Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari is gearing to contest for another term in office but it is unclear who is opponent will be. Peterclaver Egbochue in Abuja surveys the emerging polictical landscape
As campaigning for the 2019 general election enters its unofficial but limbering up phase, President Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressives Congress (APC) are beginning to make frantic efforts to ensure they retain power for next four years just as their rivals are jostling equally to unseat them.
Buhari came into office in 2015 after defeating the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), following three unsuccessful attempts at the presidency in 2003, 2007 and 2011.
His pledge to fight corruption and turn around the economy were a key part of his ‘change’ mantra and this proved a hit with the electorate. Although shortlived, his abrasive but no nonsense record as military leader during the early ‘80s, rested favourably with an older generation.
For APC stalwarts, the president has given a very good account of himself in the last three and half years in the critical sectors, particularly in the implementation of the treasury single account (TSA) through which millions of naira has been saved.
The minister of information, Lai Mohammed, has taken every opportunity at his disposal to tell Nigerians that the coming of President Buhari is the best thing that has happened to Nigeria at this point in its history given the magnitude of the problems it has been saddled with. In his view, the entire economy would have collapsed but for Buhari’s Midas touch. Whether Mohammed is speaking from his heart or merely doing his job of defending his leader is a matter of conjecture.
But a number of political pundits argue that the gains of the APC in nearly one term speak more loudly than all the noise made by the PDP in its 15 consecutive years of government. Among the ruling party’s much vaunted list of achievements is reduction in the importation of rice thanks to increased local production, the new rice processing factory in Kebbi State, the state of the art poultry factory in Kaduna State, and the gum arabic plantation in Borno despite the Boko Haram insurgency there.
But many ordinary Nigerians remain unconvinced. They continue to feel the pinch from the economic downturn and have been dismayed by a string of corruption scandals involving top government officials. Often, Buhari appears to have dithered when it comes to taking swift action against them.
For instance, many believe there was no justification for the delay in Babachir Lawal’s pending corruption investigation. Lawal, who as secretary to the government of the federation was Nigeria’s highest ranking civil servant, was sacked in November last year for diverting aid funds intended for the humanitarian crisis in the northeast. By now, Abdulrasheed Maina ought to be facing trial for alleged theft of public funds; instead he was reappointed to the civil service. To date, Buhari has yet to secure a high-profile conviction for corruption, with the PDP accusing him of mounting a political witch-hunt while favouring APC loyalists.
Political watchers argue the Attorney General of the Federation should have been publicly queried about the apparently selective graft prosecutions to avoid suspicions of favouritism that are gradually building up.
Buhari’s frail health is also a worry. The president has spent long periods in the UK for medical treatment – despite his one time pledge to crack down on ‘medical tourism’ among officials – leaving the country in the hands of his deputy Yemi Osinbajo. Aged 75, people wonder how fit he is to be an effective leader of Africa’s most populous nation.
So far the president has not openly declared his interest to try for a second term in 2019 but he has not said that he is not going to either. Be that as it may, his close lieutenants have suggested that he will indeed run again.
In the event that he puts his name forward, it is likely that he will get his party’s ticket without too much opposition given his cordial relationship with the party’s national chair, John Odigie Oyegun.
However, there are rumours that the Northern Elders Forum has set up a committee to look for an alternative candidate. Their objection is that they did not have enough of a hand in choosing Buhari as the 2015 candidate, or the previous president, Umaru Yar’Adua. Both Buhari and Yar’Adua hail from the Katsina in the northwest of the country but are seen by northern die-hards as being put in power by other powerful forces in the country.
According to Bello Muhammed, a former PDP chair, the northern elite is looking for someone younger but still able to easily win votes in the northern heartlands.“The choice of the northern elders will include how the candidate can secure enough votes from Kano, Kaduna and Katsina states, which were the states the incumbent president won massively in the 2015 election,” he explained.
Should President Buhari get his party’s nomination, his main rival will be veteran politician Atiku Abubakar who at present is odds-on to win the PDP primaries. Abubakar, from Adamawa state in the northeast, served as vice-president under Olusegun Obasanjo from 1999 to 2007. A civil servant turned businessman, Abubakar’s vast wealth and political machinations have continued to stand him out.
His second term as vice-president was marked by a stormy relationship with Obasanjo, whom he prevented from changing the constitution in order to run for a third term. In the 2007 election, representing the defunct Action Party, he came third. Never far from controversy, his name was initially missing from the ballot because he had been indicted for corruption. Abubakar went to the courts and overturned the disqualification.
In 2011, he lost the PDP’s presidential ticket to Goodluck Jonathan. He later decamped to the APC, hoping to try for the presidency under its colours in 2015 but lost out to Buhari. He remained in the APC where he used his vast influence and resources to help the party end the PDP’s long rule.
Abubakar, a one time deputy director of the customs service and co-founder of Intels, an oil servicing company, announced via Facebook at the end of last year that he was “returning home” to the PDP, accusing the APC of not consulting him sufficiently. He had been with the APC since 2014.
Aged 71, Abubakar’s presidential ambitions date back to 1992 and 2019 is likely to be his final bid. He has made youth the focus of his nomination campaign and boasts not only experience in government but powerful contacts and plenty of money. However, his opponents accuse of him of corruptly enriching himself during his time as a customs officer at Apapa Ports and they disapprove of his political bed hopping. Ultimately, to win the ticket he needs the support of PDP governors.
Another PDP hopeful is one of its most prominent figures, Sule Lamido, who served as foreign minister during Obasanjo’s first term. He was the leader of the G7 governors who boycotted the PDP convention before the 2015 elections.
Lamido entered politics just before Nigeria’s Second Republic in the late 1970s as a member of the People’s Redemption Party (PRP). In 1979, he won election to the federal house of representatives where he served on a number of committees. In 2007, he was voted governor of Jigawa State, and was re-elected in 2011.
His strength is his steadfast support for the PDP, which has earned him the respect among the party rank and file. Going against him is his ongoing corruption trial by anti-graft agency the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The PDP will want to avoid fielding a candidate facing trial and having a possible jail sentence hanging over him in the run up to the election.
Senator Rabiu Musa Kwankwanso, representing Kano Central District in the upper chamber of the National Assembly, has also put his name forward for the PDP ticket. Twice governor of Kano State, in 1999-2003 and 2011-2015, he was appointed minister of defence by Obasanjo in 2003. In 2007, after losing his bid to contest the election, he was appointed presidential special envoy to Somalia and Darfur as a consolation prize.
He served as a member of the PDP’s board of trustees under President Yar’adua in 2009 and was also a member of the Niger Delta Development Commission board. In 2014 Kwankwanso defected to the APC where he unsuccessfully contested the presidential primaries. However, he fell out with the APC leadership, who had attempted to suspend him for what it called anti-party activities and in March last year he was back in the arms of the PDP again.
In 2015 he was investigated for alleged misappropriation of pension funds while serving as Kano State governor. Despite this, with his vast political experience, Kwankwanso continues to attract positive attention as a potential presidential candidate.
Another is Senator Abubakar Bukola Saraki, arguably one of the most influential politicians in the current political dispensation. Born in 1962, he studied for a medical degree at the University of London but after a brief period working in a UK hospital he returned to Nigeria and soon entered the world of politics.
In 2000 he was appointed special assistant to President Obasanjo on budgetary matters and is credited with initiating the fiscal responsibility bill. He was also a member of the influential economic policy coordination committee.
Senate president since 2015 and the chair of the National Assembly, he served as governor of Kwara State from 2003-2011, coming as he does from the influential Saraki family that has shaped politics in the state for more than three decades. He was first elected to the Nigerian Senate in 2011 and won a second-term to serve as a senator in 2015.
Viewed as a as a charismatic and strategic leader, pundits believe he has the capacity to build consensus in the political process. His previous chairmanship of the Nigeria Governors Forum is likely to work in his favour.
For many observers, former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida remain factors no politician should ignore given their clout and connections. In 2014, Obasanjo wrote an open letter to President Jonathan brutally highlighting his failures and suggesting that he should not make a return bid. He went on to publicly declare his preference for Sule Lamido, then governor of Jigawa State.
This time round the object of his wrath is Buhari whom he blames for letting down the country with his lacklustre leadership. In a letter titled ‘The way out: a clarion call for coalition for Nigeria movement’ , he fumes: “The lice of poor performance in government – poverty, insecurity, poor economic management, nepotism, gross dereliction of duty, condonation of misdeed – if not outright encouragement of it, lack of progress and hope for the future, lack of national cohesion and poor management of internal political dynamics and widening inequality – are very much with us today. With such lice of general and specific poor performance and crying poverty with us, our fingers will not be dry of ‘blood’.”
He suggests that the reason Nigerians voted Jonathan out of office is the same reason they will boot Buhari out, too. “First, I thought I knew the point where President Buhari is weak and I spoke and wrote about it even before Nigerians voted for him, and I also voted for him because at that time it was a matter of ‘any option but Jonathan’,” he continues.
“I knew President Buhari before he became president and said that he is weak in the knowledge and understanding of the economy. But I thought that he could make use of good Nigerians in that area. Although, I know that you cannot give what you don’t have and that the economy does not obey military order, you have to give it what it takes in the short-, medium- and long-term.”
Although he says that the president should be given “some credit” for fighting corruption and tackling the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, he feels there is still much more to be done in these areas.
Ex-military leader Babangida also appears to have withdrawn his support for the APC. In a letter titled ‘Towards a national rebirth’, he gets straight to be point and calls for a change of leadership. “In 2019 and beyond, we should come to a national consensus that we need new breed of leadership with requisite capacity to manage our diversities and jump-start a process of launching the country on the super highway of technology-driven leadership in line with the dynamics of modern governance. It is short of saying, enough of this analogue system.”
He adds that everyone should have a role to play in the process of “enthroning accountability and transparency in governance”.
For his part, the former PDP minister of aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode, said Nigeria needed to be freed from the shackles of what he calls the “Fulani ruling class”.
Referring to recent attacks committed by Fulani herdsmen, he blasted: “The struggle is not against Buhari but against what he represents: the hegemony and impunity of the Fulani ruling class and the barbarity of their murderous foot soldiers known as the herdsmen. It is not a struggle between political parties but a quest for liberation from the Fulani.”
The seemingly endless clashes between Fulani herdsmen and farmers in Benue, Taraba, Plateau and other states in Nigeria, which have claimed thousands of lives and the destruction of millions of dollars worth of property have remained a great source of concern and many feel that the president has not intervened effectively enough.
However, despite the current hue and cry against the APC, many believe the PDP as presently constituted is a shadow of its former self and cannot mount a credible challenge against the ruling party. To do so it would have to re-brand itself completely. Many believe that the re-emerging Social Democratic Party (SDP), created during Babangida’s days as military ruler, poses a bigger threat to the APC.
There is speculation in some quarters that Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the main Igbo political grouping, is planning to throw its support behind the president so that he can complete his second tenure. Under Nigeria’s zoning arrangements, the 2023 president should hail from the south, thus paving the way for an Igbo presidency. But the notion was flatly dismissed by Sylvan Ebigwei, a prominent member of Ohanaeze.
“That is not true and cannot be true,” he said. “I can authoritatively tell you that there is no such plan by Ohanaeze.”
Charles Anike, the head of the Eastern Union, was also dismissive, saying that Buhari did not deserve Igbo backing. “No reasonable political leader from the southeast who has the collective interest of the people at heart will support the current government to return in 2019. We cannot support Buhari because he does not have the interest of the Igbo at heart.”
He added: “In fact, there is non-performance in virtually every aspect of governance, no respect for the constitution he swore to protect, and insecurity. My organisation is already mobilising against him. We are holding conferences where we sensitise people to ensure they register and vote out this government in 2019.”
The winner of the next election is due to be inaugurated in May 2019. It is early days yet and anything can happen between now and the ballot box, but expect there to be the usual jockeying for position by those with their eye firmly on the prize.