Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari must think history is threatening to
repeat itself as he watches his main challenger in February elections,
Atiku Abubakar, do what he did three years ago: build a broad alliance
to win power in Africa’s biggest oil producer.
Buhari, 75, rode
atop a wide coalition to become the first opposition candidate to win a
general election in the continent’s most populous nation. While Buhari
tapped into a yearning to end years of corruption, Abubakar, 71, is
capitalizing on the angst of the elite. He’s portraying himself as the
friend of investors and ethnic minorities in his bid to oust the ruling
All Progressives Congress.
“What is happening is that the elite now think there’s an option,”
said Bismarck Rewane, chief executive officer of Financial Derivatives
Co., a risk advisory group based in the commercial hub of Lagos. “Before
it was almost a certainty it was going to be a slam dunk for APC. With
Atiku, they now have a fighting chance.”
When Abubakar last week
reconciled with his ex-boss, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, he took
along influential Muslim and Christian clerics. It was a deft move in a
country almost evenly split between a predominantly Christian south and
a mainly Muslim north and racked by periodic outbursts of sectarian
violence that critics say Buhari has managed poorly.
to previous endorsements by most of the country’s ex-military elite,
consultations with influential pressure groups in the north, southwest
and the oil-rich Niger Delta region, Abubakar appears to be having some
success at cementing the backing of the political establishment.
implicit support of important religious leaders from across faiths is
likely to give Atiku’s emerging campaign a further boost in a country
where religious leaders wield mass influence,” Malte Liewerscheidt,
London-based vice president of Teneo Intelligence, said in an emailed
note on Monday.
The importance wasn’t lost on Buhari, who
admonished religious leaders in a speech two days after the meeting
about the perils of meddling in politics.
should not be seen to involve themselves in partisan politics or
political controversies,” he said. “Otherwise, they risk losing their
status and public respect.”
There are ominous signs for Buhari.
Despite strong support in the north, he failed in three attempts to be
elected president until 2015, when he formed an alliance with key
segments of the political elite and defectors from the then-ruling
Peoples Democratic Party.
Many of those allies, including
Abubakar, Senate President Bukola Saraki, Speaker of the House of
Representatives Yakubu Dogara and Sokoto state Governor Aminu Tambuwal,
have deserted him. So have former army rulers such as Obasanjo and
Ibrahim Babangida, who toppled Buhari’s military administration in 1983.
Buhari promised in the last campaign to calm Nigeria’s various security
challenges, including the war against Islamist militants in the
northeast, the violence continues. The president’s popularity has waned
in the central region he won in 2015 over widespread perception he’s not
done enough to end the grazing conflict that has devastated the area.
Investors also blame Buhari for worsening a recession that resulted from
an oil-price drop two years before he took office and deterring
investment by imposing capital controls.
is still touting his anti-corruption war that critics say is mainly
targeting his opponents. He signed an executive order on Oct. 13 that
bars about 50 people, said to be facing graft investigations, from
leaving the country.
He’s also expected to continue to question
whether Abubakar, considered one of the richest people on Nigeria’s
political scene, acquired his wealth legitimately. A former top customs
official, he later became a major shareholder in Intels Nigeria Ltd., an
While the momentum may now appear to be in
favor of the opposition, victory is far from certain, according to
analysts including Liewerscheidt and Rewane.
Abubakar’s choice of
running mate, Peter Obi, a former state governor with a good track
record, may help lock down votes in the southeast, where the majority
Igbo people have complained about a lack of national representation
since their leaders tried to secede from Nigeria in the Biafra civil war
in the 1960s.
But the choice of Obi also carries the risk of
tilting votes in the ethnically Yoruba-dominated southwest, a key swing
region where Vice President Yemi Osinbajo comes from, firmly in favor of
“This election is going to boil down to who wins the
southwest,” Rewane said. “It’s true that Atiku’s campaign experience
gives the PDP a chance. But then the APC is not going to fold its hands
and lie down.”