World, Africa

Nigeria: Buhari's record, 2023 race to shape election

Dogged by insecurity, weak economy, president faces strong opposition led by ex-vice president with credibility questions

15.02.2019
Nigeria: Buhari's record, 2023 race to shape election

By Rafiu Ajakaye

LAGOS Nigeria

Nigeria's 84 million registered voters on Saturday will vote in a presidential election featuring at least 70 candidates for the top job.

Despite the scores of hopefuls, analysts have said the ballots will be a straight fight between President Muhammadu Buhari, the ruling All Progressives Congress’ (APC) incumbent, and Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People's Democratic Party.

The projection is based on the strength of the two parties, which have enormous presence across the country.

A long-shot third option with rising popularity is a Kingsley Moghalu, who was recently endorsed for the job at an influential forum led by Wole Soyinka, Africa's first Nobel Laureate in Literature.

Even then, very few people hope to see Moghalu win the presidency on May 29 when a fresh administration will be sworn in -- no thanks to his lack of political structure or financial warchest to challenge the incumbent.

Not so with Atiku. A former vice president and a multibillionaire, he is running on a platform that ran Nigeria between 1999 and 2015 when it lost power to the APC, and is backed by influential politicians, including governors and the leadership of parliament.

A few analysts have said the election is basically a referendum on Buhari's first term. The last four years have seen the weak economy he inherited undergoing and surviving a recession, job losses, and fresh security challenges involving herders and farmers, while the president also faces allegations of nepotism.


Buhari’s Achilles’ heel, Atiku's strength

Olly Owen, a British-based development and risk analyst, told Anadolu Agency that while Buhari can hardly be blamed for economic crisis in an era of low oil prices, especially in an economy with huge dependence on the petro-dollar, the president and his handlers have failed to communicate properly with the people about the crisis.

“Since there are many people disenchanted with Buhari's handling of various issues, this election is shaping up to be a referendum on Buhari, just as 2015 was a referendum on Jonathan,” he said, referring to Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari’s predecessor.

Buhari's critics and the pro-Atiku crowd are said to dominate social media, a realm mostly populated by the middle class -- a demography not known to decide any election outcome in Nigeria's history.

Regardless, Owen said Atiku has gained momentum in the runup to the poll, owing in part to his seemingly better understanding of the economy and backing from certain sectors of the country. Among others, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, under whom Atiku was vice president (and who once questioned his integrity), has finally endorsed him.

Owen added, however, that Atiku's credibility on the economy “isn't helped by his lack of any serious heavyweight technocrat in his front-of-house team.”

Owen believes -- in the final analysis -- that the race is too close to call.

Doing more with less

Buhari's handlers have said the president has done well on the economy, security, and anti-corruption -- the core areas where he had promised to concentrate his efforts.

While the PDP said it left a better economy, independent data suggest that the fundamentals of the economy under the party were weak, while savings or investments did not equal the huge oil revenues the country boasts. Buhari's inauguration coincided with record low global oil prices, worsened by the disruption of oil production by militants in the country's delta region.

Buhari's loyalists insist that while the militant group Boko Haram remains a potential threat, it had been weakened, while the perennial internecine spat between farmers and herders has on the contrary grown in intensity.

Those who tip Buhari for victory say he has -- despite reduced petrol dollars -- managed to strengthen road and rail networks across the country while his much-criticized ban of imports of certain goods, including food staples, has helped local farmers and the manufacturing sector. The nonpartisan National Bureau of Statistics confirmed this trend in a report on Tuesday, which saw both sectors contributing immensely to the gross domestic product.

War of credibility

In the southwest, Nigeria’s second-largest voting bloc after the northwest, Buhari's social programs like free school meals and funds for small tradespeople align with the longstanding tradition of welfarism that berthed in the region in the 1940s.

And despite allegations of attacking his opponents and claims of flouting the rule of law, the president's crackdowns on actors seen as untouchable by the law -- the most recent one being the suspension and trial of a chief justice for corruption -- may have helped his standing with the poor population, who have long grumbled about the double standard of the country's justice system.

Dapo Thomas, who teaches history and international relations at Lagos State University, in Nigeria’s financial capital, said Buhari will win even though the race will be close.

Thomas said the history, campaign promises, believability, and public perception of the leading candidates will shape how people vote.

Atiku faces questions about his credibility crisis, with many not trusting him to keep his promises. Some also questioned his stupendous wealth as a former public servant. And his recent gaffes may well sink his ambition -- including planning to enrich his friends or selling off public-owned enterprises if elected.

Atiku's apparent support from some outside forces may eat at his votes, for fears he could be a Western lackey against national interests, said Thomas.

Atiku has tried to woo the region with reforms, a key issue in the southwest, but it remains to be seen how much his message resonates with the people.

Who will rule in 2023 and why?

While Buhari is seen in the hugely Christian south as rigid and clannish, he remains a cult figure in his northwest base and larger parts of the northeast, where he boasts of tens of millions of fanatical backers.

Whoever becomes president in 2023, as well as the longstanding rivalry between the Hausa-Fulani core north and the mainly Igbo southeast --where Atiku's running mate, Peter Obi, comes from -- may also sway voters in the affected regions.

While the latter factor may be weakened by the fact that the leading candidates are both Fulani Muslims from the northern region, permutations around the 2023 presidency may play a bigger role.

The mainly Igbo southeast has not produced a president -- military or civilian -- since the 1966 “counter coup” or “revenge” coup. This has been blamed on the mutual suspicion between the Igbo and other majority tribes like the Hausa-Fulani in the north and Yoruba in the southwest.

The unabated calls for Igbo secession and balkanization of Nigeria have worsened this suspicion, thereby alienating the Igbo politically. It is feared in some quarters that an Igbo presidency could finally split up the country -- a claim some Igbo intellectuals and politicians have denied.

Moreover, the Yoruba political elite want to retake the presidency in 2023, exactly 16 years after one of their own -- Olusegun Obasanjo -- left power. Buhari's cerebral deputy Yemi Osinbajo, a Pentecostal pastor and law professor, is an ethnic Yoruba from the southwest and is seen as a potential president if the ruling party wins on Saturday.

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