This weekend, almost unnoticed by much of the world, Nigeria — a nation of nearly 200 million people — will leap closer toward a general election of pivotal consequence for the whole of Africa.
The political direction of Nigeria matters to the entire continent. As Africa’s largest economy, it is a truly global nation — and its policy priorities on global trade and economic relations are the outlier that other Africa nations should expect soon to follow. Indeed, bar South Africa and perhaps Kenya, Nigeria is the sole African nation with the diplomatic and industrial resources to shape international attitudes and policies towards more than one billion people.
Crucially, Nigeria holds first rank across Africa as a pacemaker for democratic development. The Nigerian general election victories of 1999 and 2003 by former military head of state Olusegun Obasanjo sped a continent already in transition from a continent of one-party states to multi-party democracies.
In 2010, the death-in-office of his successor, President Umaru Yar’Adua led to the peaceful acceptance of the transition of power to Yar’Adua’s vice-president Goodluck Jonathan.
Jonathan’s subsequent defeat by current President Muhammadu Buhari at the last general election in 2015 saw Nigeria cross another critical milestone: the peaceful transfer of power from the People’s Progressive Party (PDP) – of Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan – to Buhari’s opposition All Progressives Congress, which succeeded in uniting disparate and regionally successful parties under a single banner and mount a successful electoral challenge to the PDP for the first time in the country’s history.
All of these momentous events in Nigeria’s democratic story can be seen as echoes amongst its neighbors and, indeed, Buhari himself played an important role in transitioning neighboring West African countries to close theirs.
In Gambia, for example, he played a leading role in ensuring an undemocratic president stepped down in 2017 after election defeat; and in Ghana — long considered the democratic flagbearer of the African continent — Buhari again worked to ensure a peaceful transition of power between a defeated incumbent and victorious challenger in 2016.
When Buhari entered office in 2015 after his own election victory it was not for the first time, but the for a second that he became Nigerian president, having previously served — as had Obasanjo — as a military head of state in the 1980s.
Surprisingly, perhaps, this military background was considered a boon during the campaign: a sense of discipline, a tough record on corruption and a conservative asceticism was sought by a Nigeria’s youthful electorate who had seen little of it during their lifetimes – but plenty of egregiousness. Neither had most experienced Buhari in office before, given some 30 million of the country’s population was born after he was removed as the state’s military leader.
For this reason, Buhari’s candidacy was able to ride a wave of folklore-ism: the promises he made were promises that would — this time, surely — be kept.
Three years have made a difference to Nigerian’s views of Buhari. The strongman of legend has been an unwell man in office. For many months of his presidency at a time, he has spent not in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, but in the British capital London, undergoing medical treatment for an undisclosed condition.
It is hardly Buhari’s fault that he is patently sick: but fault must be apportioned to him for accepting the nomination as candidate for President from his APC party — as he did earlier this week – while questions of health remain; and for offering the voters therefore four more years of potential absenteeism as their president whilst the largest African economy is managed by others who are far less accountable to the people than him.
Meanwhile, great expectations of the crackdown on corruption and a decisive defeat of an Islamic jihadi group, Boko Haram, which has long-terrorized Nigeria’s northern states, have not materialized.
Similarly, neither has expectations that this general-come-democrat would usher in a new age of transparent and clean governance. Just how far from this hope Nigeria finds itself can be seen most evidently in last month’s highly questionable re-run of the state gubernatorial election in Osun State — an important southern economic center often seen as the barometer of the direction of Nigerian politics.
Osun has long been a stronghold of the APC and its predecessor parties during their long years of opposition. In 2014 — the last time the state went to regional polls — the APC, then in opposition, posted a victory of some 100,000 votes over the fag-end PDP national government. This September, the now-opposition PDP scored a 363-vote victory — their first at the statewide level since 2011. The APC secured a re-run. The result? A victory of 419 for the APC.
Whether the overturned result is due to corrupt electoral practices matters less than the fact that it shows the APC is in poor electoral health, for a party that loses and then wins by a few hundred votes one of its strongholds — and one that makes the weather for general elections — does not augur well for their re-election at the general election.
Neither does the fact that this time Buhari and the APC are shorn of Nigerian political leaders that were crucial to securing their 2015 win.
Indeed, two of the individuals running to be the presidential candidate for the PDP — former Nigerian Vice President Abubakar Atiku and current President of the Nigerian Senate Bukola Saraki — were both critical to the APC’s formation: Atiku brought resources and acolytes experienced in government; Sakari brought vital financing and – arguably more importantly – political ingenuity and electoral success from a bellwether state.
Given Buhari holds incumbency and his track record in office shears him of any claim to hold the mantle of being the “change candidate”, immediate interest is therefore who the PDP – historically the dominant party – will choose as their candidate, a process that will be decided this weekend at the PDP’s National Convention.
Eight individuals, including Saraki and Atiku, have declared their intentions and are campaigning to seek the nomination. These include Amed Makarfi (62) Governor of Kaduna 1999-2007 as well as Senator and Rabiu Kwankwaso (61) long-term Governor of Kano state — interrupted by a term as Minister of Defence 2003-07. Others include David Mark (70) Senator for Benue state, former Minister for communications and Tanimu Turaki who has unsuccessfully contested the Governorship of Kebbi state three times but who has served as a past Minister of Labour.
The two leading lights remain, however, the former vice president and the current Senate leader. Whilst their contemporary history as APC-to-PDP switchers and experience in senior national office might make them appear similar offers, the reality is somewhat different.
Atiku, at 71, is the oldest candidate in a young country. He started his career as an officer in the Nigerian Customs, later founding a logistics company. His time in politics stretches back to the earliest moves to democratize the country in 1989, and his vice presidency was under President Obasanjo.
Their relationship later became acrimonious — a common factor that appears to follow Atiku wherever he goes — and includes the acrimony incurred when he stood (and came third) in the 2007 presidential election as a candidate for the now defunct Action Congress Party. In 2011, he attempted to be selected as the PDP candidate — having returned to that party — but failed the primary stage. In 2015 he stood against Buhari for the APC ticket, again falling short.
Today’s attempt to secure the PDP nomination once again must surely — considering his age — be viewed as the final possible attempt for Atiku to succeed to the Presidency of Nigeria. Yet win or lose, curiously, it may not represent the final attempt for his supporters to secure the levers of state.
As has been widely discussed in the Nigerian media, many of Atiku’s key acolytes did not follow him in December 2017 out of the APC and back once again to the PDP: rather they have mostly remained in the Buhari government — and in positions as senior as the President’s office.
This unusual situation has led to suggestions that — as one PDP governor, Nyesom Wike, has put it — there may be a “mole” in the PDP race, and the insinuation abounds on social media that this is Atiku. Undoubtedly, this is untrue; if anything, Atiku has not remained in one party long enough to be a mole for any other. Yet the fact this kite is flown may suggest he will, again, fall short of the nomination for his current political home of choice.
Given the youthfulness of Nigeria’s population, a candidate who can show their youth and energy will undoubtedly have an advantage.
Three of the PDP candidates are in their 50s. Ibrahim Dankwambo (56) is Governor of Gombe state who trained as an accountant with Coopers and Lybrand, followed by employment at the Central Bank of Nigeria. Aminu Tambuwal (52) is Governor of Sohoto State who trained as a barrister after which he quickly entered the political system as a ministerial aide. He has also served as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Bukola Saraki (55) was Governor of Kwara State 2003-11. Elected as its Senator in 2011, he has been President of the Nigerian Senate since 2015.
Dankwambo and Tambuwal are still building their reputations and experience in contrast to Saraki and their level of campaigning may suggest that they are using this round to put down markers for future candidacies. By contrast, the effective campaign is Saraki’s, and — for want of any reputable polling data — it must be concluded he is the frontrunner for the PDP nomination.
Despite his relative youth, Saraki has a broader background than all of his rival candidates, having trained as a Doctor at the Royal London Hospital in Britain in the 1980’s followed by a spell as a junior medic. This has undoubtedly fed into the health reforms he initiated when he served as two-term Governor of Kwara, a key Nigerian bellwether state.
During his gubernatorial terms, he initiated diverse projects including electrification, infrastructure and agriculture projects – including bringing Zimbabwean farmers out of the chaos of that country to take up land in Kwara state to spread their wide agri-business expertise.
In the Senate, Saraki has championed environmental protection and wider health issues caused by pollution. Sakari also has essential economic experience, as budget minister under Obasanjo, serving on the Economic Policy Coordination Committee and having detailed knowledge of the private sector. He is also a member of the Senate Committee on Capital Markets and Finance.
Most recently, Saraki’s reputation has been boosted by his leadership of the election campaign for Governor in Osun State. Indeed, the closeness of both results — run and re-run – can be claimed as his. It is certainly the case that – as Saraki has stated during his campaign to become PDP Presidential candidate — he was critical to making the APC an electoral success and, because of this, he knows how to make the party unsuccessful should he be granted the opportunity to lead the fight against them.
This proven ability to beat the APC could prove critical. With over fourteen parties contesting the 2015 election, a similar number can be expected next year. However, the Nigerian constitution provides for a second run-off ballot between the top two candidates. This, in turn, means that the contenders will inevitably be the PDP nomination against the likely APC candidate, President Buhari.
With a party-political system that has only existed for less than twenty years, labels are in many ways misleading. Individuals shift party allegiances on a continuing basis in what is still largely a personality- based system.
Ideologically there isn’t a massive chasm between the PDP and APC. When the APC was established just before the 2015 elections through the merger of four separate parties it was unveiled as something akin to the Nigerian version of the U.S. democratic party.
Certainly, it is regarded as a more leftist grouping, espousing state regulation and controlled markets, and globally the APC retains membership of the Socialist International. It is, however, more socially conservative than the PDP reflecting, perhaps, its elderly leadership and strong support in northern Muslim regions of Nigeria.
The PDP, in contrast, favors a more free-market approach of economic liberalism deregulation and privatization. Although also socially conservative, it does accept the principle of local State autonomy and religious freedom.
Next week, the result of the forthcoming Nigerian electoral contest will be known. Should Buhari be pitted against Atiku, then — with the power of incumbency and the lack of difference in age between the two — the fair electoral weather must be considered to be with Buhari. Should he face Saraki at the 2019 General Election, however, then Nigeria’s youthful population and Saraki’s knowledge of the APC must favor the challenger.
Professor Emmanuel Dupuy from France is a renowned European/ French political and geopolitical analyst and thinker.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.