Race for Buhari’s successor dogged by uncertainties

With less than a year to go before Nigeria's general election, the APC appears to be mired in crisis, but the opposition PDP faces tough choices of its own.

Image : Ludovic MARIN/AFP

Even with days to go to the 26 March national convention of Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), it still wasn’t certain who would preside as chairman.

First came the announcement on 7 March that President Muhammadu Buhari had approved the removal of the incumbent chair, Mai Mala Buni. This was followed by the takeover of the party headquarters by Abubakar Bello as the replacement.

But within days Buni was back after the Independent National Election Commission pointed out that his removal had breached the law.

With less than a year to go before Nigerians vote in another general election, the APC appears to be mired in crisis. The national convention itself was postponed three times in one week as the wrangling over positions persisted, before a date was finally agreed.

The prime task for the APC at the convention, yet to be held at the time of going to press, was to elect a new leadership to steer the party ship to the coming elections and set a date for the primaries before June to choose candidates to represent the party in the polls.

Struggle for control of APC

As the end of Buhari’s second and final tenure approaches, the succession battle is in full swing. An intense struggle is now on for control of the party machinery that will produce the likely successor.

The initial positioning began when Adams Oshiomhole was ousted as chairman and replaced by Buni in June 2020. The target of that move was seen by many to be Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos state and the most influential member of the APC after Buhari, known to be a close ally of Oshiomhole.

The APC is still a relatively new player on the political landscape. It was formed in 2014 from a coalition of Tinubu’s Action Congress of Nigeria, which controlled the mainly ethnic Yoruba southwest, and Buhari’s then Congress for Progressive Change, which had its main support in the predominantly Muslim north. 

The party also included factions of the then ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the regional All Progressives Grand Alliance in the southeast.

With most of the PDP deserters, including former vice-president Atiku Abubakar and former Senate president Bukola Saraki, now back in the PDP, the fissures that have emerged in APC are along the lines of the old factions to which Buhari and Tinubu belonged.

Buhari now appears unlikely to support Tinubu in his bid for power despite the fact that the latter twice did him the favour of delivering the southwest to make Buhari’s two-term presidency possible. Though Tinubu has publicly declared his intention to run, saying the president has not opposed his ambition, there’s been no public show of support from the presidency.

President Mohammadu Buhari (C) sits next to Bola Tinubu (L) and vice-president Yemi Osinbajo (2ndL) as Adams Oshiomhole (R) speaks during the APC party caucus in February 2019. (Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

It was expected the APC will resolve the power battles at the APC national convention, with a new leadership emerging to take the reins through the general elections.

Abdullahi Adamu, a former governor of Nasarawa state, is being touted as Buhari’s choice to become party chairman. He could then manage the process to produce a party candidate, with anyone endorsed by the president expected to be frontrunners.

Another key decision for the party is whether to honour the unwritten agreement to rotate the presidency between the north and the south of Nigeria. Many top politicians from the north, including Kaduna state governor Nasir el-Rufai, already believe that the party should back a southern candidate. Yet, many appear uncomfortable with the current southern frontrunner, Tinubu.

This situation has made the potential candidacy of vice-president Yemi Osinbajo a viable idea, with support groups already emerging to campaign on his behalf. The former law professor hasn’t ruled out a run and recently said that he will soon make a statement on his political future.

PDP seeks to profit

While the APC struggles with its crisis, the main opposition PDP has sought to profit. After a successful party convention in November, Iyorchia Ayu, a former university professor and one-time senate president, was elected its chairman. Ayu has sought to position the party as one that is organised and disciplined.

But the PDP has to overcome its own internal contradictions to stand any chance against the APC. Party members from the south are arguing that Muslim northerner Atiku Abubakar, a perennial presidential aspirant, should leave the race to southerners.

Atiku Abubakar (C) and his wife, Amina Titilayo Atiku-Abubakar (R), after casting their votes in the February 2019 election, when Abubakar was candidate for the PDP. (Photo: Luis TATO / AFP)

But Abubakar has argued that the constitution allows him to run and has promised to do one term and hand over to his southern deputy for the second. Perhaps the PDP’s clearest route to power, if faced with Tinubu or Osinbajo, is an Abubakar candidacy with a strong showing in the north, backed by a running mate from the ethnic Igbo southeast.

Governor Nyesom Wike of oil-rich Rivers state in the southeast has engaged in a public spat with Abubakar’s camp over his decision to run. Wike, who will complete his second term as governor next year, is known to be nursing ambitions of his own for high office.

Meanwhile, some former members of both the APC and PDP, such as former Kano state governor Rabiu Kwankwaso and businessman Pat Utomi, are organising a third party in the hope of upstaging the big two at the polls.

New electoral law will prevent ballot stuffing

Many Nigerians see the signing of a new electoral act earlier this year as a key step towards a successful election. It replaced the 2010 electoral bill that was used to run the 2019 poll. 

The electoral bill was only signed by Buhari at the sixth try. Its main provision is allowing the electronic transmission of results from polling stations to address past concerns of local and international observers and opposition parties that the verdict of voters was often thwarted between polling units and results collation centres.

The bill aims to stem ballot stuffing and vote manipulation by introducing biometric verification of voters and electronic transmission of results.

Amendments added by lawmakers during Buhari’s second term requiring all political parties to pick their candidates through direct primaries – an attempt to prevent elections being influenced by powerful state governors and the president through the delegate system – were ultimately rejected.

Armed with the new law, the electoral commission announced changes to the election timetable to comply with its provisions. Presidential and federal legislative elections were moved by one week to 25 February, 2023, with the state governorship vote on 11 March. The law also requires that the parties submit their candidates in June for national elections and July for state governorships.

It’s up to the parties to choose any of the approved modes of choosing candidates. Sources close to Buhari indicate that he favours the consensus approach, which will enable him to get party members to back his chosen candidate without the appearance of discord. Although many names are being floated, there is no front runner for the 2023 race.

Many have tried to read added meaning into Buhari’s quip that Osinbajo was “in charge” as the president departed for medical checks in London in March. But for now, the former military general may just be using him as a decoy. 

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