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Graft Fighter or Business Magnate: Nigeria Chooses a Leader

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Nigerians face a stark choice between incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari and his war on corruption and multi-millionaire Atiku Abubakar’s promise of pro-business policies to rev up an anemic economy when they vote in too-close-to-call elections on Saturday.

With more than 84 million registered voters across 36 states and the federal capital, Abuja, the election for the presidency and parliament is the showcase event of Africa’s biggest democracy. Much will depend on turnout, which was less than 44 percent four years ago when Buhari became the first opposition candidate in the West African nation’s history to be elected to power.

“Nobody knows who is going to emerge winner, but in terms of advantages, Buhari has the upper hand,” said Idayat Hassan, director at Centre For Democracy and Development in Abuja, the capital. “It goes beyond being the incumbent -- the number of votes available in the northwest of the country, which is his main stronghold and has a larger voter turnout, is positive for him.”

Buhari, 76, and Abubakar, 72, are both northern Muslims in a country roughly split between Christianity and Islam, yet their career paths are widely different. Buhari is a former general who ruled the country briefly in the 1980s and morphed into a civilian politician who won on his fourth try for the presidency four years ago. Atiku, as Abubakar is widely known, has served as vice president and is a wealthy businessman with 26 children and four wives.


What the Candidates Are Promising

Both carry heavy baggage. Buhari and his ruling All Progressives Congress have faced sharp criticism for their handling of the economy. After his election, confronted with falling output and prices of oil, the country’s main export, Buhari took six months to form a cabinet.

Buhari then imposed capital controls as the naira currency came under pressure from falling export income and foreign investors fled. Nigeria slid into its first recession in a quarter century.

In a nationally televised speech on Thursday evening, he declared Africa’s biggest oil producer fully recovered from the slump.

But the economy expanded just 1.9 percent last year, the fastest since Buhari’s election, and now Nigeria has more extremely poor people, 87 million, than any nation on the planet. The United Nations expects its population to double to 410 million by 2050, overtaking everywhere bar India and China.

His supporters paint him as something rare in Nigeria: an honest politician who provides a sharp counterpart to Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party that governed Nigeria for 16 years from the end of military rule in 1999.

‘Man of Honesty’

His decision to suspend Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, just weeks before Saturday’s presidential election, was criticized by the legal community, including the Nigerian Bar Association. Onnoghen pleaded not guilty to charges of false declaration of his assets at the Code of Conduct Tribunal in Abuja on Friday.

“What we love is that he’s a man of honesty,” said Kabiru Ajibade, a 41-year-old shoemaker in Lagos, the commercial capital. “Four years of Buhari has been much better than 16 years of PDP.”

In counterpoint, Atiku portrays himself as someone who knows how to get things done and his pro-market policy ideas have won some favor among investors. In an interview last month, he said would name a new central bank governor, float the naira and sell stakes in the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. that runs Africa’s biggest oil industry if he was elected.

Since Buhari came to office, Nigeria’s stock market has been the world’s worst performer, losing about half its value in dollar terms. Wall Street banks such as Citigroup Inc. and AllianceBernstein LP, a New York money manager with $550 billion of assets under management, say Nigerian equities and bonds will probably rally if Abubakar wins.

“I prefer Atiku,” said 32-year-old Mustapha Shuaib, who works at a printing company in Lagos. “Buhari’s not done anything in the past four years. Atiku will do better.”

But he has been dogged by allegations of corruption, and many people think he used his past positions in government to enrich himself. A U.S. Senate in 2010 concluded that Abubakar and one of his wives had wired $40 million of “suspect funds” into American accounts. Abubakar denies any wrongdoing and has never been indicted at home or abroad.

Whoever wins will have to deal with widespread violence in the northeast where Islamist insurgents have been fighting for a decade to impose their version of shariah law in a conflict that claimed the lives of thousands of people and forced more than 2.5 million in the Lake Chad region to flee their homes.

Clashes between farmers and herders over grazing land led to around 2,000 deaths last year, mainly in central parts of the country, according to Amnesty International, while thousands have fled their homes in the northwestern state of Zamfara amid a rise in kidnapping and raids on villages. Tensions are also brewing in the oil-producing Niger River delta, where militants intermittently sabotage pipelines and other energy infrastructure.


Nigeria’s Conflict Zones

While Boko Haram has retreated to the north, the encroaching Sahara desert is fueling more herdsman–farmer violence

The election campaign itself has been relatively peaceful, marked more mudslinging than violence. Both sides accused each other of planning to rig the vote. Final results should be known within a few days after the close of the polls.

“There doesn’t seem to be any indication that there will be violence,” said Michael Famoroti, an analyst at Stears Business in the commercial capital, Lagos. “People will find a way to rig; the main question is how and to what extent it will swing the outcome of results.”

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