one year and three months to the 2019 presidential election, scheduled to hold on February 16, 2019, the speculation that President Muhammadu Buhari would seek re-election is growing stronger by the day. Although the President has not openly declared his intention to contest in 2019, he has had a rash of endorsements from his admirers and loyalists including state governors elected on the platform of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). There are also indications that the President has started reaching out to some of his estranged political benefactors, especially the national leader of the APC, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who many people believed had given up on the Buhari presidency. But in the last one month, Tinubu has had at least three close interactions with the President, suggesting that he has been restored as a relevant stakeholder in the present administration. The first of such contacts was last October 30 when he (Tinubu) held a closed door meeting with the President at the Presidential Villa, Abuja. He also gave the keynote address at the public presentation of a book, “Making Steady, Sustainable Progress for Nigeria’s Peace and Prosperity” also at the Presidential Villa. The 360-page book is a mid-term scorecard of the Buhari administration authored by the Presidential Media Team. Also, last Tuesday,
Tinubu was among Buhari’s entourage to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, for the 5th European Union-African Union (EU-AU) Summit.
Interestingly, the President gave the clearest hint so far that he would seek re-election in 2019 while on that trip. He had reportedly arrived late to an interactive session with the Nigerian community in Cote d’Ivoire last Tuesday night and explained that he had to wait for the two governors (Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom and Mohammed Abubakar of Bauchi) to accompany him to the meeting because of their electoral value.
“First I want to apologise for keeping you for too long sitting, this is because I insisted on the governors attending this meeting.
“This is why I came along with them so that when we are going to meet you, when you are going to meet the rest of Nigerians, if you tell them that their governors were in the company of the President, I think that will be another vote for me in the future. I’m very pleased that they were able to turn up,” Buhari said.
Buhari also told the audience that he had just received “a beautiful piece of information” from Tinubu, which he (Buhari) was never aware of. And while thanking the APC leader for the information, which he did not disclose, he reportedly said: “I also thank our leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. He has brought me a very beautiful piece of information, which I was not aware of it until I sat down and read it this evening (Tuesday night). Thank you very much for your hard work and I will discuss that paper with you.”
The foregoing is a clear indication that Buhari has effectively wooed the former Lagos State two-term governor back to his camp, if the perceived rift between them actually existed. And if political calculations remain largely the same until February 2019, Buhari’s victory in the South-west geo-political zone of the country would be guaranteed once again.
But Buhari’s relationship with Tinubu is just one of the many factors that would come into play in the next presidential election. There are other battles he must win if he must remain in Aso Rock beyond May 29, 2019. These include:
During the 2015 presidential elections, one of the issues that proved a major hurdle for the President was his age. He was then 72 years. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which then paraded a younger candidate in the person of former president Goodluck Jonathan, had urged the youth to reject Buhari at the poll on account of his age. Even though Buhari surmounted the hurdle, the issue would no doubt crop up in 2019, when Buhari would have turned 76. Already, one of the founding fathers of APC, Atiku Abubakar, who recently resigned from the party and might contest for the presidency on the platform of the PDP, had begun to woo the youth to his side, as he noted in his resignation letter: “The party we put in place has failed and continues to fail our people, especially our young people. How can we have a federal cabinet without even one single youth? A party that does not take the youth into account is a dying party. The future belongs to young people.”
Meanwhile in the North, the Arewa Youths Consultative Forum (AYCF) led by Alhaji Yerima Shettima has been mobilising forces against presidential aspirants from the region that are older than 60 years. In a recent interview, Shettima declared: “Never again will we allow anybody up to 60 years and above to be at the helms of affairs in the country, anywhere. We will no longer be looking up to any old man of 60 and above again and be hoping that something good will come out of him.” It remains to be seen how Buhari will confront this battle.
Although Buhari appears to be in good health at the moment, the protracted ill health he suffered for the better part of this year will be surely thrown up when the 2019 electioneering begins in earnest. Like the age issue, his health status also formed part of the 2015 campaigns with Governor Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti State openly alleging that he was ill and would die in power. Buhari overcame that barrier though; but sooner had he assumed power than he had a spell of illness that took him out of the seat of power at frequent intervals. It could be recalled that on June 6, 2016, he traveled to the United Kingdom (UK) for 10 days to attend to an ear infection. On January 19, 2017, he also left for UK on medical vacation to resume on Februry 5. He later asked the National Assembly to extend the medical leave. He returned to the country on March 10 but could not resume work immediately. He missed three cabinet meetings before traveling back to the UK on May 7 for further treatment. Amid speculations that he was incapacitated, he returned to the country on August 19 after spending 104 days. He has apparently handled state affairs with speed and firmness since his return, indicating that his health has stabilised. But the opposition will certainly put him on the defensive over the issue during the 2019 campaigns.
The APC “Change” mantra in the build up to the 2015 elections gave Nigerians the assurance that there would be better deals for them if the party was voted into power. But to their chagrin, the economy took a downward swing shortly after Buhari was sworn into office. Under Buhari’s watch, there was depressed GDP growth, rising inflation, depreciation of the exchange rate, depletion of the country’s foreign exchange reserves, decline in average foreign exchange inflows and massive job loss. In August 2016, figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) confirmed that the Nigerian economy had entered recession. The result could be felt in the increasing poverty and hunger in the land. But the government has maintained that the decline in government’s revenue occasioned by the fall in global oil prices, the destruction of oil and gas pipelines by militants in the Niger Delta region and the failure of past administrations to save for the rainy day paved way for the hardship in the land. Although the government has been able to pull the economy out of recession with 0.55 per cent growth reported in the second quarter of 2017, the fact remains that it is not yet uhuru for the citizens. Buhari and many officials of his government had severally acknowledged this but also pleaded for more time. It is obvious that Buhari must work hard enough to turn the tide in favour of the masses or be faced with scathing criticisms that might impact negatively on his electoral fortunes in 2019.
The clamour for the restructuring of the country and enthronement of true federalism gained momentum under Buhari’s watch, mainly based on allegations that his appointments were lopsided in favour of the North. The agitation has often been mixed up with calls for the implementation of the 2014 National Conference. The main opposition party in the country, the PDP, convened the conference under the leadership of former president Jonathan. The APC, which promised to restructure in its manifesto, has been unable to do anything in that regard since assumption of power. Meanwhile, some sections of the country are passionate about re-setting Nigeria to achieve a true federal structure. The PDP may woo such sections with a promise to implement the confab report, which Buhari has declared, “belongs to the archives”. Restructuring is therefore one of the issues Buhari and his party will contend with in the 2019 presidential campaigns if the status quo remains unchanged till then.
Many loyalists of the President say the recent resignation of former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, from the APC did not come to them as a surprise; and as such have dismissed it with a wave of the hand. But the fact remains that Atiku is a major force in the Nigerian political landscape. He still has strong followership across the country. Some of his loyalists, who followed him to the APC when he dumped the PDP in 2014, are occupying strategic positions in this government and may choose to pitch tent with him when the chips are down. Although many of them have declared that they would remain in the APC, to say that the party will not suffer a backlash against Atiku’s exit is to underrate the Waziri Adamawa and his political empire. The development has, no doubt, put Buhari’s political sagacity to test. How he handles it will surely count for or against him at the poll.
Nevertheless, Buhari’s loyalists believe the achievements of his administration will persuade Nigerians to keep him in Aso Rock till 2023 in spite of the odds. They quickly point at the recoveries the administration has made through the anti-corruption drive, which they argue have freed funds for the development of the country. They also believe that the administration has executed the war against Boko Haram satisfactorily, with no Nigerian territory now on the grip of the notorious sect. Particularly, the people of the North-east geo-political zone, who are deeply affected by the activities of the insurgents, are reportedly happy with the Buhari administration for restoring relative peace in the region. As such, they are unlikely to turn against him in 2019.
A chieftain of the APC and immediate past governor of Edo State, while commenting on Buhari’s chances in 2019 recently, summed it up thus: “If the PDP were still at the centre, I bet you, it would have been case closed for Nigeria. Boko Haram got up to Benin and had a base in Kogi. Who wants to return to that path? Who wants to go back to the era when the Nigerian Army were said to be running away from battle? Who wants to return to the era of abuse of subsidy?
“Again, in all fairness who wants to return to the era of crude oil theft? Who was in government when companies such as Michelin, Dunlop and Nestle, etc, started relocating to Ghana? Here in Nigeria, a government spent $16 billion on power and at the end of spending the last dollar, the country degenerated from 4,000 megawatts to 2000 megawatts. Who wants to return to an era where in the name of privatisation, the PDP government handed over sensitive national assets to brothers, friends and cronies who neither have the competence nor the wherewithal to invest in power distribution, which has further compounded our problem today? So, honestly for me, the facts and choice are clear ahead of 2019.”
Besides, if Buhari decides to run, it is unlikely that the North would queue behind Atiku, who is also speculated to be interested in the race. Although Buhari’s popularity has allegedly waned, having tasted power and stepped on some toes, Atiku has been at the vanguard of the agitation for restructuring the country, which a good fraction of the northern political elite is said to be opposed to. Thus, the issue might count against Atiku in the North and pave way for Buhari to hold sway in the region again.
Meanwhile, the unwritten power rotation arrangement between the North and the South also counts in Buhari’s favour. The South will be more favourably disposed to supporting Buhari in 2019 and regaining power in 2023 than another candidate from the North, who is likely to remain in power till 2027. If that should play out, the road to 2019 might not be too rough for Buhari. His strengths and weaknesses appear to be at par, but how he pulls his political strings will determine where the pendulum would swing.