Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s party may be wracked by defections and his battles against corruption and an Islamist rebellion under fire, but he has one crucial advantage in securing re-election: incumbency.
The 75-year-old leader is going to need all the tools available to repeat his 2015 victory — the first time an opposition party won power at the ballot box in Africa’s biggest oil producer. At his disposal, analysts say, is a record with some policy successes, as well as the state power to reward or punish.
Buhari “seems prepared to deploy the institutions of state to his advantage,” said Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre in the capital, Abuja. “It’s kind of a plan to beat people into line.”
Buhari — who was briefly Nigeria’s military ruler in the 1980s — will be fighting against perceptions the country hasn’t gotten any safer nor less corrupt during his tenure. A promise to shatter Boko Haram’s northern Islamist insurgency may have been partly fulfilled, but inter-communal violence has replaced it as Nigeria’s deadliest threat. Nigeria’s corruption perception ranking soared this year despite a much-touted war on graft.
Buhari is benefiting from a recovering economy with rising crude prices after a 2016 recession triggered by the sharp fall in the price of the commodity that is the country’s main export. Foreign-exchange reforms by the government have helped to stabilize the naira. Inflation decelerated for the 18th straight month in July as food prices climbed at the slowest rate since March 2016.
“Oil output has been fairly steady and prices are better than anticipated,” said Antony Goldman, West Africa analyst at London-based PM Consulting. “Economic fundamentals are better than when Buhari was elected.”
When the head of the Senate, Bukola Saraki — Nigeria’s third-most powerful politician — joined more than 50 APC members in leaving for the opposition People’s Democratic Party over the past month, the reaction was swift. First his home was blockaded; days later security officers barred entry to the legislature itself. It’s an exodus that Buhari needs stemmed if he’s to keep afloat a party with a campaign machine spanning Africa’s most populous nation of almost 200 million people.
The PDP said the move was an attempt to smuggle in Buhari loyalists and remove Saraki, who’d adjourned sittings until late September. Amid public outrage, the government and APC condemned the deployment as unconstitutional and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who’s acting head of state while Buhari’s overseas, dismissed the state security chief.
“It was a crucial act of damage control by the acting president,” said Nwankwo.
Saraki said he’s considering challenging for Buhari’s job in the coming vote on the platform of the PDP, as the country needs a business-friendly leadership that is currently lacking.
Buhari’s war on corruption gives him a way to coerce his opponents, according to Cheta Nwanze, an analyst at Lagos-based business advisory, SBM Intelligence.
Buhari signed an executive order in July empowering him to freeze the bank accounts of those implicated in graft investigations. The opposition says that it will be used to punish defectors, undermines Nigeria’s courts and violates the principle of presumption of innocence.
Critics point to the case of Benue state Governor Samuel Ortom. Shortly after he left the ruling party for the PDP, the Buhari-controlled financial crimes agency moved in to freeze Benue state’s bank accounts, citing a corruption investigation. Ortom’s office has asked why the probe only happened once the governor had left the APC.
Buhari has other elements in his favor. Amaka Anku, an Africa analyst at Washington D.C.-based risk advisers Eurasia Group, pointed to national railway lines and a metro system in the capital completed during his first term.
“Buhari will have concrete achievements to point to on the campaign trail,” she said.
The president may also get a boost from the opposition’s disunity. Still to name a presidential candidate, the PDP has at least a dozen would-be contenders.
While former President Olusegun Obasanjo — a powerful voice — is campaigning against Buhari’s re-election, he’s also, due to long-standing differences, opposed to the candidacy of his former deputy, Atiku Abubakar. A northerner, like Buhari, who may be able to win support on the incumbent’s home turf, Abubakar is widely seen as the only challenger proposing coherent policies.
“Compared to 2015, the president has lost some support, but the challenge for the opposition will be to win that support,” Goldman said. “The PDP is still in search of a personality to unite the party.”