Slugfest or turning point?

Slugfest or turning point?
  • PublishedFebruary 11, 2019

This month sees Africa’s most tumultuous election in the continent’s most populous country, Nigeria. The incumbent Muhammadu Buhari is going head-to-head with his former ally, Atiku Abubakar. When Nigeria sneezes, Africa catches a cold so the outcome will have repercussions around the continent. By Anver Versi 

Just weeks before Nigeria’s critical elections scheduled for 16 February, Boko Haram claimed it had carried out a major attack on the northeast Nigerian town of Rann. Earlier it had been reported that the Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), an offshoot of Boko Haram, was responsible. 

Whatever the case, this attack was just one more in a spate of violence that has rocked Africa’s most populous nation and comes as a slap in the face of the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari as he girds up for his battle against another Northerner, Atiku Abubakar of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Buhari rode to a popular victory four years ago on the back of a pledge to remove violent insecurity in the country, ostensibly by eliminating, or at least severely curtailing Boko Haram and other insurgent groups and resolving the pastoralist versus farmer violence in the country’s breadbasket, the middle belt.

There were high hopes that since Buhari is a former military commander with an acute sense of battlefield strategy, he would succeed where others had failed.

Instead, violence and insecurity have increased, although the costs of containing it have multiplied. Some two million people have been internally displaced and the panicky migration to urban areas, fuelled by insecurity, has increased.

Buhari’s economic policies have been a shambles and his other pledge, to crack down heavily on corruption, is being laughed out of court. While he himself is regarded as ‘Mister Clean’, those around him are anything but.

A Lagos wit puts the situation in perspective: “In every election, every candidate swears by all that is holy that he will eliminate corruption – and after every election, corruption still stands tall. It is a hopeless task; corruption is too deeply embedded in Nigerian society – it is a hydra-headed monster, cut off one head and two appear in its place. So the pledge to end corruption is like promising to provide every family with a house – it would be wonderful if it were to happen, but everybody knows it will not.”

The issue then for most Nigerians who are realistic is not to chase meaningless promises that cannot be delivered, but which candidate can provide the ‘deliverables’ – a sound economy and an end to rampant insecurity. Everything else is verbiage dressed up in manifestos and complex policy documents.

So who will carry the day come mid-February – Buhari or Atiku? Let us study the runes. Before that, it may be instructive for people outside Nigeria, or for that matter outside Africa, who often project Western concepts of elections on the realities of Africa, to accept that those norms do not work in the African context.

Take Nigeria – it is a country with a population of over a hundred million and several very distinct regions, geographically and socio-economically; with equally distinct cultures, languages, religions, traditions and levels of development. Political parties along the lines of Labour or Conservative or Liberal or for that matter, Left or Right, simply neither exist nor can exist.

What you do have are regional and in the case of Nigeria, religious distinctions with loyalties mainly along ethnic lines. What you do also have are spheres of influence and power, each vying for a larger share of the national cake. It is along these lines that the major political parties form their strategies and allegiances and the smaller parties seek to align themselves with or against. Viewed from this perspective, the conduct of Nigerian politics begins to make sense.

Figurehead of powerful coalitions

In this context, whoever is chosen as the Presidential candidate is more the figurehead of a larger coalition of powerful individuals, groups and vested interests. Thus, while purely in terms of results delivered – or in terms of the failure to deliver pledges – Buhari starts off on the back foot, one cannot take it for granted that the outcome of the 2019 election is cut and dried. 

His party, the All Progressive Congress (APC), formed in 2013 to contest the 2015 elections, made history by becoming the first opposition group to defeat the party in government and win the majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Buhari defeated the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan by 2m votes in the Presidential race. 

Its main rival, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had won every Presidential election from 1999 to 2011, and indeed, was the governing party of the Fourth Republic until 2015.

Behind the rise of the APC and the fall in the fortunes of the PDP lie several layers of shifting alliances and allegiances. For example, Atiku Abubakar, Buhari’s main rival for the Presidency, was President Olusegun Obasanjo’s running mate and subsequently Vice-President during the 1999 and 2003 elections.

But Nigerian politics has as many twists and turns as a thriller novel and Atiku Abubakar then defected from the PDP, following bitter acrimony with President Olusegun Obasanjo, to join the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and run, unsuccessfully, as its 2007 Presidential candidate. Later the ACN merged with the APC and Abubakar threw his weight behind Buhari for the 2015 elections. Buhari finally won after two unsuccessful attempts in 2003 and 2007. In December 2017, Abubakar announced that he was leaving the APC to ‘return home’ to the PDP as the issues he had had with the party had been resolved.

This bring us neatly to the current confrontation and the latest round of defections.

Straight choice for voters

Both Buhari and Abubakar are Northerners so the issue of a swing to the South does not arise in this case. Voters will be given a straight choice between Buhari and Abubakar and the APC and PDP. They will have to decide which of the two men and their respective parties will be able to deal effectively with the growing insecurity – particularly in the North – as well as stabilise and hopefully grow the economy.

While Nigeria is the largest economy in GDP terms in Africa, it also has the largest population of people living in absolute poverty in the world. Which of the two candidates has the will and the ability to change the terms of the distribution of wealth so that some of the oil revenues, at least, filter down to the masses?

Which of the two has sufficient clout to rein in corruption, particularly in government procurement contracts, so that revenues are not squandered on unnecessary ‘expenses’ but are put to work on creating meaningful employment and stimulating further the agriculture and manufacturing sectors?

Nigeria has no shortage of very capable men and women who given half a chance and a modicum of power, can begin to turn the country around and give the millions of ordinary people new hope for a better tomorrow. 

What it boils down to is, which of the two candidates can really call the shots and rule in the name of the people, rather than represent powerful vested interests, local and foreign?

Over its short history as an independent nation, Nigeria has often stood expectations on their heads and taken observers and commentators by surprise. Many see this election as no more than an internal slugfest – but it could prove a turning point and provide the foundation for the Nigerian genius to finally blossom. Africa will be watching and waiting. NA

Written By
Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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