Almost every Nigerian vote since independence in 1960 has been dogged by varying degrees of conflict and allegations of rigging. That’s one reason why the 2015 election that saw Muhammadu Buhari, now 76, become the first candidate in the nation’s history to topple a sitting president through the ballot box was such a watershed moment. But the former military ruler has presided over four years of lackluster growth and fallen short on a pledge to quell rampant corruption. His critics nicknamed him “Baba Go-Slow” --- a reference to his age and sluggish response to crises. Now he is running for a second term in a Feb. 16 vote that pits him against dozens of rivals. The most prominent is Atiku Abubakar, 72, a wealthy businessman, former vice president and alleged kleptocrat of international repute, who failed on several previous occasions to secure the presidency.

1. What are the key campaign issues?

The electorate’s biggest gripes are about a lack of jobs and economic opportunities, falling living standards and high inflation. The unemployment rate hit 23.1 percent in the third quarter, its highest since at least 2010, and the World Bank estimates that almost half the population of 200 million live on $1.90 or less a day. The economy is still smaller on a per-capita basis than it was in 2014, and the stock market has been the world’s worst performer since Buhari came to office, falling almost 50 percent in dollar terms. Endemic corruption is another major concern, as is insecurity typified by conflict with Islamist militants in the northeast, perennial violence in the oil-rich Niger delta and escalating tensions over grazing rights. Then there are questions about the vote itself. On Jan. 25, Buhari suspended the nation’s top judge, heightening concerns about the credibility of the election because the Supreme Court would likely have to rule on any challenges to the result.

2. What is Buhari promising?

The stern former general led Nigeria briefly in the 1980s as a dictator and unsuccessfully contested several elections after military rule ended in 1999 before finally winning the top job. (Buhari now describes himself as a “converted democrat.”) While voters and pundits alike were optimistic he could diversify the oil-dependent economy, tackle graft, and end a deadly insurgency by Islamist group Boko Haram, his popularity started to wane after falling oil prices triggered Nigeria’s first economic contraction in a quarter century in 2016. Investors blame him for exacerbating the slump and deterring investment by imposing capital controls. He also leaned on the central bank not to weaken the currency, the naira, which it was eventually forced to do. He now pledges to bolster spending on new transport and electricity projects. His plans include building rail links between all state capitals and completing a $5 billion hydro power project funded by China. He has also promised to increase the minimum wage.

3. What about his chief rival?

Abubakar, a father of 26 who is widely known as Atiku and has business interests ranging from oil services to beverages, says he’ll draw on his experience in the private sector to lift the economy. An admirer of the late Conservative U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he favors incentives to encourage investment, selling most of the state oil company, floating the naira and removing a price cap that keeps the cost of gasoline in Nigeria among the lowest in the world.

4. How do they intend to tackle insecurity?

Buhari says he will intensify the battle against militants loyal to Islamic State and Boko Haram, and provide the military with additional resources. Abubakar says it’s no accident that the country’s poorest region has borne the brunt of the insurgency, and he’ll promote jobs and development there, which would deny militants support and make it harder for them to recruit members.

5. What are their records on graft?

While Buhari has a reputation for honesty in what ranks as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, Transparency International says his war on graft has not yielded the desired results. Other critics say he has been selective when deciding who to target. Abubakar has long been accused of engaging in illicit practices to amass a vast fortune, an allegation he denies. Though he has never been charged with or found guilty of corrupt practices, a U.S. Senate subcommittee report in 2010 said he and one of his wives wired $40 million of “suspect funds” to the country. Abubakar has pledged to shift the focus from “punitive” to “preventive” measures to tackle graft, including moving more government services online to make it harder for civil servants to demand bribes.

6. Who’s likely to win?

An absence of reliable opinion polls makes it difficult to tell, and analysts have mixed views. New York-based risk adviser Teneo projects that Abubakar would win 57 percent of the vote to Buhari’s 42 percent in a free and fair election. Eurasia Group, which included Nigeria on its list of the top 10 global risks for 2019, sees Buhari beating Abubakar by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin. If no candidate wins outright in the first round, a run-off will be held. The victor must also secure at least a quarter of the votes in two-thirds of the states, a requirement aimed at ensuring they have national appeal; failing that test could also trigger a run-off.

7. Why is the race so close?

In previous elections, the easiest way for a candidate to win the presidency was to corner the votes of two of the country’s three main ethnic blocks -- the Hausa speakers in the north, the Yoruba from the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast -- and then try to tap into support from other minority groups. This time around, it’s a more complicated calculus because both Buhari and Abubakar are Muslim Hausa speakers from the north. The Yoruba played a pivotal role in bringing Buhari to power in 2015, and he’s hoping to retain their support by sticking with the same running mate, Yemi Osinbajo, who hails from the southwest. Abubakar chose Peter Obi as his deputy with a view to drawing support from fellow Igbos, and is targeting support from minorities in the oil-producing south by pledging to devolve more power to regional authorities.

8. Will the elections be free, fair and peaceful?

That’s the perennial question. With state power seen as the shortest route to wealth in Nigeria, elections are hotly contested. More than 800 people died in 2011 in the unrest following Buhari’s loss to then-President Goodluck Jonathan. Fears that widespread conflict could erupt after the 2015 vote proved unfounded when Jonathan conceded to Buhari before the final count was complete, although deaths still topped 100. Civil rights groups have expressed concern that the security forces are partisan in favor of the incumbent, a problem they identified during the election of governors in the southwestern Ekiti and Osun states last year. Buhari’s decision to suspend Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen just three weeks before the vote poses an even bigger threat to the election’s credibility. The move was condemned by the opposition and legal community and came shortly before judges, who will oversee electoral tribunals and hear election-related cases, were to due be sworn in. Concerns expressed by the U.S., the U.K. and the European Union drew a strident response from the government, which warned against interference in Nigeria’s internal affairs.

--With assistance from Patricia Suzara, Sophie Mongalvy and Paul Wallace.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dulue Mbachu in Abuja at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Maier at, Mike Cohen, Andy Reinhardt

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