Buhari vs Abubakar – Nigeria’s crucial choice

Nigeria's presidential contest is a high-stakes ideological battle for the future of the country.


Nigeria’s presidential election on Saturday 16th February offers a high-stakes ideological battle for the future of the country between two veteran politicians – Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar. Yet serious economic and policy issues risk being obscured by personality politics, reports David Thomas.

With just weeks to go until polling day in an election that will decide the direction of Africa’s largest economy for the next four years, Nigeria’s leading presidential candidates were scheduled to go head-to-head in a January debate where they would spar over their competing visions for the nation.   

A venue and moderator were arranged, fringe parties readied their candidates, and the media prepared to descend on Abuja for what was expected to be the highlight of an otherwise staid campaign.

Yet as the debate loomed ever closer, it became clear that President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and his challenger Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had no intention of attending. The 76-year old president cited a hectic campaign schedule for his late withdrawal, allowing his rival to blame his own last-minute cancellation on the incumbent’s no-show.

For many voters, the non-debate was indicative of two presidential candidates who have failed to seize the imagination of voters or inject excitement into a tedious election process. The muted contest is a far cry from the energy and momentum of four years ago, when Buhari harnessed the hopes and frustrations of millions of Nigerians in a dramatic and engaging campaign that swept President Goodluck Jonathan from office and led to a rare peaceful transfer of power.  

With both candidates well known after decades in public life – former military ruler Buhari is a two-time president while Abubakar is a frequent party defector who served as vice-president under Olusegun Obasanjo – the lack of excitement among voters is palpable.   

“Because they’ve both held these types of positions before and because of the criticism of President Buhari’s record in the first term – which has not been without its challenges – it seems that many in Nigeria are not that inspired by this election or by the candidates. There is a concern that there might be a degree of voter apathy and low voter turnout because of the choices,” says Elizabeth Donnelly, deputy head of the Chatham House Africa Programme and an expert on Nigeria.  

“But that’s not to say this outcome is not important because actually these are individuals with very different leadership styles and approaches… Their ideologies are very different.”   

Different visions

Indeed, the blandness of the contest conceals a high-stakes ideological battle for the future of Nigeria. For Buhari, the election offers a chance to cement the direction of the last four years, and forge ahead with a broadly interventionist economic approach that has included currency controls, import restrictions and tentative anti-corruption reforms, but provoked the ire of investors and delivered disappointing growth. 

For Abubakar, a fellow septuagenarian who has never held the highest office in the land, the election is likely to offer one last chance to impose his radically different vision of a free-market economy powered by massive infrastructure investment and business-led job creation.

For Nigerian voters at large, the election offers a chance to render a verdict on these two very different candidates – one a president whose modest “man of the people” image they invested so much hope in four years ago, the other a brash contender unafraid to boast of alleged business success.

As things stand, there is a danger that unexcited voters will overlook the magnitude of the choice facing them at the ballot box.

The question of who is best equipped to kickstart Nigeria’s sluggish economy, continue the fight against the Islamist insurgency of Boko Haram and tackle looming youth unemployment will dictate the direction of public policy for the next four years. As things stand, there is a danger that unexcited voters will overlook the magnitude of the choice facing them at the ballot box.   

“It seems already that people are looking to 2023, which will promise to be more interesting,” says Donnelly. “The challenge with that is that there are significant issues that need to be addressed in the next four years, and significant policy reforms that need to be made.”  

Buhari pledges ‘more of the same’  

Plastered across posters and campaign placards bearing President Buhari’s photograph, the ruling APC’s official campaign slogan, “The Next Level”, offers a straightforward explanation of the Buhari administration’s “more of the same” approach to a second term.   

For an administration whose interventionist economic policies have aroused considerable disquiet among international investors and domestic businesses, the APC is remarkably confident that its promises of continuity will reap rewards with a patient voter base. 

Tolu Ogunlesi, head of digital engagement for the president, says that the government is openly campaigning on its record in office and inviting comparisons to 16 years of PDP rule, rather than dangling a spate of new promises in front of the electorate.   

“This is going to be an election of records, not talk. We’ve got a four-year record now, the opposition has its own 16-year record. This is not so much an election where you make noises about what we will do. The campaign slogan is called The Next Level… it’s firmly built on the present and the last four years. Expect us to continue doing what we are doing.”  

Ogunlesi says that the APC’s continuity pitch boils down to a longer-term promise to surmount current growth difficulties via diversification from the oil sector, an expansion of the tax base and infrastructure improvements.   

“Nobody’s saying we’ve delivered the kind of economy we’d like to deliver. But for us the most important argument is to start from where we were. In 2011-2014 we had the highest oil price ever and we came out with lower external reserves, no savings and no infrastructure… We never forget the context and then we talk about how we’re trying to build a more diversified economy.”   

Abubakar promises change

This longer-term argument contrasts sharply with the PDP’s propulsive promise to “Get Nigeria Working Again”, a strategy which aims to capitalise on voter disquiet at economic growth of less than 2% in 2018 and mounting unemployment, which jumped by nearly 30% in 2018 to 20.9m, according to a December report by the National Bureau of Statistics. 

Abubakar has promised billions of dollars in new infrastructure investments to double GDP to $900bn by 2025 and create 2.5m jobs a year, lavish claims that have raised eyebrows among sceptical commentators. 

Ahmed Adamu, a special assistant on youth and strategy to Abubakar, says that the campaign will tackle Buhari’s economic legacy head-on, leveraging the business experience of its candidate to win over jobless youth angered by sluggish growth.  

“When you have poverty and unemployment you will have insecurity and corruption and that’s why Atiku wants to create jobs, eradicate poverty and provide more infrastructure. The environment for business is not encouraging so he wants to introduce private sector reforms and change institutions so that they support business.”  

Descent into personality contest  

Indeed, both “The Next Level” and “Get Nigeria Working Again” hint at the genuine ideological gulf between the statist Buhari and the free market, pro-privatisation Abubakar that this drab electoral contest has done much to obscure. But political analysts say that the contest has swung clear of substantive issues and descended into a personality contest defined by gutter-level sniping.

It’s an election that isn’t going to be defined by issues but by perceptions of the individual candidates.

“Unfortunately the election has not been defined by issues, but personalities,” says Olu Fasan, visiting fellow in the International Relations Department of the London School of Economics. “Barely anyone in Nigeria is discussing manifestos. Atiku has laid out a very elaborate programme of reforms in his manifesto but none has been discussed. What we’re hearing is tit-for-tat, mudslinging accusations. It’s an election that isn’t going to be defined by issues but by perceptions of the individual candidates.”  

For Buhari’s team, that means promoting their candidate’s image as a selfless president defined by integrity and public service, an earnest reputation which helped secure his election in 2015 against the odds.

Winning over sceptics

For Abubakar, it will be winning over sceptics to his business success and projecting his reputation as a man of action determined to help Nigerians back into work. Fasan says that this personality-based contest favours the incumbent by obscuring his true record in office while putting a focus on the source of Abubakar’s wealth.   

“[Buhari] cannot contest and win on the basis of his programme and performance,” says Fasan. “He contested in 2015 on three promises – security, corruption and the economy, and on these he has failed woefully to deliver. So he is not campaigning on his record but on the basis of perception as a man of integrity and someone who isn’t corrupt… Atiku has an integrity and character [image] problem which the incumbent is pushing very hard.”  

Adamu admits that the Abubakar campaign has put significant resources into overturning what he says are misperceptions about the candidate.   

“There are some wrong perceptions about him, lies against him which are not fair. So we had to clear his reputation and image, which is fundamental in this election. We had to make people understand the real personality he is so that this is the party that people can trust with their vote.”

APC’s Ogunlesi agrees that personality will play a key role in the outcome.   

“There are not many Nigerian politicians like Buhari in terms of the core following he’s enjoyed over the years – in many parts of the north his nickname is The Honest One… personalities will play a big part.” 

A spate of high-level regional defections from the PDP to the APC – and their role in bringing voters from one party to the other – have further solidified 2019 as a battle of personalities over ideas. The net result has been a campaign that has failed to engage voters distracted by the day-to-day struggles of running businesses, searching for jobs and looking after households in a tough economic climate.     

“Issues still matter and both candidates know that. There is no doubt that although voters are perhaps not inspired by these candidates because they are not fresh faces, actually citizens really care about the issues at stake… It just seems that people lack faith that either of these two individuals will really effect change in office,” says Donnelly.   

Different regions, different messages

In a vast nation of approximately 190m citizens and 36 states, those voter issues and priorities inevitably change from region to region, complicating the ability of the candidates to deliver a unified and coherent message and increasing the pressure to lean on personality politics.  

 While urban youth in bustling Lagos and Kano are preoccupied with the scarcity of jobs, citizens in the country’s Middle Belt are increasingly worried by the escalation of violent clashes between nomadic herders and farmers.

As both candidates are Muslims from northern Nigerian, appeals to ethnic and religious solidarity are expected to play less of a role than in contests of the past. But in December, Boko Haram’s seizure of several towns in the northeast brought a renewed focus to the security failures of the Buhari government, which had promised to bring a swift end to the insurgency. 

For the PDP, there ought to be multiple constituencies to be won over if they can successfully attach their messaging to local concerns.

“There have been disappointments and frustrations with policy decisions over the last administration which have eroded support for Buhari and his allies. There are challenges of recession, security issues, ongoing challenges in the North East, settler-herder clashes… So there’s more doubt in people’s minds about the effectiveness of a second Buhari administration,” says Donnelly.   

But Ogunlesi says that the APC’s own focus on local concerns will help it land a second term. 

“There isn’t any single message, it’s not one size fits all. So for rail projects, it only works for communities and the people most affected. One delineation is the six geopolitical zones – there’s messages based on what’s happening in each zone. Another is looking at pensioners, farmers, artisans, market people and young people.”

If Abubakar is to stand any chance of unseating his rival, he will have to defeat Buhari in the north.  

Indeed, focusing campaigning and resources on voter-heavy geopolitical zones offers a tried and tested route to victory. Buhari’s 2015 campaign hoovered up votes in his home region of the North West and the South West – home to Lagos and the vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo – and will hope to repeat the trick this time around. Meanwhile, if Abubakar is to stand any chance of unseating his rival, he will have to defeat Buhari in the north before consolidating in the South East and South South, says Olu Fasan. 

“It will be close but I don’t think Atiku can beat Buhari in the north,” says Fasan. “Atiku has vision but lacks the momentum in this election. How he will acquire it is hard to see with 30 days until the election. He’s not campaigning, I’ve not seen him around talking about his programme.” 

As the clock ticks down to polling day, it appears that Abubakar will have to shake up his campaigning style significantly if he is to break through in the crucial geopolitical zones.  

Stakes are high for Nigeria

“A PDP victory would be a surprise because of the expectation of victory and power of the incumbent, who would usually use that position to enable a second term. But things are tough for Buhari and the APC. So it’s not that a PDP outcome is completely unlikely, it seems to be the case that it will be quite close run. It wouldn’t be a major surprise. It would of course be a major upset for Buhari’s team and the APC. This is what makes the election interesting – these candidates don’t seem to be inspiring the electorate and yet for both of them the stakes are really high,” says Donnelly.  

The stakes are even higher for Nigeria, a country whose population is expected to more than double to almost 400m by 2050, according to the UN, and which last year overtook India for the number of its citizens in extreme poverty. As security and economic challenges mount along with the costs of inaction, the nation cannot afford to sleepwalk through a lacklustre personality contest. 

David Thomas

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