With the 2019 Race Wide Open, Where are Buhari’s Opponents?


• Election may be decided by consensus opposition candidate

• In N’Assembly races, opposition may have an edge

Ijeoma Nwogwugwu

Other than its barrage of press statements and attempts at propaganda calling out the Buhari administration and the All Progressives Congress (APC) over their missteps, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), since its December convention that threw up a new leadership for the party, has been eerily quiet. With just nine months to go before the 2019 election, no clear picture has emerged as to who the party will field as its presidential candidate. The uncertainty in the camp of the PDP has given President Muhammadu Buhari, the incumbent and presumptive candidate of the APC, a clear edge, enabling him to sprint away from the starting blocks while the PDP looks on in utter helplessness.

The air of uncertainty pervading the PDP stems from obvious reasons: Unlike the APC in 2014 which was almost decided on who would fly the flag of the party in the 2015 presidential election, the PDP has a divided field of candidates, some of whom are still not even in its camp. While the likes of former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar and Sule Lamido, former Jigawa governor, have made their intentions known to vie for the presidential ticket of the PDP, the likes of Senate President Bukola Saraki, Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State and Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso, are yet to decide on whether to dump the ruling APC and pitch their tents with the PDP, or to remain with the APC. The indecision, naturally, stems from the horse-trading taking place behind the scenes and what guarantees they can secure from the PDP before taking the giant step of leaving the APC.

Governor Ibrahim Dankwambo of Gombe State, on the other hand, remains mute on a presidential run as he weighs his options and tests the waters in the hope that he can emerge the “anointed candidate” without as much as lifting a finger. After all, it happened in 2007, when former President Olusegun Obasanjo ignored a large field of PDP presidential hopefuls seeking to succeed him and handpicked the late Umaru Muhammad Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan as presidential candidate and running mate of the then ruling PDP, respectively.

Buhari’s Cutting Edge

Given Buhari’s early start in the 2019 presidential contest, he remains the candidate to beat. His cult-like following among the masses of the core Northern states, particularly in the large population centres of Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Gombe, Bauchi, Borno, Yobe, Zamfara, Sokoto and Jigawa, remains intact and has grown from the numbers he mustered in the 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015 elections to unprecedented proportions. In particular, the agriculture policies pursued by the administration has seen the emergence of thousands of small-hold famers in the North that have been empowered through the Anchor Borrowers’ Scheme of the Central Bank of Nigeria, and owe their new found affluence to Buhari. These along with his APC loyalists/governors in the South-west controlled states of Ogun, Oyo, Ondo, Osun and to some extent Lagos, make him the favourite in a field of hopefuls yet to secure the ticket of their part(ies).

The incumbency factor is another factor that puts Buhari in good stead to win the presidential contest in 2019. The federal government’s move, in particular, to enforce the anti-money laundering laws among banks and the morbid fear of the anti-graft agencies breathing down their necks will render it more difficult for the opposition to move funds through banking channels to execute its campaign in 2019. By starving the opposition of funds, this will give Buhari’s team the advantage it needs to deploy the war chest that it already has at its disposal to sway the electorate, especially in the swing North-central states where the president’s popularity has waned.

Add to this the penchant by Buhari’s men to use the apparatus of state to muscle the opposition through scare tactics, propaganda and even outright harassment. Examples abound of the attempts to cut Saraki to size by harassing him and his foot soldiers such as Ike Ekweremadu, Dino Melaye, Isah Misau and Peter Nwaoboshi, among others in the Senate, while looking the other way when the likes of Ovie Omo-Agege mastermind the theft of the mace. Judges in the judiciary have also been brow beaten by the administration into giving ex parte rulings and making judicial pronouncements on cases meant to emasculate the opposition, while the security and anti-graft agencies have been turned into the rabid henchmen of the government who have their sights set squarely on elements in the PDP, but ignore the misdemeanour allegations against members of the APC.

Should former Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State also emerge as the national chairman of the APC, this could bolster the president’s chances at the polls next year. Unlike the mild-mannered Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, Oshiomhole will prove to be a veritable tool in the 2019 campaign season as a mobiliser, enforcer and attack dog against the opposition PDP. It is no wonder Buhari has whole-heartedly thrown his weight behind Oshiomhole as the next chairman of the APC. The snag is that Oshiomhole’s emergence may not go down well with some vested interests in the APC who may see Oshiomhole as a spoiler in their 2023 ambitions.

A divided opposition would also make the path to 2019 much easier for Buhari in the months ahead. As it stands, a major contender has not emerged in the PDP as the candidate likely to take on the president next year. Besides, should the likes of Saraki, Kwankwaso and Tambuwal elect to pitch their tents with other parties other than the PDP, this would make it more difficult to split the votes in large population centres like Lagos and Kano where the electorate may decide to stick with the devil they know than the one that they hardly know.

The Achilles’ Heel

Notwithstanding Buhari’s strengths, he still has several weaknesses that could lead to his undoing. Even the APC has admitted that the 2019 elections will be no smooth sail and if care is not taken, the party could see power snatched from its grasp next year. For one, the electorate is unimpressed with his handling of the economy since he assumed office three years ago. Unemployment under the president has reached new records and poverty, despite the so-called Social Investment Programme of the administration, has remained widespread. Indeed, even the president’s loyalists in the North have been known to complain that life has been more harrowing under Buhari than it was under his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan.

His inability to effectively contain the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-east and killer herdsmen in the Middle Belt has also seen him lose the support of the swing states in the North-central region. Buhari, in 2015, was finally able to get the North-central zone to vote for him, but with the wave of killings in Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa, Kogi and Plateau States, and his seeming nonchalance to the bloodletting, there is a very high likelihood that a majority of the voters in these states will pitch their tents with the opposition. What is worse is the new breed of widows, orphans and displaced persons who have lost their homes and farmsteads to herders that place a higher premium on their livestock than on human lives.

The killings in the Middle Belt have not just set Buhari against the electorate in the region but also against General Theophilus Danjuma (rtd), once a key loyalist and financial benefactor who had backed Buhari as far back as 2003. Danjuma, a Jukun leader from Taraba State, has in recent times made his displeasure known over the administration’s mishandling of the killings in his state and others in the region, and has gone as far as calling on residents to resort to self-defence in the face of alleged collusion by the Nigerian Army with the herdsmen.

Danjuma will be joining other ex-Nigerian Army generals including Olusegun Obasanjo, Abdulsalami Abubakar and Ibrahim Babangida, who have not hidden their frustration with Buhari’s style of governance. Indeed, Obasanjo has been very vocal about his opposition to the president contesting the elections in the 2019 and is using his Coalition for Nigeria Movement (CNM), which recently coalesced with what appears to be an offshoot of the PDP – the Africa Democratic Congress (ADC) – to pick a consensus presidential candidate that can defeat Buhari.

But it is not just the retired military brass that is disappointed in one of their own, the Northern intelligentsia and elite have also not hidden their displeasure with Buhari. The Northern elite, for several years, never took to Buhari and refused to back him in 2003, 2007 and 2011. In their estimation, he was too rigid and limited in terms of capacity and exposure. It took till 2015 before they looked his way and supported him against Jonathan so that power could shift to the North. But today, many among the Northern elite, including some of its emirs, are embarrassed by the clannishness, nepotism and absence of capacity displayed by Buhari, to the extent that some are wondering if he is the best the North can put forward to represent the region.

The South-south and the South-east are two regions that remain unapologetically opposed to Buhari. Their opposition was reinforced by the president’s remark early in the administration that those who only gave him 5 per cent of the votes in 2015 should not expect more than those that gave him 97 per cent (his error) of the votes. Their fear that they would be marginalised was made stark when he proscribed and reined in the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), but failed to do likewise with the killer herdsmen in the Middle Belt. Key appointments in the Armed Forces and other security services is another area where Buhari has not hidden his penchant for favouring one section of the country over the other.

The yet untold story of the recruitment scandal involving 10,000 policemen into the Nigeria Police Force over a year ago remains mind-boggling. During the recruitment exercise, the Police Service Commission (PSC) was ordered from above to jettison the law and guidelines for recruitment into the Force by ensuring each state of the federation got an equal number of recruits. Instead, the PSC was ordered to undertake its recruitment exercise on a local government basis, meaning that states with more LGs got more new police recruits than states like say Bayelsa with only eight local government areas. Buhari is not unaware that there has been no love lost between the electorate in the South-south and South-east and himself and may have decided not to waste too much resources during the campaign season in both regions. This makes them easy pickings for the opposition PDP.

The South-west, more than any other zone in the country, was the zone that catapulted Buhari to power in 2015. The zone remains critical to him remaining in office beyond 2019, hence his courtship of Tinubu and its governors whom he believes would help him in his quest to hold on to power. But if the governors and the leadership in the South-west were to listen attentively to the electorate in the zone, they would acknowledge that it will not be easy for Buhari to replicate the winning formula in 2015 in a year’s time. The zone is pro-restructuring of the Nigerian state, an agenda the president has vehemently opposed. The zone, with its political sophistication, is also unimpressed with the president’s stewardship and is particularly disappointed in his handling of the herdsmen-farmers’ crisis, which has been felt in states like Ondo, Ogun and Ekiti.

Added to the swing Middle Belt states, the South-west, South-east and South-south zones are the Nigerian youth and the business elite. Let there be no mistake, young Nigerians want to see the back of Buhari for the simple reason that he is deemed too old and not representative of the kind of leadership that should be leading Nigeria into the 21st century. Compared to his colleagues on the African continent, Nigerians often wonder why the country ends up with visionless leaders that can barely string two sentences together, let alone engage in contemporary global issues that are driving the rest of the world. While the rest of the world is moving on to digitally driven infrastructure, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and new breakthroughs in the fields of science and medical research, the Nigerian president regales foreigners with fallacies of rice importation falling by 90 per cent. He needs to go and look at the website of the Thai Rice Exporters’ Association which clearly shows that whilst rice exports to Nigeria have fallen in two years, they have risen exponentially in neighbouring Benin Republic. Who does he think is eating that rice going to Benin? References are often made about his cringe-worthy gaffes when unscripted and his shortcomings on issues pertaining to the economy. On the social media, horrid jokes abound on Buhari’s gaffes and missteps. Should the youths and the business community, which has been harassed by his goons in the anti-graft agencies mobilise against him, the president may be forced to return to Daura, his hometown, earlier than anticipated.

In the final analysis, as the odds stack up against Buhari, there is a major likelihood that Danjuma, Obasanjo and others who are working with the opposition to present a consensus candidate, might align with some members of the National Assembly where the opposition to the president continues to wax stronger by the day. The combination of both forces, along with other factors working against Buhari, could just be the winning formula for a major upset, come 2019.

What to Watch

The Health Factor: President Buhari’s health will be keenly watched in the months ahead. He has just returned from the United Kingdom where he saw his doctors signalling his readiness for the 2019 presidential election. The electorate will look out for any signs of frail health in deciding who emerges president in 2019.

The oshiomhole Factor: The apparent emergence of the former governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole as the next Chairman of APC must be seen as a deft political move by the president. Tried and tested, Oshiomhole is one man who can reverse the dwindling fortunes of the APC.

Divided APC: If the ward and local government congresses held by the APC are signs of things to come in the state congresses as well as the national convention of the party, APC might find itself heading into the 2019 elections as a divided house. This may not bode so well for Buhari who will need the support of the grassroots to retain his hold on the State House.

Influence of Foreign Powers: So far the jury is still out as to if Buhari still has the support of countries like the United States, United Kingdom and France. The three countries notably withdrew their support for Jonathan in 2015 and stood with Buhari. However, their ambassadors in the country have been quietly making the rounds and meeting with influential Nigerians in recent weeks on who their countries should support in 2019. In addition to waiting for the PDP standard-bearer to emerge, they are already sending diplomatic dispatches to their home countries.

A pointer was the warning by U.S. President Donald Trump for Buhari to end the slaughter of Christians in Nigeria. If the Nigerian president fails to heed the warning, it will only be a matter of time before the U.S. bares its fangs and makes its preference known to its Western allies, notwithstanding the $500 million paid for the procurement of American fighter aircraft. For them, a stable Nigeria in the West African sub-region and the protection of their interests in the Niger Delta is more important than all the patronage in the world.

• Editor’s Note: The electoral maps on the front page will change after the political parties hold their presidential primaries