By Bloomberg William Clowes
For the first time since democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, the race for the presidency in Africa’s most populous country is shaping up to be a three-way contest. The candidate of a party that received 0.02% of the votes in the last election has been consistently topping opinion polls. But the ruling party, which controls more than half of the country’s state governments, may still have the edge.
Here’s a snapshot of the leading contenders in the election scheduled for Feb. 25 to replace President Muhammadu Buhari, who is stepping down after serving two terms.
The 61-year-old businessman is the first presidential hopeful in Nigeria’s history to mount a competitive campaign without backing from either of the two main political parties. Running on the ticket of the Labour Party, whose candidate tallied less than a percent of the votes in the last election, Obi has repeatedly beaten his better-resourced rivals in opinion polls. But winning the Nigerian presidency usually requires organizational capacity across the country and a lot of money — both of which his party lacks.
While opponents initially dismissed Obi as a “social media candidate,” his campaign has maintained a momentum they never anticipated, driven by a passionate following of young people known as “Obidients’ that are fed up with the status quo.
A former governor of the southeastern Anambra state and ex-chairman of Lagos-listed Fidelity Bank Plc, Obi makes for an unlikely anti-establishment candidate. He was Abubakar’s running mate in 2019 and initially sought the PDP’s presidential nomination before withdrawing from the primaries and throwing his lot in with the LP.
Despite a raft of polls showing him trailing, the former governor of Lagos state has the benefit of running on the ruling party’s ticket, which comes with key advantages.
Tinubu has been a key power broker in the All Progressives Congress since its creation in 2013 and helped propel Buhari to the presidency two years later. The most powerful politician in Nigeria’s commercial hub for more than two decades, the 70-year-old won his party’s presidential primaries by a landslide in June. Tinubu’s supporters point glowingly to his record running Africa’s biggest city as evidence of his readiness to ascend to the nation’s top job. But there has been widespread speculation about his health after a series of lackluster campaign trail appearances.
The APC candidate has been dogged by corruption allegations, which he denies, for decades. In 1993, he forfeited $460,000 to resolve a lawsuit in Chicago after US federal authorities said that bank accounts in his name held the proceeds of heroin trafficking. Two armored bank vans were spotted entering his compound in Lagos on the eve of the 2019 election. Tinubu denied using any money to purchase votes, a common practice in Nigeria, but told reporters: “If I have money, if I like, I give it to the people free of charge — as long as it is not to buy votes.”
Tinubu’s campaign slogan of “Renewed Hope” has been viewed as a slight to Buhari, who has overseen a deteriorating economy and worsening insecurity. His allies have also criticized the president in recent weeks over a cash shortage caused by the central bank’s efforts to replace high-value banknotes.
The candidate of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party, the 76-year-old Abubakar served as Olusegun Obasanjo’s vice president for eight years until 2007. Since then, he’s made four unsuccessful runs at the presidency, the last of them in 2019 elections, which Buhari won decisively.
A former senior official in the customs services, Abubakar became a major shareholder in a large Nigerian oil services company before selling his stake two years ago. He fell out with Obasanjo, who accused his deputy of corruption and vowed not to support his presidential ambitions.
A 2010 US Senate subcommittee report said one of Abubakar’s wives helped him move more than $40 million in “suspect funds” into the US while he was vice president. He denies wrongdoing.
Abubakar’s victory in the PDP’s primaries in May created a schism in his party after second-place Nyesom Wike, the outgoing governor of the oil-rich southern Rivers state, and four other governors refused to campaign for him. Still, the PDP is betting that discontent with Buhari and the party’s nationwide mobilizing abilities can push Abubakar over the line.