The Jonathan vs Buhari 2015 battle will reveal whether Nigeria has banished its past demons

It's early days, but it looks like Africa's biggest economy is set for an exciting race to the finish with February election.

IN 1984, British customs police at Stansted airport opened up a crate to find former Nigerian Transport minister Umaru Dikko lying inside, unconscious. Alongside him in the container was a man later identified as an Israeli doctor and whose job was to keep Dikko alive during transit, in a bizarre case that remains standard reading in diplomatic law.

The minister had fled a year earlier when the elected government of Nigeria was overthrown in a military coup, the resulting regime of which was led by Muhammadu Buhari. He was accused of engorging himself on public funds while at the side of the deposed leader, Shehu Shagari, who led one of Nigeria’s most avaricious regimes.

The incident led to a major diplomatic fallout between a fervently nationalistic Nigeria and former colonial master Britain, but was an indicator of the lengths the Buhari regime was prepared to go to tackle corruption. 

His regime was extremely harsh on indiscipline and corruption, but selectively so, his considerable critics, including Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, say. Buhari was eventually overthrown only two years later, victim of falling oil prices and his remarkable War Against Indiscipline (WAI) that bred him many enemies.

Man with the iron fist

Nearly 30 years Buhari will again challenge for the presidency, hoping for a fourth time lucky following three previous failed bids. At a party vote on Thursday he bagged the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) ticket with a landslide.

It is those qualities of a rigid approach to corruption, a fondness for discipline in the society and a tough line to perceived foes that have been touted as just what Nigeria needs, following what has been a tough year for Africa’s largest economy.

A man who brooked little dissent, many also remember his disregard for human rights, with the execution of three youths found guilty posthumously—one under a crime that did not carry a capital sentence—among the most notorious incidents. 

Perhaps to assuage lingering concerns, Buhari in his acceptance speech promised to govern in line with the Nigerian constitution if elected in the February 14, 2015 election.

He was also presented with a broom, to symbolically represent the sweeping of Nigeria’s ills if he takes over. 

And they are many, a litany of which analysts say presents the party with a realistic challenge of toppling the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which has never lost an election since 1999.

The most prominent challenge is one that combined to cost both he and Shagari their jobs in the 1980s—wide socio-economic discontent following plunging oil prices. 

The country has had to revise its oil price benchmark from $78 a barrel in 2015, to $73, and now $65. With Morgan Stanley, the global financial services consultants, forecasting that oil prices could fall as low as $43 a barrel next year, the implications for Nigeria’s economy, where oil accounts for 83% of exports, are grave.

Nationwide protests met a decision by president Goodluck Jonathan’s administration in 2012 to remove subsidies on fuel prices, among the few benefits ordinary Nigerians see themselves deriving from their country’s status as an oil producer, leading to a partial reinstatement of the cushion. 

With the central bank already having to juggle its options, including a recent devaluation of the country’s naira currency, tackling this threat will be a defining political potato. 

As such, Nigerians will want to be assured that what they get from oil is being put into good use, and will not have been enamoured by revelations that $6 billion—almost what the subsidy costs the federal government—has been embezzled from a special buffer fund.

While his short-lived economic record was hardly illustrious, Buhari was oil minister in 1976, and then head of the state-owned oil company. A more recent stint as the head of a government agency that funded development projects was more positively received, further burnishing his credentials as a disciplinarian.  

Insecurity challenge

But the more urgent challenge is that of insecurity, which might either play into his hands, or damage his electoral chances.

The deadly insurgency by extremist Islamist group Boko Haram has proved to be the major thorn in Jonathan’s current term, with more than 11,000 killed on both sides since July 2009, when the conflict escalated.

The Sisyphean-like challenge of bringing the militants to heel has badly damaged Jonathan’s administration, and could feed into voter disgruntlement as the terrorist’s deadly attacks increase in the run-up to the election.

However, the continuing attacks also pose a different problem for Buhari. The conflict’s epicentre remains three states in north-eastern Nigeria, which has seen several people displaced, with the risk that they could be disenfranchised and eat into votes from his perceived stronghold. 

National elections chief Attahiru Jega has sought to dispel such concerns, saying the overall credibility would remain intact, but few of Buhari’s supporters will be convinced. The candidate hails from Kastina state in the north, which is majority Muslim. Much will thus depend on his strategy of eating into Jonathan’s perceived southern block vote. 

He will also have to counter perceptions that he is from a generation gone by, and that he has ethno-religious sympathies, in addition to convincing many who still remember his short-lived regime that he has since reinvented himself.

As such, Jonathan remains the candidate to beat—the north-south divide in Nigerian politics is considerable, as are the advantages of incumbency. 

New electoral factors

But there are also both new and old factors in Nigerian politics this election round. 

Jonathan was vice president to northerner Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, and became president in 2010 when the latter died. Since 1999 the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had managed to bring a modicum of stability to Africa’s most populous nation by agreeing a north-southern rotation of power.

Thus upon Yar’Adua’s death there was pressure from the northern wing of the PDP for Jonathan not to stand, and instead a northern candidate be put forward to “finish the north’s turn”. 

Jonathan and his allies swatted those pressures aside and stood - and won. That sense of betrayal felt by the north, some analysts say, is to partly to blame for the precipitous growth of Boko Haram. Thus for both the opposition, and elements in the PDP, Buhari might actually be the northern candidate they were cheated of in 2010.

The Obasanjo wrinkle

It does not help that the PDP is probably at its most divided. Its founder and former military and also elected president, Olusegun Obasanjo, an hamfisted but pragmatic deal maker and powerful figure from the south, has just released a three-volume book “My Watch” in which he lambasts Jonathan as clueless and visionless, and talks favourably of Buhari, a man he beat in 2003 elections. To compound matters, the government went to court and blocked the distribution of the book, only fuelling publicity for it.

Nigerian politics, too, has been notoriously heartbreaking for relatively honest men like Buhari - perhaps the only major candidate who in the past had to go to the bank to take a loan to fund his campaign because he didn’t have deep enough private pockets. Many promising anti-corruption leaders, especially at state governor, have been defeated by charlatans.

However, next year’s election might be the first in Nigeria in which the vote is a clean one between Buhari as Mr Clean, and Jonathan who is alleged to be one of Nigeria’s richest men, and would thus be portrayed as a patronage politician.

Those who argued that Nigeria is ready to put an anti-corruption crusader in the seat of power at Aso Rock, say the turnaround of Lagos under charismatic APC governor Babatunde Fashola, has created an appetite for anti-corruption leaders. Sceptics however point to the June by-election shock in which the highly regarded APC governor of Ekiti State Kayode Efemi, was trounced by Ayo Fayose, a previous governor of the state, whom many consider a “thug” and one of the worst examples of Nigerian politicians at their most disagreeable.

Buhari must be praying that he will avoid the “curse of Ekiti State”…but only after February 14 will anyone be sure whether Nigeria has changed.

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