The battle to displace President Muhammadu Buhari in next year's election has intensified in the last few weeks given the gale of defections in both the ruling and opposition parties, which has ratcheted up the political temperature in the country.
Although there is the belief that the increasing jostle for the nation's plum job may have been stoked by the perceived ineptitude of the Buhari administration, the president's men have latched on to the integrity narrative, which remains one of the defining indices in the 2019 presidential election.
Apart from selling Buhari from the point of view of integrity, which appears to be his major selling point in the countdown to 2019, there is also the belief that the president still holds down his traditional political base in terms of voting in the two critical zones of the North-east and the North-west.
But a majority of his challengers have dismissed those two issues in the 2019 election, saying while integrity would take the back seat for capacity and nationalism, his so-called traditional voting bases have also had a whiff of the current ineptitude and would not vote blindly in next year's major election as they had done in previous elections.
Although there are almost 20 aspirants presently seeking to displace Buhari in next year's election, only eight sit on the front row, with equally intimidating profiles and imposing political statures, huge enough to confront Buhari's menacing machine and cult-like franchise. They include a former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar; President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki; former Kano State governor and senator representing Kano Central, Rabiu Kwankwaso; former Speaker of the House of Representatives and Sokoto State Governor, Aminu Tambuwal; former deputy governor, Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Kingsley Moghalu; another former Kano State governor, Ibrahim Shekarau; former Kaduna State governor and immediate past national PDP Caretaker Committee chair, Ahmed Markafi, and former Jigawa State governor, Alhaji Sule Lamido.
While it is true that many of the above listed have the requisite administrative and governance experience as well as impressive political standing, both in regional and national politics, the question remains whether anyone of them can really displace Buhari in next year's election, despite his alleged shortcomings.
Often described as the most experienced and prepared for the office of the president, an ambition he has nursed since the 1990s, Atiku has many things going for him. His first shot on the presidential ballot was in 2011, when he lost to former President Goodluck Jonathan. He has since kept the dream alive.
A dependable ally of former President Olusegun Obasanjo as his deputy, Atiku literally took charge of the economy, an assignment that very well positioned him and aided him in holding down the nation's economy with the same approach to his businesses, both at home and abroad.
Atiku is one candidate with acceptability across the various political divides, but without his own base as Buhari, a situation many consider a huge disadvantage.
Besides, he has had to battle the stigma of corruption - no thanks to Obasanjo - even though no competent court of law has found him guilty of graft. It is believed that the only barrier standing between Atiku and the 2019 presidency is Obasanjo, who despite the pressure being mounted on him to let Atiku be and give him a chance, recently said he the reason he was unable to support him was to avoid God's anger given what he knows about Atiku.
But in the final analysis, he has what it takes to give Buhari a good fight in 2019, particularly with his huge war chest.
A former Kwara State governor for eight years between 2003 and 2011, the current Senate President, Bukola Saraki, is indisputably an issue in the nation's body politic today. Being the chairman of Nigeria Governors Forum at a time the body was at its peak of political and economic relevance, Saraki seized the opportunity of his office to build a strong political network. Emerging the Senate President in 2015 against the position of some power brokers within his former party, the APC, Saraki has since carried on in the office, despite opposition and attempts to remove him.
Buhari once described him as one of the most influential politicians in modern Nigeria, not because he is the senate president but because of his capacity to navigate through the most difficult political terrains. He is about the most visible politician and has effectively deployed the goodwill of his office in building useful consensus.
There is no doubting the fact that Saraki has always had his eyes on the presidency, even when he has yet to actually run in any presidential election. To pursue his ambition, he has defected to the PDP, a move that stands him in good stead at the polls. And with the Supreme Court ruling which cleared him of allegations of corruption, and failure to declare his asset, he is good to go. But his candidacy appears weakened by fate. While geographically he is from the northern part of the country, North-central, his spoken language is South-west (Yoruba). Politics, as they, say is local. Either way he presents himself to the electorate, northerner or southerner, he is bound to face a tough challenge of navigating the ethnicity barrier. Even more complicated for him is where he picks his running mate from. If he picks from the South, he is going to alienate the North which will see the combination as a Southern ticket. If he picks from the North, the South will view it as North-north ticket. But Saraki remains a good presidential material. He looks good to win the North-central and the three Southern zones. But the North-east and the North-west are impregnable for him and these two zones have huge voting numbers.
Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso, representing Kano Central, was governor of the state for eight years. He is one Kano politician with a cult followership, the type many say can only compete with Buhari's relevance in the North, particularly North-west.
No wonder he prides himself on being the only politician from that part of the country with strong ties to the three Ks (Katsina, Kano and Kaduna), the same as Buhari. Presently in a supremacy battle with his successor, Abdullahi Ganduje, a man he had walked with as an ally for years, Kwankwaso's political followership is as scary as Buhari's.
The fact that he came second during the 2014 primary of the APC might have put him in a good standing as one of the few that would define 2019 presidential power contest. Kwankwaso has been able to build a strong following under the Kwankwasiyya movement over the years across many of the northern states. But is this enough to defeat Buhari in the North-west and North-east? Time will tell, but, first, he has to get through the primary.
Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal was Speaker of the House of Representatives between 2011 and 2015, a position he clinched against existing political understanding and inadvertently set the polity on fire for four years.
Similar to Saraki's, the development had pitted Tambuwal against the Jonathan presidency and also brought him into prominence, as he was largely seen as fighting for the independence of the legislature.
Although he had attempted a shot at the presidency in 2015, when it was discovered that his ambition could unsettle many other political calculations, he was prevailed upon to shelve the idea, in order to make the race an easy run for Buhari.
Perhaps, encouraged by his 2015 experience, he is currently seeking to contest in 2019, a desire believed to have been made possible by Buhari's leadership style. A majority of analysts still feel he is better off continuing as the Sokoto State governor, especially with age very much on his side. It is not certain whether he would accede to such prodding this time. With him, however, many power brokers see a safe bet. He is unlikely to rock the boat and he is largely seen as someone who would run a collective presidency. He is perceived as someone in the mould of former President Shehu Shagari.
Kingsley Moghalu, a political economist, lawyer and former United Nations official, is a professor of Practice in International Business and Public Policy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. A founder, Sogato Strategies LLC, an emerging markets risk, strategy and macroeconomic advisory firm, he was also a Senior Adviser of the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF).
Moghalu, in 2016, founded the Institute for Governance and Economic Transformation (IGET), a think tank focused on the achievement of inclusive economic growth and effective public policy in developing countries. And having served as Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria from 2009 to 2014, where he led the implementation of far-reaching reforms in Nigeria's banking sector, his joining the race has been largely welcomed, given his experience and background especially as he is seen as boasting capacity for the job.
Although he hails from the southern part of the country, a factor many think might count against him, he certainly comes across as a critical alternative to Buhari and more than qualified to change the Nigerian story. While many think he is ably qualified, they are also quick to point out that he is up against a formidable opponent who has been around for a long time. Added to that is the fact that he lacks name recognition. He is contesting on the platform of the Young Progressive Party (YPP), a little know party.
Cerebral, smart and quick-witted, former Kano State governor, Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau, recently declared his interest in the presidency on the platform of the PDP. However, it was not his first time in the race and also not the first time against Buhari. In the 2011 presidential debate, Shekarau stood out from the lot, explaining that his decision to seek PDP's presidential ticket was informed by the clarion call of patriots.
"As you may be aware, for quite some time now, since after the 2015 general election, there have been various calls made by individuals and groups from many quarters, nationwide, urging my humble candidature for the contest of the presidency of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in the next general elections, due in 2019," he declared recently.
Naturally, experience comes to play for Shekarau, complemented by his capacity to get things done. His joining the race is largely seen by observers as another factor that would complicate the situation in the state, as two former governors might be in opposition against the incumbent, Abdulahi Ganduje. Little wonder, Shekarau is seen as standing a good chance, not just as an alternative candidate, but more as one who has what it takes to deliver on good governance. But he is currently facing EFCC charges in connection with campaign funds of the 2015 presidential election. How that will impact his presidential run remains to be seen.
Former Kaduna State governor from 1999 to 2007, Ahmed Mohammed Makarfi, who moved on to be elected Senator for Kaduna North in 2007 is an active member of the PDP, who was at a time the national caretaker chairman of the party in the period the party had a major crisis. He drove the process that produced the current leadership of the party.
Makarfi, 61, is believed to boast the kind of experience required to steer the ship of the country, after being governor and senator. It is not certain whether he stands a good chance in the power struggle within the PDP, despite having been at the party's helm. He is a potential alternative that could genuinely and effectively address many of Nigeria's problems. Besides, he is one of the few former governors that have not been linked to any case of corruption. He comes forward with that as a plus.
Former Governor Sule Lamido of Jigawa State was in the saddle for eight years under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Sixty-nine today, Lamido was one of those who had long shown interest in the presidency, shortly after the incumbent, Buhari, assumed office.
For Lamido, however, experience and capacity are certainly not an issue - having been governor and foreign affairs minister - coupled with his versatility and deep understanding of the Nigerian political landscape. Unfortunately, he has a corruption case still hanging around his neck. It was for this reason he was kept in detention briefly, having stood trial alongside his two sons in 2015 for allegedly embezzling state funds. He is in the race for real and cannot be shoved aside, realistically.
Can Anyone of These Defeat Buhari?
The profile of the other aspirants aside, the next election would be largely contingent on the voting disposition of the people. There is clearly a growing number of disenchanted people among the voting population. Across the land there is a feeling of let down by the current APC government, especially among the young elements who enthusiastically embraced the candidacy of Buhari in 2015. Can any of these aspirants tap into that disenchantment and present himself as a viable alternative?
Apart from the fact that Buhari is meant to run on his record as president, placed side-by-side his promises in 2015, his inability to deliver leadership in some of the critical situations that the nation had found itself, is another factor that may not make the Buhari election a smooth ride.
Basically, while Buhari is indisputably the incumbent and still savouring the weight of his status, next year's election is not guaranteed.