Power Brokers Start to Gear Up for Nigeria’s 2019 Elections

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ABUJA, DECEMBER 7, 2017 – As Nigeria begins to gear up for general elections in February 2019, five senior politicians appear to be key players in Africa’s top oil producer.

President Muhammadu Buhari, a 74-year-old former military ruler, will start as one of the favorites if he seeks re-election after becoming the first opposition candidate to win power in Nigeria’s history in 2015. A health scare this year — he spent more than five months in London receiving treatment for an undisclosed medical ailment — convinced some observers that he wouldn’t serve more than one term. But he returned in August with renewed vigor, regularly traveling on official trips both at home and abroad.

Buhari has pledged to boost investments to spur growth after presiding over an economic recession, exacerbated by falling crude prices and production and a currency policy that starved factories, airlines and fuel importers of dollars. While his administration has slowed the advance of Islamist militants in the northeast, it faces renewed unrest in the oil-rich Niger River delta and the southeast, where secessionist sentiments are on the rise.

To win again, he’ll need to rebuild the coalition that formed the ruling All Progressives Congress and guaranteed him votes in his northern base and large parts of the southwest and center.
Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, 71, effectively signaled he’s considering another run for the presidency when he announced in November that he was leaving the ruling APC, accusing it of imposing a “draconian clampdown on all forms of democracy.” A few days later, he rejoined the opposition People’s Democratic Party, which he had previously quit twice to pursue his presidential ambitions elsewhere.

Abubakar has been a presidential aspirant in three different parties since Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999. He lost to Buhari in the APC primaries but supported him as the candidate.

A former Nigerian Customs Service top official who became a major shareholder in Intels Nigeria Ltd., an oil-service company, he favors regional autonomy and power devolution, a stance that has popular appeal particularly in southern Nigeria.

Senate President Bukola Saraki, 54, is Nigeria’s third-most powerful person after Buhari and his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo. A U.K.-trained medical doctor from a renowned political family, his reputation as a ruthless strategist rose after his preferred candidate defeated his sister, who was backed by their father, Abubakar Olusola Saraki, in a state gubernatorial election in 2011.

Though an APC member, he orchestrated his way to head the senate with support from the opposition PDP against the wishes of several of his party leaders, including Buhari.

Saraki has expressed interest in the past in running for president, but hasn’t said if he plans to stand in 2019. Even if Saraki chooses not to, those seeking the presidency will likely need his support.

Bola Ahmed Tinubu, 65, is a former governor of the commercial hub of Lagos state who’s widely seen as the man who made Buhari’s election victory possible by delivering to him the bulk of votes from the southwest, home to one of the nation’s three biggest ethnic groups, the Yoruba people. He may well determine if Buhari wins a new term. While he’s believed to harbor presidential ambitions of his own, he’s been more influential as a kingmaker.

In 2011, Tinubu’s support helped then President Goodluck Jonathan defeat Buhari, and four years later he helped Buhari beat Jonathan. His Action Congress and Buhari’s Congress for Progressive Change fused to form the core of the ruling APC. Their relationship soured after Buhari failed to include some of his choices in the cabinet.

In recent months Buhari’s relationship with Tinubu has warmed, holding several meetings with him at the presidency and making a public show of taking him along as a member of his delegation to the European Union-Africa Union summit in the Ivory Coast in November. In the past, Tinubu has also been allied to Abubakar, and it’s not clear at this point which one of them may get his backing — his decision could be crucial to the outcome of the 2019 vote.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, 60, is largely seen as a protege of Tinubu, under whom the former law professor served as attorney general of Lagos state. When Buhari and Tinubu decided that as two Muslims it would be impolitic for them to be on the same ticket, Osinbajo, a Christian, was tapped for the post.

When he was acting president during Buhari’s medical leave, Osinbajo showed great tact negotiating the delicate contours of Nigerian politics, winning the respect of the business community by focusing on their challenges.

He’s also part of one of Nigeria’s biggest political families. His wife, Oludolapo, is the grand-daughter of Obafemi Awolowo, the biggest political leader of ethnic Yorubas in the modern era, a vote-winning name in the key southwestern region. He hasn’t said if he’d be interested in seeking the presidency.

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