Campaigning for Nigeria's 2019 presidential polls kicked off on Sunday with incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari up against former vice president Atiku Abubakar. Buhari's bid for re-election is likely to be characterised by problems with his health, security challenges and a number of high profile political defections. Veteran challenger Abubakar is making his fourth bid for the country's top job and is positioning himself as best-placed to help boost Nigeria's economy.
"It's going to be incredibly close-run and I think that the pendulum is still ticking towards the opposition," says Matthew Page, a Nigeria expert at London-based international think tank Chatham House. "The question is - is Buhari going to pilot his party across the finish line by a nose or run out of gas before crossing the finish line."
More than 84 million people are registered to vote, according to the electoral commission, in Africa's most populous country and 79 candidates are on the ballot, the local media reports. Six months ago many commentators saw Buhari as a shoo-in for the February polls. However, a string of defections from his ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party have somewhat levelled the playing field.
"All their players are free agents," analyst Page told RFI, likening Nigerian politics to football and the APC and opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) as teams in the Premier League. "So depending on where the team is in the league standings, the players move back and forth between the teams - take off one shirt and put on the other to ensure they're always on the winning team."
A series of defections beginning in July are a stark reminder of changes of allegiance before the 2015 polls that brought Buhari to power. Several politicians left the PDP to join the APC, sounding the death knell for then-president Goodluck Jonathan. The defections are now in reverse with Senate President Bukola Saraki and several other senators and lawmakers joining the PDP.
"Politically Buhari is getting a bit of a dose of his own medicine," says Page, a former analyst at the US State Department. Those who continue to back Buhari, says Page, are key to Buhari's continued political support and ability to secure a second term.
Bola Tinubu, the former Lagos governor, is a key backer who helps control the ruling party apparatus, says Page. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Minister of Power, Works and Housing Babatunde Fashola and former Rivers State Governor Chibuike Amaechi are also important supporters who Buhari cannot afford to lose.
The emergence of Abubakar as flag bearer has also demonstrated the collectiveness exhibited by the PDP as the defections played out, according to Hassan Idayat, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), a not-for-profit organisation that works on governance.
"The other aspirants in the presidential primaries all rallied around the candidate of the PDP against the expected fallout," she told RFI. Abubakar emerged as resounding winner of October's primaries well ahead of 11 other contenders. He described it as "a victory for all of us" in comments after the party convention in Port Harcourt.
Security challenges over the course of 2018 have continued to define Buhari's term in office. He had previously declared the war against hardline Islamist sect Boko Haram as over, saying in his New Year's address that the militant group was "technically defeated". Yet the group continues to operate in the north east of the country and in March more than 100 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Yobe State.
Perhaps more damaging politically has been the continuing violence in the Middle Belt region linked to ethnic conflict between farmers and herders. Outbreaks of violence throughout 2018 have been seized upon by opposition politicians who often point to Buhari's ethnic background as a Fulani herdsman.
"The conflict has been a polariser," says CDD director Idayat. "It's actually one of the issues that will dominate the campaign." She refers to Buhari's 2015 victory in Benue state, part of the Middle Belt region that has long been a stronghold of the opposition PDP, and the difficulty for the incumbent to retain it.
Idayat says the PDP will use the issue on the campaign trail, sowing disinformation and promising to bring peace, "this is the framing that will be further instrumentalised by the opposition", she adds.
Buhari will be 76 years old when Nigerians go to the polls next year and Abubakar cannot be described as youthful aged 71. Nevertheless, Buhari's tenure has been beset by questions over his health.
The septuagenarian spent five months in the UK in 2017 being treated for an undisclosed illness. In 2018, he spent a further two months abroad for treatment and returned to London again in May for what was described as a "routine check-up". He also took two weeks of leave in August, although the presidential spokesperson declined to say whether he received any medical treatment.
Chatham House analyst Page does not think the outcome will be dominated by Buhari's wellbeing. "Clearly he has slowed down, I think that may affect his ability to wage an aggressive campaign, travelling around the country," he says.
"But I don't think that in itself will be a deciding factor. This election isn't so much about Buhari's ability to go out and deliver his stump speech," says Page, co-author of Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know. Instead the race will be decided on the ruling party's ability to marshal its political strength and structure as well as blunting the opposition's momentum.
Fighting against corruption was one of Buhari's big campaign pledges ahead of his victory in 2015 and he has made some headlines. Sambo Dasuki, Nigeria's ex-national security advisor, was charged with allegedly stealing 2 billion US dollars by awarding phantom arms contracts. The government also announced that it had recovered more than 9 billion US dollars in stolen money and assets.
Closer to home, Buhari suspended Nigeria's foreign spy chief Ayo Oke when anti-corruption officials found more than 43 million US dollars at an apartment in Lagos. He also suspended his close aide David Babachir Lawal over an investigation into contracts awarded to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the north east of the country.
And Buhari's efforts do seem to have had an impact on the public perception in the fight against corruption since the start of his term in office, according to 2017 research by AfroBarometer. However, there remains overwhelming mistrust in public officials including the police, government officials and the judicial authorities.
"Nigerians overall had a lot of expectations for him coming in, in terms of his ability to both reign in corruption, try to turn around Nigerian political culture, and even popular culture in the level of corruption that one experiences day-to-day," says Page.
Notwithstanding the success in prosecuting some former officials, the incumbent has really under-delivered on his promises, according to Page. He has lost some credibility and has not focused enough on the prevention side of the fight against corruption.
Challenger Abubakar has been previously mired in corruption allegations and does not have the same incorruptible image as Buhari. The PDP politician has a long-standing political history and has been linked to legal cases in other jurisdictions such as the corruption conviction against US Congressman William Jefferson.
An affidavit signed by an FBI agent said that Jefferson had told colleagues about plans to bribe Nigerian officials including Abubakar in order to win business in Nigeria, according to a 2006 report by the New York Times.
"There are some difficulties explaining where all that wealth came from - at least some question marks surrounding that," says Page. "This is going to be an issue that both sides try to wield as a political weapon."
CDD director Idayat says campaigning on corruption issues are intrinsically linked to the economy with some voters seeing the two as mutually exclusive. "It's a straight fight - it's going to be about the economy, it's going to be about anti-corruption," she says.
The former Yale Maurice Greenberg fellow describes anecdotes from Nigerians saying, "bring back corruption, let the economy work very well". Many people see the issue as a fight between good and evil, according to Idayat.
"To many, forces of evil represent 16 years of the PDP and what they did to the economy. And of course, Buhari is the force of good - he's a very transparent man, he's actually unimpeachable. So these are very big strong fronts."
Buhari's handling of the country's economy has been a constant criticism with gross domestic product contracting 1.5 per cent in 2016 for the first time in 25 years, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
The economy did bounce back largely due to higher oil prices and the country's parliament later passed a record budget aimed at boosting growth. One of the other big policy challenges during Buhari's term has been management of the foreign exchange market.
"A lot of people and businesses are struggling and it's not clear what the government's plan is to improve the economy," says Dimieari Von Kemedi, managing director of Alluvial Agriculture, a commodity business in the Niger Delta. "Multiple exchange rates and less than warm relations with local and foreign investors have been key mistakes that hurt the economy," he told RFI.
"The state of the economy and lack of jobs are the key issues for the coming elections. These are the issues people care most about," says Kemedi, an ex-advisor to former president Jonathan and former official in Bayelsa State government. "Atiku is not only a free market candidate but has a reputation for promoting enterprise both as a businessman and as a public servant who understands how to make the economy work."
A third way?
Buhari and Abubakar dominate the race for the presidency, however there are a number of other well-known candidates who have come forward to contest the elections. These include Oby Ezekwesili, who led the #BringBackOurGirls campaign to help free the Chibok girls, Omoyele Sowore, founder of citizen journalism website Sahara Reporters and Kingsley Moghalu, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria.
"The race has become closer, not because of just these two dominant parties, but the numbers of candidates who will be on the ballot," says Idayat. None of these candidates can match the APC or PDP for spending on campaigning or on regional support bases, she says. "But they also have a huge following," she adds.
The Nigerian political landscape is fuelled by money and voter mobilisation, according to Page. "There's a relatively small amount of bandwidth for these types of candidates to win votes within Nigeria's system," he says.
Despite this, candidates outside of the big two could still win up to one million votes, Page says. On the other hand, it is not just about securing a majority, candidates also need to obtain 25 per cent of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria's 36 states.
"We could name a half dozen who are all very credible, thoughtful and ultimately qualified individuals, who are running for president as third party or minor party candidates," the Chatham House analyst says, adding that they will help ensure a closer race.
The 2019 election differs in that it alters the dynamic between the north-south, Muslim-Christian divides that have characterised Nigerian politics. Both of the two main presidential candidates are from the north, both are Muslims and they have running mates who are both from the south and are Christians.
"The two parties are presenting two very similar presidential, vice presidential slates to the country, from that point of view, the vote won't boil down to region and to religion," says Page. At the same time regional loyalty and ethnicity still continues to play a significant role.
"Where we're really going to see the competition and where this election will be decided essentially is in the middle and also the extent to which Buhari is able to command a convincing majority in the south west," says Page.
Idayat points to Peter Obi, formerly governor of the south eastern state of Anambra, as the running mate for the opposition candidate and the opportunity to capitalise on traditionally low turnout. "The choice of the vice presidential candidate of the PDP has also added some value to the whole thing," she says, referring to the possibility of the opposition benefitting from support for a home-grown vice presidential contender.
"Buhari has a mountain to climb," says Page. "But he has a lot of tools in his toolbox and a lot of political assets as the incumbent and the fact that his party has been in power for a few years now."
Things change on a daily basis, says Idayat, making it very difficult to call. "When they all unveil their own campaign strategies, their policy documents for us to see, we'll definitely know better," she adds.