THE mantle of power is so heavy in Nigeria that presidential candidates must be begged to run for office, or at least give that appearance. There was no serious doubt that the current president, Muhammadu Buhari (pictured), would run in 2015; that was his fourth attempt to win through the ballot box, having first tasted power with a 19-month stint as a military dictator in the 1980s. Yet even he had to maintain the fiction ahead of that vote, with allies saying that they had begged him to stand. Now, little more than a year away from the next presidential election in 2019, the theatrics are starting again.
In September 2017 the communications minister, Adebayo Shittu, was appointed to chair a “dynamic support group” to campaign for Mr Buhari’s re-election. The name seems over-energetic for a candidate who was nicknamed “Baba Go Slow” during his lethargic first few years in office. “He has not made up his mind but…some of us can assist him in making up his mind,” Mr Shittu said recently. A month earlier the president visited Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria. He noted approvingly that the huge crowds in his electoral heartland “sent a clear message to the opposition”, even as he coyly refused to accept the endorsement of the local chapter of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
Yet before the 74-year-old Mr Buhari can even consider winning an election, he has to secure the full support of his party and his allies. And that is not necessarily a given, particularly since his approval rating slumped to 45% in December, from a high of 80% in October 2015.
In mid-January Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president and still-powerful statesman who had supported Mr Buhari’s successful presidential campaign, wrote an open letter urging him to quit after one term, accusing him of nepotism and mismanaging the economy. Last year Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president and serial party-switcher, defected back to the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Other ruling-party bigwigs are weighing up whether to defect, bide their time until the next election in 2023, or challenge Mr Buhari in a primary, which must be held between August 18th and October 7th.
The pivotal figure is Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos state, whose domination of politics in Nigeria’s south-west won Mr Buhari the presidency when they formed a coalition ahead of the contest in 2015. Mr Tinubu, no spring chicken at 65, is thought to want the top job himself.
But Nigeria’s main parties cling to a convention of nominating candidates in such a way that the presidency rotates between northern and southern politicians after two terms. If Mr Buhari is eased out after one term, the unwritten rule holds that he should be replaced by another northerner. If it is followed then Mr Tinubu’s first shot at the presidency would be in 2023, so people think he would rather throw in his lot with Mr Buhari than back a different northern politician who might want to serve two terms.
Nor is the opposition standing still, despite its routing at the polls three years ago. Mr Abubakar has a huge war-chest and he is formidable on the campaign trail. But his wealth and party-hopping are viewed with suspicion. “The greatest asset [Mr] Buhari has right now, politically, is the incompetence of the opposition,” says Chris Ngwodo, an analyst. If the former military man wins the backing of Mr Tinubu again, the electoral machine will be hard to beat.