As it had been widely expected, former Head of State General Muhammadu Buhari recently declared his intentions to run for the office of the President in the 2015 General Elections on the platform of the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). The party is yet to select its Presidential candidate, but when it does Buhari is very likely to be it.
Buhari, who at various times has been a military governor of defunct North-East State, a former Minister of Petroleum, and head of the Petroleum Trust Fund (a fund established by Nigeria’s infamous former military dictator, General Sani Abacha to carry out public projects using the difference between an old pump price of petrol and the new price as a sort of palliative measure from the price increase) has been a perennial fixture of presidential elections in Nigeria since 2003.
He has been a candidate in every election since then (twice as the candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples’ Party, ANPP and once as the candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC – both parties are now defunct having merged with a third party, the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN to form the APC). If he succeeds in becoming the APC candidate later this year, it will make it his fourth attempt in a row.
Just before the 2011 elections, Buhari addressed a campaign rally in Lagos where he made it known that it would be his last shot at the office. However, there has admittedly been a lot of pressure from the supporters of The General to contest again – a measure of the faith they have in him that only he can beat a PDP-backed Goodluck Jonathan. There is hardly any politician in Nigeria, especially one who has never held any position in its current Fourth Republic, who commands the passionate and loyal following Buhari does.
So what has now changed that makes Buhari so assured that he can secure his party’s presidential nomination and even win the upcoming elections?
First, General Buhari will be running on a party platform much bigger than his two previous platforms. In 2003 and 2007, the ANPP was in control of seven and five states respectively. In 2011, the CPC had been in existence for only eight months and was little more than a political vehicle formed to actualize Buhari’s ambitions after his falling out with the ANPP establishment. The APC at present controls 14 states.
However, Buhari was still able to win about 12 million votes in all three elections and 12 states, all in the Northern part of the country, where his support is strongest. It is probable that he will win these states again next year.
With the ACN, which controls four states in the South-West region of the country and Edo State in the South-West as the other partner in the formation of APC, Buhari is banking on the support of former Lagos State governor and leader of the defunct CAN, Bola Tinubu, to deliver the region. If the party is able to win the region and Edo State, it will then push to win an additional five states in order to meet the constitutional requirement of two-thirds of the 36 states (24 states), in addition to having a simple majority, in order to become the president.
There have been rumours doing the rounds that Tinubu, who is the strongest kingmaker within the party, is biased towards a Buhari candidature, evidenced by his presence at Buhari’s declaration, which his opponent in the forthcoming primaries, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar did not enjoy.
However, there are several bumps in what may appear to be smooth road (to the APC candidacy, at least): Buhari’s support is as strong in the 12 states in the North that have consistently fetched him votes as it is weak in other states.
One reason for the lack of popular support for Buhari outside his core areas is that he is seen to be a Northern hegemonist and one with extremist Islamic beliefs, starting from his open support for the Sharia penal code in 2000 and his alleged advice (although perhaps deliberately misinterpreted) that Muslims should vote only for other Muslims in 2001. These two events catapulted him back into limelight since his leadership of the defunct PTF ended in 1998, albeit in a negative light.
The negative perception of Buhari, most strongly held among Southern Nigerians and Christians and ethnic minorities in the North and the Middle Belt, have grown stronger since 2011 when his supporters went on a violent rampage after the results were declared in the favor of his main opponent, incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan.
Other events have also tended to harden these views: some out of misinterpretation and others due to gaffes on his part. For example, he once went on a rant on a radio talk show where he described the military campaign in the North against Boko Haram as being targeted against the North and advocated that they be “pampered” like the Niger-Delta militants who were given an amnesty package by late President Umaru Yar’adua in 2008, a move which has quelled the once-restive oil-rich region. Ironically, General Buhari was himself the target of a bombing attack in July, suspected to have been carried out Boko Haram.
Simply put, Buhari’s support base seems to have remained static – it has not diversified beyond the core that brought him (an admittedly significant) second place in 2011.
Another major challenge before Buhari is within his own party – for the first time in the history of his presidential runs, he will be facing genuine competition for the ticket. In 2003, other Northern candidates of the ANPP agreed to step down for him while the other candidates bar one, mainly from the South-East, staged a walk-out in protest at what they felt was the party’s attempt to foist Buhari as the candidate. The only candidate that stayed back, former Senate President Chuba Okadigbo, later became his running mate.
In 2007, he faced six lightweight opponents, including former Zamfara and Yobe State governors Ahmed Sani Yerima and Bukar Abba Ibrahim who are now senators in the primaries, while he was unopposed in CPC in 2011.
This time around, at least two other politicians have declared interest in becoming the party’s flag bearer: former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and Kano State governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso. Kwankwaso is very popular in Kano State and could split the votes in the primaries from the states, a bastion of support for Buhari at least down the middle.
Atiku, however, represents the most dominant threat. Not only is he deep-pocketed, he has also built an extensive national support network due to his two decades as an active politician, many of these he inherited from his mentor, the late General Shehu Yar’adua.
The evidence that Buhari recognizes this threat was revealed by his push for the party to adopt a direct method of electing the candidate, where each registered party member will vote, rather than using a delegates system (which has been the usual method of choice of parties in Nigeria). This is based on Buhari capitalising on massive popular support, rather than using delegates whose votes can be easily bought (something Buhari does not have the funds to do).
If he gets through the APC primaries, The General will very likely be running against incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan who has already secured the endorsement of all the PDP state governors and other organs of the party. If PDP primaries are actually held they will serve as a coronation rather than a contest for the presumed candidate.
Squaring up against President Jonathan will prove to be a different ballgame for Buhari than the APC primaries. This is because it will be a battle between a Northern Muslim candidate and a Southern Christian.
Little will change from 2011 if the two run against each other next year, save for the presence of the APC in the South-West. With the South-East and South-South firmly in President Jonathan’s hands and the North-East and North-West still bastions of support for Buhari, it leaves the South-West and the North-Central as the deciders.
The current Boko Haram insurgency in parts of the North-East has left many unsure about whether elections can be held there. If elections do not take place there, it is likely to harm the APC more than the PDP and could take a bite out of potential Buhari votes.
Buhari will be banking on the influence of the APC in the South-West at present to win, but the PDP is also working overtime to ensure that they win as many votes as possible.
In the 2011 elections, President Jonathan won five out of six states in the North-Central, leaving Niger State for Buhari’s CPC. Next year, Buhari might gain one more state – Kwara, due to the influence of former governor, Senator Bukola Saraki, who defected to the APC last year and who is in charge of the Saraki political dynasty that has decided the way elections have gone in the state for three decades.
The most optimistic political analysis puts General Buhari’s hopes against President Jonathan come February to be at best a run-off, but it is hard to see him winning in the first round. A tough few months loom ahead for The General.