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SREBRNIK: Nigeria’s upcoming election is one to watch

Henry Srebrnik
Henry Srebrnik - Contributed

A number of African states will be holding elections in 2019. In the case of Nigeria, the incumbent had had to insist he was still among the living.

Early in December President Muhammadu Buhari was forced to deny rumours that he has died and been replaced by a lookalike.

Rumours that he had been replaced with a body double called “Jubril” from Sudan had been widely shared online.

The president assured Nigerians he is alive and will be asking Nigerians to vote him back into power in the Feb. 16 election.

The 75-year-old has been beset by ill health since taking office in 2015. He was on “medical leave” in Britain for three months in 2017.

The presidential contest will basically pit Buhari, the standard-bearer of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) against challenger Atiku Abubakar, who is 71, of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

There is an unwritten rule between the two major parties that the presidency should alternate every eight years between the predominately Muslim north and the predominately Christian south. It currently is the north’s turn, and the candidates are therefore northern Muslims.

The key concerns are the same ones that dominated the 2015 vote. The first, as is so often the case in Nigeria, is corruption.

In 2015, Buhari drew heavily on his reputation as incorruptible. In 2019, he will undoubtedly reiterate this promise and he does have some things to boast about.

His government claims to have recovered $2.75 billion in stolen assets. And it has overseen the conviction of two former governors.

Many, however, see President Buhari’s war on corruption as disappointing. Critics accuse the government of only targeting political opponents, while allowing its cronies to go scot-free.

Still, the ruling APC has a clear advantage on this issue. The PDP is remembered for plundering the country during its sixteen years in power.

Atiku, who was the former vice-president from 1999 to 2007 under President Olusegun Obasanjo, is one of the country’s richest politicians and has faced several allegations of fraud. In some circles, his name is synonymous with high-level graft.

Secondly, there is the struggling economy, which plunged into recession in 2016. It has since recovered, but growth remains slow.

Buhari is currently implementing social intervention programmes said to be touching the lives of thousands. In recent months, he has also launched a collateral-free loan program for micro-businesses, which could win sympathy among many voters.

Atiku is promising to revitalise the economy and is emphasising his experience. He has business interests across Nigeria and claims to have provided some 300,000 jobs across the country.

He also wants to restructure the federal system and devote a minimum of 21 per cent of the budget to education, which may also win him some supporters.

And then there is security, in a country riven by internal conflicts and terrorism.

Buhari made big gains against the Islamist group Boko Haram when he first took office. The insurgents previously controlled a sizeable portion of the North-East but are now a weakened force.

But Atiku may also seek credit for mobilising hunters to wade off the militants in his native Adamawa state.

However, insecurity pervades much of the rest of the country. Nigeria faces escalating separatist growth in the former Biafra. Heading this movement is the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), which has organised large-scale demonstrations and disruptions in the past few years demanding independence.

Armed banditry and kidnapping for ransom have also become growth industries. Buhari has been seen to be slow to respond to many of these threats.

The North-West, by far Nigeria’s most populous zone, is particularly strong Buhari territory. In 2015, he won all seven states. Buhari is similarly well-liked in the North-East, where he is credited with suppressing Boko Haram and bringing normalcy to Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states.

The APC and Buhari play poorly in the South-East, however, and they are even less popular following their handling of the Biafra secessionist movement. The South-South will also largely back the PDP as it did overwhelmingly in 2015.

In 2015, Buhari won election by a margin of 2.5 million votes in defeating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. Although his record in office has been mixed, still, 2019 looks like his election to lose.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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