Is it still a four-horse race?

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It is 48 days, on Sunday, to Nigeria’s seventh presidential election since 1999. The ballot on election day February 25 will have the symbols of 18 parties, down from the 79 that stood in the previous poll of 2019.

However, largely to separate the men from the boys, the media have dubbed this election a four-horse race. That assessment identified the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu; that of the former ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar; and two former state governors, Peter Obi of the Labour Party and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigerian People’s Party (NNPP), as the contenders for succession to the outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari.

From what we have observed from the first four months of open campaigns, the assessment appears to be appropriate.

Only the “Big Four” candidates have been organising rallies and appearing at debates, town hall meetings, interviews and other media engagements. It is like the 14 “minor candidates” have been in a slumber as they have largely been invisible so far in their tracks on the field.

Runoff

The emergence of Messrs Obi and Kwankwaso as candidates was considered to be of such great significance that a joint delegation of the American National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, on election observation to Nigeria in July, predicted that they would take the election into a runoff.

A runoff will be conducted for the two leading candidates if the one with the most votes does not also get at least 25 per cent of the votes cast in each of 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.

That though is uncharted territory for Nigeria. None of the nine presidential elections in the country since 1979, when Nigeria swapped the Westminster parliamentary system it inherited from its British colonisers for the American presidential system, failed to produce a winner from the first ballot.

The permutation was that Messrs Obi and Kwankwaso may draw enough votes to send Mr Tinubu or Atiku into a run-off on March 4.

Opinion polls

However, a series of opinion polls has since projected Mr Obi as in fact the leading candidate, although none has gone so far as to project him to win on the first ballot.

But after four months of watching the candidates on the hustings, does this still look like a four-horse race?

We can glean the answers from how the four candidates stand seven weeks before the poll.

Tinubu

The former Lagos governor secured the nomination with a landslide victory at the APC primary held in Abuja on 8 June. But his appointment of a former governor of Borno, Kashim Shettima, a fellow Muslim, quickly soured the euphoria and threw his bid under an early storm that saw some of his Northern Christian associates deserting him in rage.

APC presidential candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

His campaign has since been dogged by other controversies principal among which were questions over his birth and early school records, state of health, alleged indictment for drug trafficking and his refusal to present himself for public debates with his major opponents and interviews with journalists.

His refusal to honour invitations to town hall meetings organised by Arise Television, amid regular appearance of scathing articles against his person and candidature in Thisday Newspaper, a sister company of Arise Television, brought the APC presidential campaign council into a messy confrontation with Nduka Obaigbena, the owner of the two media organisations.

While he has remained obdurate in shunning debates and direct engagements with journalists, the APC candidate granted an interview to BBC and delivered a speech at Chatham House in London. He has also held his own town hall meetings with professional, business and demographic groups.

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Mr Tinubu has been perhaps the busiest of all the candidates in the campaign circuit. His rallies across the country have attracted large crowds that underscore the strength of his party in many parts of the country.

While his party has relatively managed its post-presidential primary issues well, Mr Tinubu has been seeking to profit from the crisis in that of rival PDP, where a dissident group of five governors have been distracting Atiku from his own campaign plans.

Mr Tinubu has met directly or through proxies several times with the G5 PDP governors, although he and the governors denied recent reports that they had agreed to work together in the presidential election.

As the candidate of the ruling party, however, Mr Tinubu is expected to suffer or profit from the voters’ perception and reactions to the performance of the APC federal government in the last seven years. While he has played no direct role in that government, many have said he bears vicarious responsibility as a co-founder and leader of the APC and for his role in the nomination and eventual election of President Buhari.

Due to his status in the party and his need for Mr Buhari’s enthusiastic support, he cannot distance himself from the president’s perceived failure and successes, although he has been trying to subtly separate his own candidature and manifestoes from Mr Buhari and the record of his government.

Mr Tinubu appears to have weathered the storm over his same-faith ticket and also appears to enjoy strong support in the North. The support of the region was pivotal to President Buhari’s electoral victory in 2015 and 2019 and how much of that Mr Tinubu and his party can retain will be crucial in determining their fate in this year’s elections.

Atiku

The former vice president was the PDP flag bearer in 2019 and retained the ticket at the party’s primary on 28 May. In fact, this is his sixth presidential race in 30 years.

But a dispute with his closest rival in the primary, Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, has overshadowed news from his well-attended campaign stops. Mr Wike was not happy with the conduct of the primary but became implacable after Atiku overlooked his recommendation by a committee of the party to pick Delta State Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, as his running mate.

Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar

Mr Wike then demanded that Iyorchia Ayu, whom he had accused of manipulating the primary for Atiku, step down as national chairman. He said the two highest party positions should not be held by members from the same region of the country. Mr Wike has since managed to rally four other governors and their antics have been receiving as much space in the media as has the Atiku campaign efforts.

The G5 governors have so far baulked at naming the alternative candidates that they will support in the presidential election. But they seemed to have crossed the Rubicon as far as their party’s standard bearer is concerned.

However, it remains to be seen how far the dissident governors can go to hurt Atiku as their own fates are also tied to the PDP fortune. One of the governors is seeking reelection on the PDP ticket while three others who are serving out their second terms are seeking Senate seats, also under the party.

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Even Mr Wike, who is not on the ballot in this election cycle, sponsored the candidates of the party for the governorship and legislative seats in Rivers and is obliged to work for their elections.

The governors on Thursday had a foretaste of the difficult task of working both sides of the aisle that they have set for themselves. At the flag-off of the reelection campaign of one of them in Ibadan, Oyo State Governor Seyi Makinde, party members chanted Atiku’s name to mock a suggestion by the G5 that they would be told to work for a different candidate.

But the G5 is by no means Atiku’s only problem going to February 25. Since the election of 2019, lost by the party to the APC, the main opposition party has lost two other governors to the ruling party. Governors David Umahi of Ebonyi and Ben Ayade of Cross River deserted the party early and are both seeking senate seats under the APC. They had taken the entire machinery of the PDP in their states to the APC.

If you add those two to the G5, it means the PDP has lost seven governors going to the elections. A similar occurrence was a significant factor in the defeat of President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015. Ironically, Atiku was an arrowhead in that rebellion.

Another phenomenon that must be giving Atiku food for thought is named Peter Obi, his running mate in 2019 who still publicly reveres him as “My Leader.”

Mr Obi’s support base is hewn from PDP traditional strongholds in the South-east, South-south and Northern Christian communities. Mr Okowa and some other perceptive party leaders have warned that Mr Obi could inadvertently be working to smoothen Mr Tinubu’s path to the presidency.

On the bright side, Atiku expects more share of the votes in the North than his party got in the two previous polls that it lost. This is because Mr Buhari, who since his first entrance to the race in 2003 has garnered the bulk of northern votes, is not a candidate in this election. Daniel Bwala, a spokesperson of the PDP candidate, boasted that Atiku has inherited Mr Buhari’s traditional 12 million votes.

The coast though is not as clear for him. Mr Kwankwaso wants to make a statement in Kano and a few surrounding states in the North West, while the APC has 14 of the 19 governors in the region.

Obi

The former Anambra governor started this election cycle as a presidential aspirant in the PDP but left the party a few days to the primary and immediately emerged as the Labour Party candidate.

His candidature was an instant hit on social media, especially Twitter where a large segment of the Nigerian youth speaks in loud voices. They have embraced Mr Obi and have been largely responsible for the traction he gained on and offline.

The vast reaches of the internet have enabled his campaign to travel far and wide, including in the diaspora where some Nigerian communities have been mobilising support for him in cash and kind.

Labour Party presidential candidate, Peter Obi.

The result is that he has won virtually every online poll conducted on the election and attracted the attention of even the foreign media.

Mr Obi has also been accorded rock star reception in churches and Christian gatherings, where he has sometimes been allowed to speak from the pulpit. That has earned him the image of a “Christian candidate,” although that appears to be a sword capable of cutting both ways.

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Adding to his diadems have been endorsements by prominent Nigerian figures, one of the loudest being by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. The former president announced the endorsement in a lengthy homily to Nigerians on New Year’s day in which he disparaged the ambitions of Mr Obi’s rivals.

However, Mr Obi has not managed to match his online popularity with physical acceptance on the ground. Attendance at his rallies has recently been particularly disappointing. After a few days of so-called million-man marches in a few cities when the campaigns opened in September, the excitement appeared to have quickly petered out and Mr Obi has been making better headlines from visiting IDP camps.

Mr Obi’s Labour Party had no elected public office holder at the time he joined the party in June. It still has no candidates in many constituencies and a recent report also stated that it has not filed party agents for many polling units for the election across the country.

That is a reflection of the party’s poor structural base. Parties rely on their structures to mobilise supporters to rallies and to the polls on election day. But Mr Obi has said he relies on hungry and angry Nigerians as his party structure.

Those Nigerians have not yet been turning up to hear him speak at rallies but maybe they will at the poll.

Kwankwaso

The former Kano governor was in the PDP until he took over the NNPP in May. Mr Kwankwaso ran for the APC ticket in 2014, shortly after defecting with other PDP governors to the then-new party. By 2018, he had returned to the PDP and again ran unsuccessfully for the ticket of the party.

He got the ticket of the NNPP on the first try and his supporters expect him to sweep the poll, at least in the North. That may not happen.

The presidential candidate of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP), Rabiu Kwankwaso

Even in Kano, some of those who joined the NNPP with or because of him have retraced their steps to their old parties. One of them is former governor Ibrahim Shekarau who left the APC for an unlikely romance with Mr Kwankwaso. The two men were bitter rivals in Kano politics, with Mr Shekarau defeating the then-sitting governor in 2003 and leaving the APC and then the PDP after the two parties welcomed Mr Kwankwaso into their folds in 2014 and 2018 respectively.

But even if Mr Kwankwaso wins big in the North, his lack of a bridge to the South will certainly deny him the presidency, as it did to Mr Buhari three times between 2003 and 2011. He and Mr Obi had tried to use each other as a bridge but could not agree on who should cross it first.

The stories of Nigerian founding fathers like Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Aminu Kano amply demonstrate that leaders with a cult following at home don’t get much support elsewhere to take them to the presidency.

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Let here it in the comment below if you do have an opinion on this; Is it still a four-horse race?