Almost every Nigerian vote since independence in 1960 has been dogged by varying degrees of conflict and allegations of rigging. That’s one reason why the 2015 election that saw Muhammadu Buhari, now 76, become the first candidate in the nation’s history to topple a sitting president through the ballot box was such a watershed moment. But the former military ruler has fallen short on meeting pledges to rejuvenate and diversify the oil-dependent economy or quell rampant corruption during his four years in office. Now he is running for a second term in a Feb. 16 contest pitting him against dozens of rivals. The most prominent is Atiku Abubakar, 72, a wealthy businessman and former vice president, who has pledged to revive the economy and sell state-owned assets.
1. What are the key campaign issues?
The electorate’s biggest gripes are about a lack of jobs and economic opportunities, falling living standards and high inflation. The unemployment rate hit 23.1 percent in the third quarter, its highest since at least 2010, and the World Bank estimates that almost half the population of 200 million live on $1.90 or less a day. Endemic corruption is another major concern, as is insecurity typified by conflict with Islamist militants in the northeast, perennial violence in the oil-rich Niger delta and escalating tensions over grazing rights.
2. What are the main candidates promising?
Buhari’s popularity started to wane after falling oil prices triggered Nigeria’s first economic contraction in a quarter century in 2016. Investors blame him for exacerbating the slump and deterring investment by imposing capital controls. He also leaned on the central bank not to weaken the currency, the naira, which it was eventually forced to do. He now pledges to bolster spending on new transport and electricity projects. His plans include building rail links between all state capitals and completing a $5 billion hydro power project funded by China. He has also promised to increase the minimum wage. Abubakar, who has business interests ranging from oil services to beverages, says he’ll draw on his experience in the private sector to lift the economy. He favors incentives to encourage investment, selling all government-owned oil refineries and stakes in the state oil company, setting up an infrastructure debt fund and deregulating the foreign-exchange market.
3. How do they intend to tackle insecurity?
Buhari says he will intensify the battle against militants loyal to Islamic State and Boko Haram, and provide the military with additional resources. Abubakar says it’s no accident that the country’s poorest region has borne the brunt of the insurgency, and he’ll promote jobs and development there, which would deny militants support and make it harder for them to recruit members.
4. What are their records on graft?
While Buhari has a reputation for honesty in what ranks as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, critics say his war on graft has been selective and lost credibility — Nigeria dropped 12 places on Transparency International’s corruption-perceptions index last year. Abubakar has long been accused of engaging in illicit practices to amass a vast fortune, an allegation he denies. Though he has never been charged with or found guilty of corrupt practices, a U.S. Senate subcommittee report in 2010 said that he and one of his wives wired $40 million of “suspect funds” to the country. Abubakar has pledged to shift the focus from “punitive” to “preventative” measures to tackle graft, including moving more government services online to make it harder for civil servants to demand bribes.
5. Who’s likely to win?
An absence of reliable opinion polls makes it difficult to tell, and analysts have mixed views. New York-based risk adviser Teneo in December projected that Abubakar would win 57 percent of the vote to Buhari’s 42 percent in a free and fair election, while Eurasia Group sees Buhari beating Abubakar by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin. If no candidate wins outright in the first round, a run-off will be held. The victor must also secure at least a quarter of the votes in two-thirds of the states, a requirement aimed at ensuring they have national appeal; failing that test could also trigger a run-off.
6. Why is the race so close?
In previous elections, the easiest way for a candidate to win the presidency was to corner the votes of two of the country’s three main ethnic blocks — the Hausa speakers in the north, the Yoruba from the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast — and then try to tap into support from other minority groups. This time around, it’s a more complicated calculus because both Buhari and Abubakar are Muslim Hausa speakers from the north. The Yoruba played a pivotal role in bringing Buhari to power in 2015, and he’s hoping to retain their support by sticking with the same running mate, Yemi Osinbajo, who hails from the southwest. Abubakar chose Peter Obi as his deputy with a view to drawing support from fellow Igbos, and is targeting support from minorities in the oil-producing south by pledging to devolve more power to regional authorities.
7. Will the elections be free, fair and peaceful?
That’s the perennial question. With state power seen as the shortest route to wealth in Nigeria, elections are hotly contested. More than 800 people died in 2011 in the unrest following Buhari’s loss to then-President Goodluck Jonathan. Widespread conflict was averted in 2015 when Jonathan conceded to Buhari before the final count was complete, although deaths still topped 100. Civil rights groups have expressed concern that the security forces are partisan in favor of the incumbent, a problem they identified during the election of governors in the southwestern Ekiti and Osun states last year. Several newspapers have reported that Buhari’s niece was appointed to a committee in charge of the national election results collation center, a deployment rejected by the main opposition. Buhari denied he was directly related to the woman.