Expectations are building about a statement on 29 May – the mid-point of Muhammadu Buhari's presidential term
When the army chief warns politicians to stop approaching 'officers and soldiers for undisclosed political reasons', as General Tukur Buratai did on 16 May, and the government's top spokesman has to deny that the President is dead, as Garba Shehu did two days earlier, it's a sign that political intrigue is reaching crisis levels. One reason for the fervour is that 29 May marks the mid-point of President Muhammadu Buhari's first term, a time to address the nation.
An anniversary on the following day is also concentrating minds: on 30 May 1967, General Emeka Ojukwu declared the independence of Biafra in south-east Nigeria, triggering a three-year civil war. President Buhari is one of the last of the country's political class to have fought in that war. There is a strong sense of an era drawing to a close without a clear direction ahead.
True, Buhari and the All Progressives' Congress (APC) swept to victory in a landmark election two years ago on an ambitious agenda of restructuring the economy, ending the Boko Haram insurgency and dealing with corruption (AC Vol 56 No 7, A moment of truth for the General). A combination of crashing world oil prices, falling production and inherited administrative chaos shrank the economy by 1.5% last year, the lowest for a quarter of a century. Even the economic meltdown has been overshadowed by the most surreal speculation about what happens next.
Presidency officials struggle to get their case across. They point to the negotiated release on 7 May of 82 of the Chibok schoolgirls abducted by the Islamist militia Boko Haram in 2014. Those releases could presage further negotiations and a plan to rebuild the north. There is, too, a sharp decline in sabotage and vandalism in the Niger Delta since the turn of the year (AC Vol 58 No 10, Bitter pills for the politicians).
Something is stirring in the economy, beyond higher oil production and a better export price. There is a boom in rice, sugar and tomato production in the north and Middle-Belt, with big new investment in processing, storage and fertilisers. Most of the industrial investment is wisely linked to agriculture and local raw materials, which the government wants to encourage. The value of the country's massive oil and gas reserves – the ninth biggest in the world – remains largely untapped by local industry. That could change with many power stations due to start drawing on locally produced gas and, next year, Nigeria's most successful businessman, Aliko Dangote, is due to open a 600,000 barrel-a-day oil refinery and fertiliser plant, which will sell its produce across the region (AC Vol 58 No 6, Mega-projects await reforms).
Corruption is still proving intractable, with Ibrahim Magu, Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), attracting criticism even within government for failing to see more cases through from newspaper headlines to court convictions.
Few if any of the politicians in Abuja seem interested in such matters for now. Their current obsession is whether Buhari will return from his latest medical break in London for the halfway mark of his four-year term. More and more politicians want him to recover enough, after his follow-up treatment, to stay in the Presidency. Yet most of their calculations are based on ambition, not altruism: they want a one-term Buhari presidency to leave the floor open for a contested convention for the governing APC at the end of next year.
During Buhari's absence, almost all governors and ranking politicians from the north, with varying degrees of subtlety, have offered their services to the Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, should the dreadful day arrive and his elevation require the appointment of a new deputy. According to the principle of rotation, Osinbajo, a lawyer and Christian pastor from the south-west, would be obliged to choose a northerner.
Now it seems less simple. The nomination of a new vice-president would require the approval of the Senate and the House of Representatives, according to Article 146 (3) of the constitution. That gives an interesting platform to the Senate President, Abubakar Bukola Saraki, who faces corruption charges at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. He is waging an epic battle for survival with Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who was Lagos State Governor from 1999 to 2007. After Buhari diplomatically turned him down as running mate (both are Muslims), Tinubu proposed the apparently self-effacing Osinbajo.
Now, Tinubu is wary of his protégé taking the top job. Although he insists that his strategy is all about developing a younger generation of progressives and modernisers, it doesn't always work in practice. Tinubu's once-trusted Chief of Staff, Babatunde Fashola, proved far too independent when he took over from his patron as governor of Lagos State. Fashola is now one of Buhari's busiest ministers, running Power, Works and Housing.
At the core of the political mythology of Tinubu, also known by his chieftaincy titles, the Asiwaju of Lagos and the Jagaban of Borgu, is his leadership of the Yoruba south-west. That might be compromised should the apprentice leapfrog the master and become President.
Most of the political talk in Abuja is around the succession, with little debate over policy or where candidates might stand on national issues. It's all about the mechanics of pulling together networks and money. The lack of a clear frontrunner in 2019 will make it the most open election since the return to civilian rule 20 years earlier.
Moreover, losers may not toe the party line, opening up the possibility of a disputed APC convention. That could see the rise of splinter parties out of what has been an uneasy coalition of interests. The APC held together mainly by a shared determination to remove Goodluck Jonathan (2010-15) from the Presidency. His formerly governing People's Democratic Party looks to be in shambles, perhaps ripe for takeover by, or merger with, a political outfit run by a wealthy APC dissident.
Government inertia – it was May before the National Assembly could agree the 2017 budget, while landmark oil industry reform has been held up since 2009 – has done little for the reputation of the legislature. The 36 states have an equally mixed record of delivery, with some truly atrocious land-grabbing in the guise of slum clearance programmes in cities such as Lagos and Port Harcourt.
Although Gen. Buratai warned civilians against interfering with the military, he took the precaution of reshuffling senior commanders earlier this month. As national leader of the APC, Bola Tinubu added his weight to Buratai's speech, telling the Lagos State Assembly on 23 May that any attempt at a coup would meet mass civilian opposition.
However, the usually adversarial relations between rival security agencies have become even more delicate. The EFCC set itself on a collision course with the external security organisation, the National Intelligence Agency, when it emerged that US$43 million which it found on 13 April in shrink-wrapped bills in a flat in the Ikoyi area of Lagos belonged to the NIA. That raid also strained relations with the Office of the National Security Advisor, one of Magu's last remaining allies in government. The NSA, in turn, rarely sees eye-to-eye with the Department for State Security, the domestic intelligence agency, which has been pushing for Magu's removal.
With security agencies out of sync, a political class without coherence or consensus and that was short on ideas and integrity would already heat up the political system. Add to that a cohort of young officers and men that have fought against a brutal insurgency in the north-east – the first generation to have seen active service in Nigeria since the Civil War – and the need for effective leadership gets stronger. That puts news from Buhari in London at a premium.
All of those who stood against Muhammadu Buhari for the All Progressives' Congress nomination in 2014 remain ambitious. Senate President Bukola Saraki and Atiku Abubakar, the former Vice-President (1999-2007), are the wealthiest and have the richest friends. That's critical in Nigeria's costly campaign cycle. Saraki has retained London communications consultants Aequitas, which helped Britain's Labour Party to remake its image under Tony Blair in the mid-1990s, but he has to overcome not only his feud with Bola Ahmed Tinubu and the unproven perceptions of corruption and elite entitlement, but also the challenge of Kwara, a state too 'south' for the north and too 'north' for the south.
Atiku and former President Goodluck Jonathan, we hear, have separately contacted London-based CTF Partners, a political polling and marketing company run by Lynton Crosby, the Australian-born architect of several electoral victories for Britain's Conservative Party. Atiku defected to the opposition to seek the presidency in 2007, went back to the ruling party in 2011 before returning again to the opposition in 2015, and had considered splitting from the APC before Buhari's health difficulties. Now 70, this may be Atiku's last chance of a realistic bid.
Sokoto Governor since 2015 and a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal worked with Tinubu in the past. Like Tambuwal, Rabiu Kwankwaso, a former Defence Minister and Kano State Governor, may present himself as a compromise candidate.
The best-starred candidates would be those who did not contest against Buhari in 2014 and might hope for his approval, and his huge popular constituency, in the north. Sectarian and communal challenges in Kaduna have weakened Nasir el-Rufai, at least for 2019. Although supporters of Kashim Shettima, Borno State Governor since 2011, say his apparent lack of ambition, combined with the role he has helped play in stabilising the north-east, may leave him well placed if higher-profile players cancel one another out. Conditions in Borno remain horrific, however, according to the United Nations, with about 1.4 million people facing a food emergency and another 44,000 close to starvation in the aftermath of the insurgency.
Among the non-politicians, Aliko Dangote has ruled himself out. Perhaps he is haunted by the fate of Moshood Abiola, who stepped from business into politics, only to see his 1993 election victory cancelled, and die in detention five years later. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the outspoken former Central Bank Governor (2009-14), who escaped removal as Emir of Kano after criticising some of his peers, has a strong following but is an unlikely outside bet.
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