, and then early to bed.

Yet, whenever a question dug deeper in an attempt to explore how he might govern, it quickly hit a brick wall. On every subject, including the key issues of corruption and the Boko Haram insurgency, he was unwilling to reveal any details. "The plan is, firstly, to understand the situation," he said.

By defeating Goodluck Jonathan and propelling Mr. Buhari into the presidency, Nigerian voters have made a great leap into the unknown. Mr. Buhari's opposition party has shown no major ideological differences from the ruling party, so it's unclear if or how he might blaze his own trail. Nobody really knows how his new government, which takes power on May 29, will tackle, in addition to corruption and Boko Haram, such urgent issues as poverty, deep social inequality, severe electricity shortages and a sharp decline in the oil revenue that sustains the government.

Foreign investors, including Canadians, have the same question: Can he translate his political popularity into bold solutions for Nigeria's worst economic obstacles – especially the opaque deals and excessive state powers that have traditionally plagued the oil and electricity sectors, where much of Canada's economic interest has focused?

Despite the uncertainty over Mr. Buhari's plans, investors were pleased by Mr. Jonathan's quick decision to concede defeat without weeks of legal wrangling or street protests, and the Nigerian stock market soared.

Canadian investors are convinced that Mr. Buhari's election is good news.

"We feel that, over all, this will be positive for investment," said Peter Kieran, chairman of the Canada Nigeria Chamber of Commerce and chairman of CPCS, an Ottawa-based company that has been advising the Nigerian government on the privatization of its state-owned electricity companies.

"We expect that the important and essential private investment in the electric power system will now move ahead," he said. "I feel there will be new energy to tackle some of the ongoing problems and constraints in the economy.

In his first speech to the nation after winning the election, Mr. Buhari vowed that he would "strongly battle" against "the evil of corruption" – which he described as "even worse than terrorism." Corruption has become so powerful that it threatens Nigeria's economic development and democratic survival, he said.

"Corruption will not be tolerated by this administration, and it shall no longer be allowed to stand as if it is a respected monument in this nation."

Since the country's independence in 1960, about $600-billion (U.S.) in oil revenue has flowed into the government's coffers, yet an estimated $400-billion has been diverted, misspent or simply stolen. Swiss bank accounts, luxury vehicles and expensive watches are routine accessories for Nigeria's politically connected elite. One dictator alone, Sani Abacha, who ruled for five years after a 1993 coup, is believed to have stolen $4.3-billion and stashed it in European bank accounts. (Switzerland recently agreed to return $380-million to Nigeria.) Two years ago, central bank governor Lamido Sanusi shocked the country by identifying $20-billion in "leakages" from government oil accounts.

Mr. Buhari has given no details, however, of his anti-graft plans. In many other countries, campaigns against corruption have become pretexts for political retribution, or led to a few token arrests that leave the system unchanged.

There are signs that some of Mr. Buhari's closest colleagues may resist any sweeping measures. His party is riddled with former members of the previous ruling party, who were comfortable in the existing system, and they could block any reforms that would threaten their income or power.

Even before the election, Mr. Buhari promised that he wouldn't seek legal revenge by prosecuting Mr. Jonathan and his officials for corruption, repeating this in a key line of his victory speech on Wednesday: "Let me state clearly that President Jonathan has nothing to fear from me."

Mr. Kieran of the chamber of commerce acknowledged that Nigeria's deep-rooted corruption will not simply disappear, but he thinks things will improve. "Cynics may say that there will just be a new group of people eager to profit from their role in government, but I feel that Buhari's reputation and the simple fact of an orderly change in government and the increased risk of exposure will result in a slow and steady improvement in the business climate."

Mr. Buhari is expected to launch a few high-profile prosecutions to satisfy his followers within months of taking office, but some analysts predict that he won't rush to make any substantial efforts to grapple with the heavily corrupt petroleum sector. "There is little prospect of significant oil-sector reform before mid-2016 …," said Murtala Touray, senior analyst at IHS Country Risk, a U.S.-based strategic consultancy. "Buhari will face significant challenges in implementing change, given the vested interests, culture of corrupt practice and aversion to compliance."

If its implications for governance and economic policy are unclear, Mr. Buhari's victory still matters hugely for Nigeria's fragile democracy. It is a death blow to the rigged elections and military dictatorships that had perpetuated the monopoly of Nigeria's ruling elite for decades – an elite that included Mr. Buhari himself in the 1980s, when he briefly headed a military regime after a coup. It's impossible to underestimate the dramatic political impact of a peaceful democratic handover of power – still a rare event in Africa – here in the continent's most populous country and biggest economy.

Mr. Buhari's strong majority in the election, and his popularity in much of the country, could give him the mandate he needs to attack the country's most intractable issues, if he chooses to use it. And his victory has boosted Nigeria's stability in another key way: It reduced the risk of violent post-election riots, like the ones that killed 800 people in northern Nigeria after the last election in 2011.

Across the north, thousands of Buhari supporters were celebrating wildly on the streets this week. "We have been praying for a great leader like him," said Abdulhadi Mohammed, a young man in a cheering crowd that marched loudly along the main highway in the northern town of Kumkumi on Wednesday, a few hours after the victory was formally announced.

"This election really shows that the masses are more important than the politicians," said Moshood Olowookere, a union leader and Buhari supporter in the northern city of Kaduna. "Our democracy is very, very strong now. I expect that Buhari will carry everyone along, not just the north."

Abdalla Uba Adamu, a professor of media and cultural communication at Bayero University in Kano, said he's not bothered by the lack of specifics in Mr. Buhari's plans. "Dealing with corruption is about living by example," he said. "His ascetic disposition was what frightened the ruling party so much. He still inspires trepidation – not because he was an African general, but simply because of his asceticism, representing something of a modern African paradox: a man with power, yet with a very simple and non-materialistic disposition."

International reaction has been positive. Many global leaders were exasperated by Mr. Jonathan's shambolic presidency, the rampant corruption, indecisive leadership and weak military that allowed Boko Haram to flourish.

The new president will be a chance for a fresh start in Nigeria's relations with the rest of the world.

While some are still concerned about Mr. Buhari's role in the military regimes of the 1980s, he describes himself as a "converted democrat" and has run as a democrat in four consecutive elections.

U.S. President Barack Obama praised the election, congratulated Mr. Buhari for his victory and commended the president-elect for his "public commitments to non-violence throughout the campaign."

The new leader will face massive challenges when he takes office next month, even beyond the Boko Haram insurgency that continues to cost hundreds of lives in northeastern Nigeria, despite recent territorial gains by the military.

The collapse in global crude prices has meant that the oil-dependent government has lost half of its export revenue, leading to hefty budget cuts, the suspension of construction projects, layoffs by contractors and delayed salaries for civil servants. This, in turn, has led to a slump in sales at Nigeria's malls and supermarkets.

Until recently, Nigeria's economy had been booming – by about 7 per cent a year over the past decade. But growth forecasts have dropped drastically, and growth this year is now expected to be just 4.8 per cent. There is little that Mr. Buhari can do to reverse that slowdown in the short term.

One of the biggest consequences of the plunging price of oil is the steep drop in the value of the Nigerian currency, the naira, which has lost 18 per cent of its value since the middle of last year. This has fuelled inflation and forced the central bank to hike interest rates to a record 13 per cent, while the bank has rapidly burned through its foreign-exchange reserves to support the naira.

Although its economy has diversified to some extent, Nigeria remains dependent on oil and gas for 95 per cent of its export earnings, 35 per cent of its gross domestic product and about 75 per cent of government revenue. Yet much of that oil revenue is siphoned off by those who are well connected. Reforms have been debated for many years, but a long-delayed Petroleum Industry Bill still has not been passed. Under the new president, the bill "is likely to be revised again, lowering the prospect of its passage until the end of 2015," said Mr. Touray of IHS Country Risk.

He predicts that the fight against graft and embezzlement is "almost certain to be a key priority" for the new administration. "Buhari's presidency raises the prospect of reform in the public sector to reduce corruption, and an increase in government revenue-generation capacity."

But he also predicts the likelihood of contract cancellations and renegotiations in a range of key sectors, including electricity, fuel distribution, defence and infrastructure.

Nigeria's long-stagnant stock market surged in a "Buhari bounce" on Wednesday and Thursday, as investors cheered the likelihood of a smooth and stable transition, but the naira barely moved in value, and a further devaluation may loom, since oil prices remain low.

Another major issue is the risk of violence in the Niger Delta, home of 80 per cent of Nigeria's oil wealth as well as militant groups strongly opposed to Mr. Buhari's candidacy. The militants had threatened to take up arms if the former general won. This, in turn, could damage oil production.

"A Buhari victory could still unleash significant unrest in the Niger Delta, with the potential to disrupt oil and gas operations and exports," Mr. Touray said.

"However, Niger Delta militants are more motivated by profits rather than political ideology." Their real concerns are the multimillion-dollar contracts they were awarded by the Jonathan administration to provide security at oil installations, under an amnesty program that expires this year. "If these contracts are not renewed," Mr. Touray observed, "the militants are highly likely to step up attacks on security forces and energy production and transport assets."

While the Delta remains a potential flashpoint, many Canadian investors are excited by the possibility that Mr. Buhari may be able to unravel the economy's thorniest obstacles.

Benoit La Salle, a mining investor who chairs the Canadian Council on Africa, is exuberant about the election results. "You have the strongest and fast-growing economy of the continent that has just shown the world its political maturity," he said.

"Plus you have a new president whose program is to attack corruption and instability. This will be very appealing for Canadian corporations who are looking at Africa as the new market. Step back and watch companies arriving."