Nigeria – Will President Buhari seek a second term?

This is a post by Sa’eed Husaini

Nigeria’s next election is two years away which, based on the usual rhythms of Nigeria’s electoral cycle, might as well be tomorrow. President Buhari, who swept to power in 2015 following an unlikely opposition victory, just reached the mid-way point of his four year tenure this past May. Yet an energetic slew of endorsements, counter-endorsements, and official declarations of intent by presidential hopefuls have already brought to the fore the question of whether or not Buhari will seek to retain his seat in 2019.

Of course, the fact that Buhari’s second term ambition still remains a matter of speculation rather than a forgone conclusion is itself noteworthy in a broader regional context wherein assuming that incumbents will hold on to power has too frequently been the surest bet.

Closer to home however, Buhari is in a sense a victim of his own success, insofar as his historic victory over incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan affirmed that a second term is no longer effectively a birthright for Nigerian presidents. Moreover, an ambitious and well-heeled crop of would-be successors are already making thinly veiled bids for the presidency meaning that Buhari will have to put up a serious fight if he will retain his tenancy in Aso Villa—Nigeria’s presidential palace—after 2019. Given these factors, what are some important considerations that might shape the president’s decision to either throw in the towel, or toss a hat in the ring?

Why he might run

Continuing to carry out what has largely been a personality-driven agenda will likely be Buhari’s key motivation for seeking to hold on to his seat. The security threat posed by Boko Haram and a fight against corruption have topped the president’s list of priorities during his past two years in office. Indeed Buhari’s background as an army general and a reputation cemented during his brief stint as military head of state for cracking down on corrupt officials were some of the bases for his popularity during his campaign.

Yet in government, much like in his campaign, Buhari’s strong personality, rather than wider institutional efforts, have been the ultimate base of his government’s agenda. Critics of the government’s anti-corruption fight in particular have pointed to its slow pace and unimpressive number of convictions it has scored as evidence of the president’s micro-managerial approach.

A promised clean up of Nigeria’s oil ministry—to which Buhari appointed himself as head—have also recently come under question, as two senior petroleum officials traded allegations of corruption on the front pages of national news. Buhari’s famous disdain for ‘Abuja politics’—or the regular dealings of Nigeria’s political class—has been at the heart of this close to the chest approach and might also imply a desire to personally see to the completion of his agenda, rather than to leave it in the hands of a successor.

Despite the setbacks, Buhari’s popularity, particularly within his core base in Northern Nigeria, is a second important reason why the president might still see a second-term bid as distinctly viable. To his base, built up across his four bids for the presidency, Buhari has represented the moral alternative to the corruption of mainstream Nigerian politics, a view which has been sustained (perhaps even been affirmed) amidst the difficulties his government has faced in navigating the treachery of high politics while in office. Firm affirmations and endorsements from across the North seem to suggest that, despite the stiffness of the mounting competition, he is still the man to beat in this region of the country.

Why he might not run

There are also a number of formidable hurdles that could dissuade Buhari against a possible second term.

Chief among these has been repeated health crises which have resulted in several extended medical absences during his presidency. This year, the president has spent more time in the U.K., where he has received medical treatment, than in Nigeria. Given his age of 74, these health challenges have been of particular concern.

The secrecy of the presidency about the exact nature of his illness strongly suggests a desire not to foreclose the possibility of a second term bid. Yet it also seems likely that audible doubts raised about his capacity to govern given his illness and advancing age will be a major consideration in deliberations about his political future.

Beyond the personal challenges, a Buhari second term bid also faces considerable political headwinds. Notwithstanding his popularity in the north, Buhari’s victory in the 2015 would not have been possible had he not joined a coalition with other regionally dominant political figures, including former governor of Lagos and southwestern political titan Bola Tinubu. This alliance, which is at the heart of Buhari’s All Progressive Congress (APC) party, has at various points during the presidency appeared to teeter at the verge of collapse. The party’s internal disfunction was brought home in 2016 when First Lady Aisha Buhari, in a publicly aired interview, criticized the president for failing to accommodate the interests of important members of the coalition and, significantly, threatened not to support her husband’s re-election in 2019. More recently, the President’s Women Affairs minister also publicly declared that she would support Atiku Abubaker, another major member of the APC coalition, over Buhari in a 2019 race. It is highly likely that these deep fissures in the coalition which brought Buhari to power will also constitute a significant consideration in the presidents’ assessment of his electoral prospects and ultimate decision to either return or retire.

What is at stake

Ultimately Buhari’s decision in either direction will be the most important test the APC would have faced since the 2015 elections, as the response of the party’s major stakeholders—whether to support or oppose Buhari’s decision—will determine the party’s continued cohesion and future. Furthermore, the chances that the opposition People’s Democratic Party, can make significant inroads before the 2019 election will also crucially depend on the candidate whom the APC selects as its frontrunner. The wider impact of a Buhari re-election bid for Nigeria more generally is also worth considering: a president walking away from a second-term ticket could signal that Nigeria’s democracy has matured to the extent that leaders see the best interest of the country as more important than personal ambition. How Buhari will ultimately decide still remains uncertain but what is clear is that his second term ambition is a matter that will certainly require some careful consideration.

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