By Rafiq Raji, PhD
In September, the Nigerian government took issues with HSBC, a British bank, over the conclusions of a research note to its clients. Simply put, HSBC reckons a second four-year term for President Muhammadu Buhari would not be favourable for the Nigerian economy. Although, the note was meant for internal distribution, it somehow made its way to the wider public. In an unusually aggressive response towards a foreign private institution, a bank at that, Buhari’s officials went literally all guns blazing, asking HSBC to instead return looted funds by past Nigerian leaders and officials in its vaults. Garba Shehu, a spokesman for the president, cited the example of more than $100 million laundered through the British bank by General Sani Abacha, one of Nigeria’s former military dictators.
The administration’s ultra-sensitivity to criticisms and unfavourable prognostications about the prospects of Mr Buhari winning a second term in office and in fact making a success of it, is certainly a sign of the heated political times. Likely to secure the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party’s presidential ticket unopposed, as contenders hitherto members of the party have since decamped to the leading opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Mr Buhari’s real competition would probably be the record of his administration thus far. Knowing this, his competitors have been picking at his supposed achievements and discrediting them one by one.
On one recent occasion, Senate president Bukola Saraki, a leading contender for the presidential ticket of the PDP and a proverbial stone in the shoe of Mr Buhari, described the situation of things in September at a rally to woo voting delegates of his party in southeastern Nigeria as follows: “Nigeria has never been this divided. People are afraid to be called Nigerians. Ethnicity and religion have taken over. There is no inclusion anymore, no fairness, no federal character, no job and businesses are dying. Survival of businesses is survival of the country. Poverty is everywhere.”
At first glance, there is a tendency to think some of these assertions probably border on exaggeration. On further scrutiny, they are bizarrely nearly accurate. Although poverty is certainly not everywhere in the country, since some of the wealthiest Africans are Nigerians, including the richest Aliko Dangote, it is pervasive. 87 million Nigerians, about half of the estimated 190 million population live in extreme poverty, according to a recent report by The World Poverty Clock; in essence making it the “poverty capital of the world,” after surpassing India.
Accusations of insularity and ethno-religious bias can also be evidenced in key appointments to government positions by Mr Buhari. The security cluster of the government, from the heads of the army and navy to the chiefs of the police and secret service, are largely in the control of Nigerians from the predominantly Muslim north. The rebuttal of the administration tends to be that there is at least one federal minister from each of the federating states in the cabinet. But that is the law. Mr Buhari’s opponents argue his open-mindedness or lack thereof can best be adjudged from his discretionary appointments. The president does not seem particularly perturbed by the outcry. After the firing of his kinsman Lawal Daura as head of the secret service by vice-president Yemi Osinbajo, while acting as president in his absence on holiday in the United Kingdom, albeit with his reported concurrence, Mr Buhari appointed another person of his ilk in the place of the acting replacement, Mathew Seiyefa, who happens to hail from the predominantly Christian south.
That said, Mr Buhari is probably the least corrupt head of state Nigeria has ever had. In fact, his supporters would take umbrage at even the slightest suggestion that he could ever accommodate bending ways. His incorruptible image also makes him vulnerable. In what was clearly an eventful September for the administration, erstwhile finance minister Kemi Adeosun was forced to resign over a certificate forgery scandal. She could have kept her job if the president wished. But if he also wished to secure a second term on the back of his adminstration’s anti-corruption stance, he could not afford to wish for her to stay. And in what turned out to be perhaps a difficult decision, Ms Adeosun stayed in her job for at least a month after news broke of her indiscretion; which she purports to be inadvertent.
The point is that what ordinarily would be considered exaggerated political jibes by Mr Buhari’s opponents are, when analysed, close to reality. Even so, Mr Buhari remains widely popular. Pundits, however, believe that not only would his core support base in the north be eroded by increasingly attractive and younger candidates from the region, but that when his unpopularity in the south-east and south-south regions of the country are coupled with likely gains here and there by the opposition in the southwest, where his allies are largely in control, he could lose. And were Mr Buhari to win, it would likely be by the slightest of margins.
Too little, too late?
There is certainly a realisation in the Buhari camp that a win in the upcoming polls would not be easy. Efforts are now in high gear to win the hearts and minds of key political leaders in the restive southeast and south-south regions. But his officials are not entirely helping matters. In early September, the police raided the Abuja residence of Edwin Clark, an influential politician and elder statesman from the Niger Delta region, for arms and ammunition. They did not find any. In an unusually swift response, police chief Ibrahim Idris declared the search to be a rogue raid by errant officers and dismissed them with almost the same alacrity as the disturbing raid itself. That singular action, in addition to longrunning grumblings by dissatisfied former Niger Delta militants with a great deal of influence over the voting public in the region, suggest Mr Buhari’s chances there are not bright.
And even though, southeasterners are not known to vote as a bloc, there is a great deal of them who do not like the president for largely excluding their kinsfolk from his administration. Of course, it did not help that Mr Buhari did not also hitherto hide his displeasure about their not voting for him in the 2015 election that he won. (Apart from one state where he scored 18 percent of votes cast, Mr Buhari secured less than 5 percent of the votes cast in most of the other southeastern states.) With such deep aversions on both sides, it would be tantamount to a miracle for Mr Buhari to secure a decent number of votes from the region this time around. Thus, if Mr Buhari is to win, he would have to use state power disproportionately against his opponents and indeed the electoral process itself. This tend to involve the jailing of opponents on corruption charges, declaration of states of emergency in areas of unpopularity, and election rigging. As an “incorruptible” Mr Buhari would be reluctant to do such despicable things, he may lose.
An edited version was published by New African magazine in October 2018