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.
Added 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 River delta, Abubakar appears to be having some success at cementing the backing of the political establishment.
“The 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.
“Religious leaders 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.
While 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.
Buhari 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 oil-service company.
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 the Buhari.
“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.”
— With assistance by Yinka Ibukun