ABUJA, July 5 – Nigeria’s ruling party has split after a faction declared that it no longer supports the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, threatening his hopes of a securing a second term in an election due early next year.
A group of politicians who were part of the All Progressives Congress (APC) told a news conference in Abuja late on Wednesday they had formed a new faction, led by former Buhari ally Buba Galadima and called Reformed-All Progressives Congress (R-APC).
“The APC has run a rudderless, inept and incompetent government that has failed to deliver good governance to the Nigerian people,” R-APC national chairman Galadima said.
He said the faction, described as the authentic voice of the APC, has representatives in all Nigeria’s local government wards and states.
Rifts within the APC could split support for Buhari within powerful patronage networks and among voters ahead of an election expected to be held in February.
Buhari, a 75-year-old former military ruler, said in April that he would seek another term. His candidacy depends on party approval, though that is usually seen as a formality for the incumbent.
Nigeria’s political parties must select their candidates for the election between Aug. 18 and Oct. 7.
Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer and richest economy. It plays a key role in the regional fight against Islamist militants.
Galadima, who was a prominent figure in Buhari’s former CPC party and a founding member of the APC, said the R-APC would “work with like-minded political parties and groups to offer Nigeria qualitative good governance in 2019”.
Fissures within the APC, a broad coalition formed to oust Buhari’s predecessor Goodluck Jonathan rather than pursue a political ideology, have come to the fore in recent months.
Atiku Abubakar, a former Nigerian vice president, has been the most high profile figure to leave the party. Abubakar told Reuters in May that he hopes to be the main opposition party’s presidential candidate.
The split comes just over a week after the APC held its convention during which party executives were appointed, including a new national chairman, Adams Oshiomhole.
“For us, everybody is important, everybody matters. We want to run an inclusive party,” said Oshiomhole in an emailed statement on Thursday.
Antony Goldman, of Nigeria-focused PM Consulting, said Buhari had been able to defeat Jonathan in the 2015 election by drawing on sentiment among the former president’s opponents.
“There are various groups trying to do the same now, but they have yet to produce a candidate around whom that sentiment can coalesce and present a genuine challenge,” he said.
Mr Buhari is expected to hold his homeland in the Muslim north in next year’s election. Much of the mostly Christian south is out of reach. But reports of “killer herdsmen” could hurt his performance in the Middle Belt, which had swung the election his way in 2015.
Hadiza Bala Usman, a young leader in the president’s party and head of Nigeria’s ports authority, said the government could have done more to anticipate the problem “boiling over”. The clashes are driven by disputes over land, but have been politicised into purely religious and ethnic terms.
“The APC should have done more, both technically and politically in managing and highlighting this issue,” said Ms Bala Usman, who founded the Bring Back Our Girls campaign for a group of schoolgirls from Chibok village kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014. “Now the political narrative is being framed to be ‘Christian farmers are being killed by Muslim herdsmen, and the Muslim president is doing nothing’.”
That framing is dangerous in a religiously polarised country, she said. But the electoral salience of the issue could be overstated. The states most affected might swing between parties, but have far fewer voters than in Mr Buhari’s northern base. “It doesn’t make a dent on his core electorate,” she said. “And they vote massively.”
During Mr Buhari’s visit to the White House last month, US president Donald Trump pledged support for the Nigerian leader’s fight against Boko Haram.
Mr Buhari was criticised for repeating a much-mocked claim that it is former mercenaries for Libyan dictator Muammer Gaddafi who are armed with guns, not Fulani herders. Still, one western diplomat said it is commonly thought that some of the killers have been armed or encouraged by political actors hoping to sow chaos and undermine Mr Buhari.
While Mr Buhari is widely seen as fairly incorruptible, he faces other challenges including senior aides accused of graft. He is also seen as a relic of the 1980s, when he briefly led a military government.
The country’s average age is 18, and last month, he sparked outrage when he suggested at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in London that Nigerian youths were lazy.
His saving grace might be the disorganised opposition People’s Democratic party, which was pushed out of office in 2015 on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment amid a series of billion-dollar scandals.
“We are confident we will defeat whoever they bring,” said Rotimi Amaechi, the minister of transportation and head of the president’s campaign. “Because [Mr Buhari] comes with good character and good achievements.”
Hundreds of people have been killed this year in the Middle Belt, and Usartse, his wife and four children are among an estimated 35,000 people living in the Abagena camp on the outskirts of Benue state capital Makurdi.
The sprawling camp, where generations of the same family share mats to sleep and flies swirl around weary children, is a visible product of the clashes. So too was the public mourning in the city in January when it held mass burials of 73 people killed in the first few days of 2018.
Communal violence over dwindling fertile land in the Middle Belt, a resurgence in attacks by Boko Haram and a fragile ceasefire by militants in the oil-rich southern Niger Delta have turned security into a weakness for Buhari.
FILE PHOTO: A woman carries a child as she walks at the Abagena IDPs camp in Benue, Nigeria April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde/File Photo
In the Middle Belt, fragility on an issue that was previously a source of political strength is in part due to accusations that he has not cracked down on herdsmen because they are from his Fulani ethnic group.
The presidency has denied that assertion, and extra police were deployed to the state earlier this year in response to the violence.
In a statement late on Wednesday, Buhari said “irresponsible politics” had been brought into the communal violence, but solutions would be found and justice done to all concerned.
Buhari contested both the 2011 and 2015 elections against then president Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south.
Seven years ago, Buhari – a Muslim from the north – was defeated after winning in the northern states while Jonathan was victorious in the south and central states.
Buhari won in 2015, becoming the first candidate to defeat an incumbent president, in part because he gained votes in the Middle Belt, where the predominantly Muslim north and Christian south collide.
“The region includes several states that are likely to be hotly contested, including Plateau, Taraba, Nasarawa and the Federal Capital Territory, which the PDP won by margins ranging from three percent to 12 percent in 2015,” said Ben Payton, head of Africa research at Verisk Maplecroft.
In 2011, 694,776 people voted for Jonathan in Benue state and 109,680 backed Buhari. But support for Buhari surged in the state in 2015, where he secured a narrow victory with 373,961 votes to Jonathan’s 303,737.
The Middle Belt states could play a key role again in a tight race, but Buhari’s stronghold will remain the north and he is unlikely to make inroads in the south, said Malte Liewerscheidt, west Africa analyst at Teneo Intelligence.
“The southwestern region will again prove crucial in deciding the election,” he said, pointing to the coalition that created the ruling APC by enlisting political godfathers in the southwest to bolster northern votes.
“Provided the APC’s constituent parts stay together the party will be very difficult to beat, even though Buhari’s popularity has certainly suffered,” said Liewerscheidt.
In Wurukum market, a bustling labyrinth of stalls selling goods ranging from fruit and vegetables to fabric and livestock in Makurdi’s city center, some who backed Buhari three years ago gave a damning assessment of his tenure.
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“It is not what we expected. People are disappointed,” said stall holder Jecintha Eze, 38, of Buhari’s first term, during which the economy fell into recession for the first time in 25 years before emerging from the downturn in early 2017.
“I’m not going to vote for anybody again because we put hope in people a lot in Nigeria, but in the end we are disappointed,” she said, pointing to high unemployment and galloping food prices.
Data this week showed annual inflation in March hit the lowest level in two years, although food inflation remained high at 16.1 percent.
Cletus Dzeremo, who buys and sells wholesale goods, said he did not vote for Buhari in the last election and nothing would encourage him to support the president.
“The economy is not balanced. People are suffering from left to right … and in terms of security he has not done enough.”
But not everyone had given up on Buhari. Market trader Christiana Terdoo said she voted for him in the last election and would do so again.
“I will still vote for him because maybe he will change,” she said.
Additional reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja; Editing by Mike Collett-White