Presidential challenger and former Nigerian military ruler Muhammadu Buhari has promised to get rid of corruption and deal with insecurity. Buhari’s reputation as a strongman touches on the two issues Nigerians feel most strongly about: graft and a raging Islamist insurgency. But regionalism will likely decide whether he can beat President Goodluck Jonathan at the polls on March 28.
LAGOS, NIGERIA (REUTERS) – Nigeria’s former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari is busy on the campaign trail in Lagos, trying to drum up support from voters in an upcoming Nigeria presidential ballot scheduled for March 28.
Buhari will be the main opposition candidate in the vote, vying on an All Progressives Congress (APC) party ticket.
He faces President Goodluck Jonathan in a race to be held against a backdrop of economic troubles and security fears tied to relentless violence by Islamist militants which prompted the election originally scheduled for February to be postponed by six weeks with the military citing the threat posed by Boko Haram.
Buhari enjoys wide grassroots support, especially in the largely Muslim north, which has felt disenfranchised as power has shifted to the more prosperous majority Christian south.
“We seek a new Nigeria, it starts with us, it starts today. I place myself before you, seeking your help to nominate me as your standard bearer for the Progressive party the APC. Personal ambition can not drive me on this regard, I seek to be next president of our developing nation because I believe I have something to offer Nigeria in this time of multiple crisis. Insecurity, corruption and the economy collapse have brought the nation down,” Buhari recently said while speaking to party delegates.
Himself a Muslim, Buhari took power in a coup in 1983. He is remembered as an iron-fisted ruler who executed armed robbers and drug traffickers, before losing power in a 1985 coup.
He is also seen as one of the few Nigerian leaders who never used the top job to enrich himself or his supporters.
“I have always tried to give more to the nation than it has given me and it is the principle of service that has guided my public life. Thus, I am not a rich person, I can’t give you a fist full of dollars or naira to purchase your support. Even if I could, I will not do so, the fate of this nation is not up for sale,” Buhari said.
His words struck a chord with Nigerians fed up with leaders filling their pockets. They also highlight his main selling point: during his previous stint in power from 1983-85 he is widely believed to have kept his fingers out of the till.
Graft scandals, most recently a claim by a former central bank governor that between $10 billion and $20 billion owed to state coffers by the national oil company were not remitted, have fueled public anger. The government has promised an audit.
“We want change and that change is in everything via Buhari and Osinbajo. The nation has been deformed, what they call the transformation agenda we only see it on papers, we see it in the radio, we hear it on the radio, we read it in the papers and on the television. We want change for today and for tomorrow and our children. Everything is in shambles, Nigeria has become a banana republic where anything goes. Corruption has been exalted to the high heavens, there is executive rascality and gross impunity,” said Pade Ochidedeh
Buhari’s message is simple: Nigeria’s two biggest ills are corruption and insecurity, and he cracked down on both in 1983.
Buhari has growing appeal among an intellectual class in whose minds he has taken on almost messianic qualities as the man who can save Nigeria.
Others remember less celebrated bits of his past — like crackdowns on press freedom and detaining political opponents without charge.
Either way, he will also prove a divisive figure in a vote in which ethnic and religious sentiments remain paramount.
Sources in both parties say more prosaic factors may influence voting.
Buhari, a Muslim northerner, will do better in the north, where he’s hugely popular. Jonathan will sweep much of the overwhelmingly Christian south and southeast — his home oil producing Niger Delta region and areas around.
Christians in the religiously-mixed “Middle Belt” will vote Jonathan; their Muslim neighbors, Buhari.
Much will depend on whether the 50-50 split Christian-Muslim Yoruba southwest, including Nigeria’ biggest city Lagos, votes for Jonathan. It did last time, but since then southwestern elites have turned against him.
Buhari’s party power base is now in Lagos — last year it was seen as largely a northern party base.
The presidential ballot was originally scheduled for February 14 but Nigeria’s electoral commission caved in to pressure from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and postponed the election on February 7 to March 28.
At the time the PDP had expressed security concerns because the National Security Advisor (NSA) had stated that they could not guarantee security during the original proposed election timetable because of on-going military operations to fight Boko Haram insurgents.
However, the postponement did spark protests and the APC tried to insist on keeping the February date for the elections to remain credible, saying the only reason the pro-Jonathan camp pushed for a delay was because they knew that he would lose if they went to the polls in February.
Kayode Akindele, CEO of consultancy company 46 Parallels says that Buhari is someone you either love or hate.
“Someone like Buhari, there is no middle ground, you either like him or you hate him. I mean those who like him, they actually love him in the North, especially….he has a lot of big following in the North and you always get that. Every year he gets twelve to thirteen million votes in the North. It is now whether he has nationwide appeal, and that is part of why he came together with APC…to form APC, to try and get a nationwide appeal to combine his votes in the North with more votes in the South. Now the question is this strong enough to take on the president who has a pretty strong following in the South-South and South-East, and did pretty well in the South-West in 2011,” said Akindele.
His image as a sandal-wearing ascetic has appeal in a nation where power and champagne-swigging wealth often go hand in hand.
Back in 1983 Nigeria faced economic turmoil from collapsing oil prices.
Then president Shehu Shagari was accused of wasting money on corruption — much as this government has been dogged with oil corruption scandals.
Insecurity, from militia in neighboring Chad, threatened Nigeria’s remote northeast, just as Boko Haram does today.
Buhari, as army commander under Shagari, drove the Chadian fighters out of Nigeria, even invading Chad to secure a buffer.
After deposing Shagari he began a “war against indiscipline” to weed out corruption, armed robbery and drug trafficking.
“That’s what the biggest drawing points for him, if you look outside his core supporters, a lot of people supporting him think anti-corruption drive, and a return to discipline in Nigeria. I think its going to be very difficult, we are no longer in a dictatorship, you can’t just issue decrees. You have to go through National Assembly, the judiciary is independent, you can arrest people but it’s the judges that will actually have to find them guilty and jail them. And so there are a lot of other moving parties that have to take a part here. I think a lot of people see him as a good strong figure head in proper anti-corruption drive, but whether he can push that through is yet to be seen,” said Akindele.
Even those willing to overlook his autocratic past might question whether he can keep his promises.
Corruption is so entrenched that dismantling it could take generations.
Power in democratic Nigeria also depends on patronage networks, and feeding them is essential if a politician wants to keep it.
Promises to restore security after a brutal five-year insurgency by Boko Haram also might be easier to make than keep, with the Islamist group demonstrating remarkable resilience.