Sa’eed Husaini argues that Alhaji Atiku will be the main challenger to President Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria’s 2019 general election, and looks ahead to what an Atiku-Buhari contest would mean for the country.
President Muhammadu Buhari will, in all likelihood, seek a second term in office. For starters, this is a prospect that is buttressed by much political tradition and precedent; no Nigerian president who lived through a first term has ever walked away from the possibility of a second (at least not willingly). But the president’s desire to retain his office has also been implied by more recent events. Among these are the fact that next year’s budget, which Buhari proposed in November, promises to be Nigeria’s biggest ever, an expansion in spending which analysts have interpreted as designed to shore up his government’s reputation in advance of the 2019 polls. Along with this has come his de facto endorsement by the state governor’s forum, easily the most influential elite caucus within Buhari’s All Progressive’s Congress (APC) party. With this decisive announcement already secured, an official declaration of Buhari’s intention to contest is almost a formality.
However, taking all of this to mean that Buhari’s second term bid will be a cakewalk would be imprudent. Least of all because a general election is likely to pit him against easily his toughest opponent on Nigeria’s current political stage; namely Alhaji Atiku Abubaker.
There are a number of important details to bear in mind which hint at why Alhaji Atiku might be the most formidable challenger. Foremost is the fact that he is (in)famously wealthy. This is an especially meaningful quality in a context wherein electoral races are increasingly becoming prohibitively expensive. But aside from (though not unrelated to) his wealth, he has also been a regular fixture on Nigeria’s political stage having both served as Nigeria’s second elected vice-president from 1999 – 2007 and unsuccessfully run for president on three separate occasions (1992, 2007, and 2011).
Atiku’s ubiquity in Nigerian politics has certainly come with its costs. His proximity to an unpopular Nigerian state over such an extended period of time has tainted his reputation and raised numerous question marks about the propriety of his wealth. Critics also point to his having frequently switched party allegiances or, in Nigerian parlance, ‘decamped’ (most recently last month) as evidence of his being conniving or dishonest.
However, his supporters parry accusations of his dishonesty by pointing out that most Nigerian politicians have, at one point or another, decamped and that party switching has effectively become a norm of political behavior in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, as Nigerian academics have also argued. Moreover, Atiku’s continuity in Nigerian politics –even if in the form of unsuccessful presidential bids– has allowed him to reinforce a strong base of supporters over time. This formula was put to fruitful use by none other than Buhari himself who, identically, also lost three presidential elections before his victory in 2015 suggesting, perhaps, that in Nigeria’s presidential politics, the fourth time might be the charm.
Atiku has also recently come out in favor of a number of issues, which are backed by growing constituencies. Of note, among these, is his fervent support for constitutional reforms to restructure Nigeria’s federal system and allow for a more widely accepted balance between central and local governments. Proponents of these reforms include both national civil society and communities in the oil producing regions of Nigeria, both of which could be important electoral constituencies. Atiku has also recently come out in favor of #EndSARS, a protest movement which has been aimed at disbanding an unpopular police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), and which has largely taken place on Twitter. Weighing-in in favor of proponents of #EndSARS, has shown Atiku to be responsive to the public outcry of a young urban constituency which is increasingly recognized to be an influential ally of opposition candidates in African elections.
But beyond (and perhaps more important than) these personal traits however, there are also important structural factors that make Atiku’s possible bid against Buhari a distinctly viable one. Chief among these factors is the peculiar matter of zoning. Zoning refers to an informal arrangement amongst Nigeria’s political parties which requires that after a president from either the northern or southern half (or ‘zone’) of the country has served two consecutive terms in office, his successor must come from the opposite ‘zone’. This issue partially accounted for northern support in 2015 for Buhari against the re-election bid of former president Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner who, having completed the term of his successor who died in office, was widely castigated by northern politicians for seeking to stay in office beyond the ‘turn’ of his zone.
The fact that the presidency will remain zoned to the north in the upcoming election means that Atiku will face much less of a challenge from other presidential hopefuls from the south who might otherwise have made threatening incursions into the race. Additionally, Buhari’s heavy handed response to militancy in Nigeria’s oil delta and to the pro-Biafran successions movement in the past two years have not won him many new supporters in the south, a region which already voted heavily against him in 2015. Taken together, these factors will mean that, in a race against Atiku, Buhari will face a viable challenger in his core base in the north while fighting an uphill battle in much of the south (particularly the south east) where, given Buhari’s unpopularity, Atiku might be deemed a much more palatable choice. An assessment of the above factors, as well as the fact that no similarly viable northern challenger has emerged in the opposition People’s Democratic Party, probably account for Atiku’s decision to jump ship from the APC to the PDP late last month.
In Nigeria’s immediate context, these factors raise the possibility that the 2019 general election could be a hotly contested race that pits two former allies against each other. Politics, of course, makes strange bedfellows but there is no reason to expect that such cohabitation will endure through thick and thin. In more general terms however, the forgoing analyses has also brought to the fore some of the challenges which sometimes make the fact of being an incumbent a double-edged sword in increasingly competitive electoral contexts.
Sa’eed Husaini is a PhD student in the Department for International Development at the University of Oxford.
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 Omilusi, O., P. (2015). “The Nuances and Nuisances of Party Defection in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic.” International Journal of Multidisciplinary Academic Research, Vol. 3, No. 4.
 Resnick, D. (2012). Opposition parties and the urban poor in African democracies. Comparative Political Studies, 45(11), 1351-1378.
 Owen, Olly, and Zainab Usman. “Briefing: Why Goodluck Jonathan lost the Nigerian presidential election of 2015.” African Affairs 114.456 (2015): 455-471.