A military ruler from the 1980s and a former vice-president, with five failed runs at the presidency between them, want the opposition to give them another chance to be elected President in Nigeria.
Septuagenarian Mohammadu Buhari, who came to power after an army coup in 1983, and Atiku Abubakar, 67, an eight-year deputy to Olusegun Obasanjo, both northern Muslims, are the first men to enter the race for the All Progressives Congress’ nomination in February’s presidential vote. They are bidding to challenge President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian who has ruled Nigeria since 2010.
The re-emergence of two old stagers as contenders to unseat the ruling party after it has governed for a decade and a half highlights the primacy of personality rather than ideas in the politics of Africa’s most populous nation, said one lawmaker.
“Politics is not issue driven, it’s driven by ethnicity and religion, which has not given space for people to see the value in issues or capacity,” Bukola Saraki, the 52-year-old senator for Kwara state, said in an October 13 telephone interview from Abuja. He said he had been preparing a bid for the APC’s presidential nomination, propelled by encouragement from youth groups, a move he ditched the previous day. A “reset” of politics was required, he said.
The networks of allegiance and favouritism, along with the money required to build support bases among the population of 170 million people in Africa’s biggest oil producer, tend to act as barriers to the emergence of new figures.
“It’s not at all surprising that APC candidates would be, to some extent, from the old guard, as anyone without an intimate knowledge of the way Nigeria’s patronage politics works — from either holding power or being close to the summit — has no chance of succeeding,” said Martin Roberts, senior analyst for sub-Saharan Africa at IHS Country Risk.
Jonathan, 56, who has not said whether he will stand in 2015, won the 2011 election. His political base, the People’s Democratic Party, has been in charge since the army handed over power to civilians in 1999. Atiku, who was vice-president as a PDP man, defected to the APC in February.
“Atiku and another possible candidate, Rabiu Kwankwaso, are very much the old guard, but that doesn’t matter so much as the fact they have only very recently jumped ship and therefore give the impression that they are jumping on a bandwagon,” Roberts said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Buhari’s three previous runs were on the platforms of two different parties: the All Nigeria People’s Party in 2003 and 2007, and then the Congress for Progressive Change in 2011. Atiku left the ruling party twice, first to run as the candidate of the Action Congress in 2007 before returning to challenge Jonathan for the ruling party ticket four years later. He quit again as opposition parties merged to form the APC.
The APC accuses the ruling party of allowing corruption to run unchecked, of failing to deal with insecurity, primarily in the form of the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, which President Jonathan said has killed more than 13,000 people, and of failing to create jobs for Nigeria’s millions of unemployed young people. The APC will choose its candidate in a December party vote.
“The strength of the APC’s challenge will depend on the ability of the party to unite behind either former military ruler Mohammadu Buhari or former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, after its nominee is chosen in December 2014,” according to an October 7 report by Maplecroft, a Bath, UK-based risk consultancy.
In a statement released before his rival’s official declaration, Atiku said he welcomed Buhari joining the race. “I look forward to meeting him in an open, free and fair contest for the ticket.”
The People’s Democratic Movement, a political party controlled by Atiku, is also registered to contest next year’s elections, leaving him with an option if he loses to Buhari.
As long as leaders are selected from a small group of established politicians, radical change is unlikely, said Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, a research group based in the capital Abuja.
“The Nigerian political system has for a long time been recycling people, you always have old wines in new bottles,” she said in a phone interview. Since the switch to democracy, “it’s still the same actors. They all date back to the 70s and 80s, there is no generational shift.”