By Julia Payne and Ulf Laessing
ABUJA (Reuters) - Almost a year after winning an election on promises to fix Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari's grand vision of reform is fading, with power centralized in his increasingly remote presidency and the bureaucracy in disarray.
After axing almost 50 top civil servants and 40 ambassadors and shaking up ministries in a bid to excise endemic graft, the 73-year-old former military ruler has even started cancelling some weekly cabinet meetings.
His aides said this was because under his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, the meeting had become a forum for ministers to hand out over-priced contracts to friends.
Critics say the effect has been to leave government rudderless while Africa's biggest economy flatlines.
Power is concentrated in Buhari's office, where files pile up on the desk of his chief of staff. Ministers appointed only in November - more than six months after Buhari's victory - are reluctant to make decisions, diplomats say.
Government insiders admit things may be getting worse before they get better, but say that is to be expected given the scale of the task in hand.
"Of course it's chaos. We're rebuilding a whole system. There is no depth in the bureaucracy," said a senior government source who asked not to be named.
Buhari is too often absent to provide enough personal guidance, according to his critics.
Since taking office in May, he has been on 26 overseas trips, visiting Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week, where officials say he hopes to drum up interest from investors.
His opponents complain that his external focus comes at the expense of the two pillars of the domestic economy - the oil-producing Niger Delta and Lagos, the sprawling megacity that serves as Nigeria's commercial capital.
He has visited neither as president.
Buhari has won plaudits from ordinary Nigerians for fighting graft as part of a crackdown on an elite whose wealth has grown for decades while most of the country's 170 million people remained in poverty.
The army under his command has also reconquered territory from the Boko Haram group in the north, though the jihadists still regularly stage suicide attacks.
But the ascetic general has not yet delivered on a promise to create jobs by ending reliance on oil. His civil service cull has cut avenues for graft but also created knowledge gaps, to the point that the government has so far been unable to produce a viable budget.
Buhari last week fired a senior budget official who had been appointed in August, after he helped to produce a draft which labeled car or computer purchases as capital expenditures, according to Nigerian research group Budgit.
One billion naira - more than $5 million at the official exchange rate - had been budgeted for office furniture alone.
"This was really depressing when we expected that this should be a total shift from the wasteful culture that we had in the past," said Oluseun Onigbinde, founder of the group.
Buhari fired most of the top management at state oil firm NNPC but his replacements have struggled to get a grip on the massive and opaque entity, officials say. Some projects have been delayed as the newcomers struggle to locate the relevant files in the four NNPC towers.
With no regular meetings, ministers are still trying to figure out what they can achieve, officials say. Buhari merged several ministries but since a cabinet retreat in November, he has left them to drift.
Buhari's aides counter that the cabinet meets whenever there is something to decide, and that the government needs time to work out detailed plans - including funding - for such daunting tasks as road-building or the improvement of Nigeria's notoriously erratic power supply.
But a senior civil servant who asked not to be named said ministers struggled to get the attention of Buhari's office.
"There is a proposal, a consultancy does a study but then the report gets ignored," he said.
Buhari asked Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to coordinate economic policy, but diplomats say he is being sidelined as the president personally handles all key issues, including a freeze of the naira exchange rate that is crippling investment.
That leaves businessmen wondering how the West African oil producer can survive its worst economic crisis for decades.
"Policy statements hang but there's no trickle down," said Prince Ike Ubaka, head of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria.
(Additional reporting by Chijioke Ohuacha; Editing by Ed Cropley and Andrew Roche)