The Men Who Would Be King: Buhari’s Challengers in Nigeria


With Nigeria’s main opposition party gearing up to nominate its presidential candidate next month for February’s election, here are the four main contenders in the People’s Democratic Party seeking to challenge Muhammadu Buhari for the helm in Africa’s top oil producer:

Atiku Abubakar
A former vice president, Abubakar, 71, has been trying to win the presidency since Nigeria returned to democratic government in 1999, seeking the nomination in three different parties. He lost to Buhari in the primaries of the now ruling All Progressives Congress in 2015 but supported him as the candidate.

A former Nigerian Customs Service top official who became a major shareholder in Intels Nigeria Ltd., an oil-service company, as a northerner like Buhari, he may be able to win votes in the president’s home turf.

Abubakar’s advocacy of regional autonomy has earned him support in the south, and he also backs floating the naira, increasing spending on education and preparing Nigeria for life after oil. But he’s facing resistance within the opposition, with ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo saying he won’t support his former deputy.

Analyst view: “I rate his chances as good because he has instant national name recognition,” said Moses Ochonu, a professor of African history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Bukola Saraki
Senate President Saraki, 56, is Nigeria’s third-most powerful person after Buhari and his vice president, Yemi Osinbajo. A U.K.-trained medical doctor from a renowned political family, his reputation as a ruthless strategist rose after his preferred candidate defeated his sister, who was backed by their father, Abubakar Olusola Saraki, in a 2011 gubernatorial election in western Kwara state.

While still an APC member, he won the Senate presidency with support from the PDP against the wishes of several of his party leaders, including Buhari. As head of the Senate, he joined with his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, to chart an independent course from the president — rejecting some of Buhari’s political appointees, chiding him for alleged human-rights violations and initiating their own legislation, such as the petroleum industry governance bill.

Saraki quit the APC with more than a dozen other senators in July and returned to the PDP, which he left in 2015. His campaign strengths are his relative youth, his desire to build alliances with politicians from around the country, and his pro-investor stance. Saraki has described Buhari as “analog,” saying Nigeria needs a “digital” president.

Analyst view: “Saraki would be a brilliant campaign strategist,” said Malte Liewerscheidt, vice president of London-based risk advisory group Teneo Intelligence. “Saraki’s problem is that his background from a ‘Middle Belt’ state does not easily fit into the established logic of Nigerian politics to rotate the presidency between north and south.”

Rabiu Kwankwaso
Kwankwaso, 61, was elected an APC senator in 2015 after serving as a defense minister and a two-term governor of northern Kano state for the PDP. He was among the lawmakers who defected from Buhari’s party in July.

As governor of Kano, one of Nigeria’s most populous states, he built a huge following with his Kwankwasiyya movement centered around his policies of providing school meals, a rural health-care plan and rapid expansion of Kano city’s roads and bridges. That’s given him a political base in the Muslim north on which Buhari depends to a large extent.

In 2015, Kwankwaso lost the APC nomination for president to Buhari but came in second and pushed Abubakar into third place in the primaries. Like the other candidates, he has accused the president of divisive leadership, incompetent management of the economy and alienating swathes of the multi-ethnic country of almost 200 million people.

Analyst view: “He has a strong political machinery in the north and he seems to be the only candidate who can impact Buhari’s massive following in the north. He will have challenges getting accepted in the south,” said Olusegun Sotola, a research fellow at the Lagos-based Initiative for Policy Analysis.

Aminu Tambuwal
Tambuwal, 52, was elected governor of the northwestern state of Sokoto in 2015 on the platform of the APC after serving as a member of the House of Representatives, where he was the speaker from 2011 to 2015.

Abubakar III of Sokoto, the spiritual leader of the country’s Muslims, he stands a chance of cutting into Buhari’s support in the area.

The president’s standing in the region has suffered because of his government’s continued detention of former national security adviser Sambo Dasuki, a member of the Sokoto royal family, on corruption allegations in defiance of court orders to free him on bail. Tambuwal also appears to enjoy the support of Nyesom Wike, the governor of oil-rich Rivers state in the south whose candidates won key party positions at the last convention in December.

Tambuwal has earned a reputation as a political deal maker and is seen as a potential consensus candidate.

Analyst view: “Tambuwal’s networks would be crucial to challenge Buhari in his core northern constituencies,” said Liewerscheidt of Teneo Intelligence.