Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 October 2019

Nigeria's election is more than a simple battle between Mr Honesty and Mr Action

The country's economy is in dire straits, and its people want leadership and change. Can Muhammadu Buhari or his challenger Atiku Abubakar deliver either?

Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, centre, shakes hands with opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar after signing an electoral peace accord in Abuja. AP Photo/Ben Curtis
Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, centre, shakes hands with opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar after signing an electoral peace accord in Abuja. AP Photo/Ben Curtis

When his stick-wielding colleagues fail to push back the sea of young men, one police officer ups the ante and jumps in the local force’s pick-up truck, puts it in reverse and inches backwards. Then he stops and revs the guts out of it.

Wisely, the crowd lurches back, fearful that the driver could follow through on his unspoken threat and plough into them.

Nigerian political rallies are messy affairs at the best of times, but here, at the Muhammadu Dikko football stadium in the northern city of Katsina, at least 20,000 people have turned up to catch a glimpse of Atiku Abubakar, the man who could end the political career of the nation’s current leader.

Katsina should be a stronghold for president Muhammadu Buhari and his centre-left All Progressives Congress party. The military-dictator-turned-democrat’s ancestral home lies in the town of Daura, 85km away.

In 2015, Katsina State boasted the second-highest electoral turnout in the country. Mr Buhari, who is 76 and seems even older, hoovered up 93 per cent of the vote and will once again need to dominate here if he is to win a second – and, owing to the country’s electoral laws, final – term in power.

Four years ago, Mr Buhari, a Muslim from the country’s north, turfed Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, out of office. Mr Buhari’s victory was surprising, both in terms of the result itself, and the fact that the race was conceded early and without incident. Following an election that was largely deemed free and fair, it marked the first time in the nation’s history that an incumbent had been beaten at the ballot box.

Nigeria’s 190-million population is more or less equally divided between the majority-Christian south and the broadly Muslim north.

Today, 89 million live on less than $1.90 a day, and even on the relatively wealthy streets of the capital, Abuja, references to the country becoming the next Venezuela are distressingly common

On Saturday, Mr Buhari will face off against 71 other candidates, but only Mr Abubakar – known in Nigeria simply as Atiku – has a realistic chance of defeating him. Both men have selected Christian vice-presidential candidates to appeal to voters in the south; however the real electoral battleground is the north.

Nigeria embraced democracy after the end of military rule in 1999, but this election marks a welcome change to those that came before it. Now, voters appear to have a real choice of policy platforms.

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy, but is performing poorly. Having recently emerged from a biting recession, unemployment stands at more than 23 per cent, inflation is in double figures and growth is slow.

This is woefully inadequate for a nation growing at such a rate that it is projected to become the world’s third most populous by 2050, with an estimated 400 million people. Today, 89 million live on less than $1.90 a day, and even on the relatively wealthy streets of the capital, Abuja, references to the country "becoming the next Venezuela" are distressingly common.

Mr Buhari prescribes a government-driven approach to these problems, while Mr Abubakar is pinning his hopes on the private sector.

Mr Abubakar is a comparatively youthful 72 and, as a former vice-president, has long desired the highest office. He has also amassed a billion-dollar personal fortune, with business interests ranging from oil, gas and personal security to a private university in his home state of Adamawa.

A former ally of Mr Buhari, he plans to float the naira – Nigeria’s currency – in order to attract foreign investment and diversify the nation’s oil-dependent economy with free-market policies. His campaign slogan is “Let’s Get Nigeria Working Again”.

It’s an ambitious agenda, especially given that he has promised to serve only one term, honouring a gentlemen’s agreement that power should alternate every eight years between the Muslim north and the Christian south.

Mr Buhari, on the other hand, says that his infrastructure-focused spending is starting to bear fruit. The progress and completion of several Chinese-funded rail projects, which Mr Buhari says will drive recovery, has certainly proved popular in some quarters.

His campaign has offered a stark choice between two candidates: one of whom will help the rich and the other, who will help the poor.

Buhari's track record over the past four years suggests that very few have benefited from his presidency

His personal record of honesty, however, remains his biggest asset. Even his opponents acknowledge that Mr Buhari is not interested in lining his own pockets while in power. On the other hand, Mr Abubakar and his party face doubts over their integrity.

Mr Abubakar was named in a 2010 US Senate report about $40 million in “suspect funds” that was wired to the American bank account of one of his four wives. Meanwhile, other allegations continue to swirl around him. Mr Abubakar denies them all and points out that he is facing no charges anywhere.

Both candidates have struggled to overcome the public perception of their respective shortcomings in a lacklustre campaign. Despite the large crowds the pair have attracted in cities across the country, proceedings have seemed somewhat muted, compared to previous years. It probably hasn’t helped that the candidates are yet another pair of old-timers from the political elite, fighting it out for power and influence.

Saturday’s poll, if you listen to all but the most fervent Buhari loyalists, will almost certainly involve a certain amount of election-day skulduggery. Voter suppression, intimidation and vote-buying will all be reported around the country. Questions will almost definitely be raised about the probity of the counting process.

Yet, unlike the last two, this election is being conducted on time, and – despite the deaths of at least 15 people in a stampede at a rally for Mr Buhari in Port Harcourt on Tuesday – election violence has, so far, been low.

But the real threat will come if the result is contested and the process heads to the courts. Last month, Mr Buhari suspended Nigeria’s chief justice – the man who would have presided over such a dispute – after having him charged with corruption.

Widely viewed as constitutionally questionable, this move has raised concerns within the international community. A prominent Buhari-aligned governor has responded to them with a chilling warning that outsiders caught interfering in the country’s affairs will be sent home in “body bags”.

Such intemperate and irresponsible words augur badly for a nation bursting with potential, and filled with people who are hungry for real leadership and genuine change. Unfortunately, it looks like they may have to wait until 2023 to get it.

Jeremy Kelly is a freelance foreign correspondent whose work has appeared The Times, The Telegraph and The Economist

Updated: February 14, 2019 05:27 PM