Muhamadu Buhari, Nigeria’s former military ruler, has emerged as the presidential candidate for the main opposition coalition, setting the scene for a tough and potentially divisive challenge against President Goodluck Jonathan in February polls.
General Buhari has positioned himself as the strongman needed to root out corruption, and roll back the brutal Islamist insurgency tearing at Nigeria’s multi-ethnic and religiously divided federation.
He won 3,430 votes from a total of 7,214 delegates in primaries for the All Progressives Congress on Thursday, comfortably defeating Atiku Abubakar, the wealthy former vice-president, Rabiu Kwankwaso, the state governor of Kano, and two other candidates.
Election season has arrived at a time of turmoil, with national finances threatened by the tumbling world price of oil – on which the state depends for more than 70 per cent of revenues – the naira currency under sustained pressure and Boko Haram insurgents rampaging across parts of the impoverished north.
“I believe I have something to offer Nigeria at this time of multiple crises. Insecurity, corruption and economic collapse have brought the nation low,” Gen Buhari told party delegates in a letter ahead of Thursday’s primaries. “I am not a rich person. I can’t give you a pocketful of dollars or naira to purchase your support. Even if I could, I would not do so. The fate of this nation is not up for sale. What I will give you and this nation is all of my strength, commitment, sweat and toil,” he said.
The 72-year-old retired general ruled Nigeria with authoritarian zeal for 20 months in the 1980s, having come to power in a coup at a time when oil prices were also tumbling, and state coffers had been depleted by several years of corrupt civilian rule. He was overthrown by rival officers in 1985 after winning admiration from some Nigerians for the “war against indiscipline” that he launched.
This will be the fourth time he has tried to win back power at the ballot box since the military restored civilian rule in 1999.
The general’s austere image tends to rattle Nigeria’s elites, and officials in the ruling party are likely to play on fears among southern Christians of a return to political domination by the predominately Muslim north should he win.
However, the gloomy national circumstances also play to his strengths and he will go the poll with potentially a much stronger coalition behind him. He has built an alliance with Bola Tinubu, a political godfather in Nigeria’s Yoruba-speaking south west.
A devout Muslim who leads an ascetic life, he strikes a strong contrast with Mr Jonathan – a Christian from the oil-producing Niger delta in the south – and commands a dedicated following among poorer inhabitants of the north. Hundreds of people died in rioting in 2011 when he swept the northern Muslim vote but was defeated by Mr Jonathan’s greater showing in the south and centre of the country.
If Mr Tinubu can secure strong backing on his own turf in the southwest, and Gen Buhari again sweeps the northern vote, he would have an outside chance of unseating Mr Jonathan – or at least forcing a second round if neither secures 25 per cent of two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states required by the constitution.