On February 16, Nigerians will go to the polls in what is expected to be a tightly fought race in Africa’s most populous country.

Nigeria’s citizens will have the choice to vote for one of dozens of candidates vying for the presidency. However, there are only two candidates with any realistic shot at victory: incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari and challenger Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president from the opposition People’s Democratic Party.


Too close to call

Impartial polling in Nigeria is difficult to find, but analysts concur that the race will be tight. “Numerically the margin is quite small, but Mr Abubakar has a better chance from the standing point” of voter registration numbers in districts that historically support his party, says John Ashbourne, senior emerging markets analyst at economic research consultancy Capital Economics.

Others say conditions favour Mr Buhari. “The incumbent typically has the advantage of already controlling the apparatus of state, which enables them to set the agenda for discussions related to policy,” says Imad Mesdoua, senior consultant at global risk specialist Control Risks.

He also notes that political “kingmakers” in the critical north-eastern and south-western regions of the country are putting their money behind Mr Buhari. His vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, could also prove to be an important asset. “A lot of people appreciate his handling of the economy and security. He is still popular in the south-west and beyond,” says Mr Mesdoua.

After the honeymoon

This election is an important one as Nigeria emerges from an economic slump brought on by the oil price plunge of 2015 and compounded by the failure of generations of Nigerian leaders to root out rampant corruption. Poverty and unemployment remain widespread. An estimated 87 million Nigerians live in extreme poverty – or roughly half the population – despite the country being Africa's largest oil producer.

Mr Buhari’s first term was hailed as a watershed in Nigerian politics, marking the country’s first transfer of power to the opposition in an election. His message of anti-corruption proved popular after the cronyism and economic mismanagement of the previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan.  

Much of the shine has come off in the course of his first term, however. He has been criticised for failure to defeat the Al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east of the country, along with slow progress on his cornerstone promise to root out corruption and his handling of the country’s troubled economy. Unemployment, meanwhile, has more than doubled during his term - from 10% in January 2016 to more than 23% by mid-2018.

The president’s failing health is also a bone of contention. The 76-year-old spent several months on sick leave in 2017. In a scenario straight out of Nollywood, he spent much of December 2018 denying rumours he had died and been replaced by a body double. This handicap is offset to some degree by having Mr Osinbajo on the ticket as his vice-president, but still loom large on the campaign trail.

Buhari's more of the same

Nigeria’s economic troubles have set up a contest where, unusually for a country where elections historically cleave along patronage and ethnic loyalty lines, the two leading candidates have staked out very different ideological positions – particularly on the economy.

Mr Buhari, as is the wont of incumbents, is making a case for more time for his policies to gain traction. Building on his first term, he is pledging to continue cracking down on corruption, improve security and complete key infrastructure projects. “In the run-up to the campaign a lot of marquee infrastructure projects were sped up and finalised,” says Mr Mesdoua.

Handling of the country’s monetary policy and controversial import bans seem unlikely to change dramatically in a second Buhari term. Ratings agency Fitch believes the country is unlikely to scrap its system of multiple exchange rates until 2020 over fears that merging them would spike inflation, despite the IMF’s urgings that it do so.

Currency is “still one of the chief obstacles for foreign investors in Nigeria, and there is very little prospect of that changing soon”, adds Mr Ashbourne at Capital Economics.

The opposition camp, meanwhile, has called for a free float of the naira, a move which central bank governor Godwin Emefiele says would cause “massive devaluation” and capital flight.

Indeed the central bank seems set to double down on its controversial policy of import bans, increasing the current list of 42 items to 50, including fertilisers. The announcement was made as Mr Emefiele toured a fertiliser plant owned by Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, but also a controversial figure with some critics who claim he has cornered monopolies favoured by the Nigerian government.

Abubakar's privatisation pledge

Aside from his plan to unify Nigeria’s exchange rates and float the naira, Mr Abubakar has pledged to create more jobs, to diversify Nigeria’s economy away from oil, to work towards creating “the lowest corporate income tax in Africa”, to increase oil production and to increase the contribution of manufacturing to the economy from 9% to 30%.

In contrast to Mr Buhari, he has also pledged to privatise the notoriously opaque Nigerian National Oil Company, all three oil refineries, the national grid and government concessions in ports and airports.

But while much of this market-driven approach may appeal to investors wary of Nigeria’s complex political organisations, aspects of Mr Abubakar's past have come under scrutiny.

The origins of Mr Abubakar’s wealth are an area of concern for some. Until January 2019, he had not set foot in the US for more than 12 years as he was under investigation by the FBI in connection with suspected bribery.

After engaging Bob Ballard, a lobbyist with close ties to US president Donald Trump, to advise the campaign in October 2018 for a contract reportedly worth more than $1m, Mr Abubakar was issued a US visa and visited Washington. Photos of him checking into a Trump Hotel were widely circulated by his campaign in the hopes of neutralising one of the main criticisms against his candidacy. 

Monopoly concerns

Mr Abubakar’s business interests raise other issues. In 2017, the federal government moved to end the decades-long monopoly that Mr Abubakar’s company, Intels, held over oil and gas services in Nigeria. He co-founded Intels in the 1980s alongside Italian businessman Gabriel Volpi.

Since then the company has benefited from a number of lucrative deals and a lack of competition supported by several administrations. Mr Abubakar took the federal government to court in 2017 when the Buhari administration moved to break up a number of monopolies.

“The government should be supporting the ‘real’ private sector,” says Amy Jadesimi, managing director of the Ladol logistics base and free zone. She supports another term for Mr Buhari, citing the need for stability. Ladol had clashed with Intels in the past.

“It does concern some people in the private sector that elements of the opposition party represent a very old style of monopolistic, rent-seeking behaviour in Nigeria which we do not want to go back to,” she says.