The main opposition candidate in Nigeria’s presidential election said he was optimistic it would be a more credible race than in the past but warned events in north Africa showed people would no longer accept a rigged vote.
Former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari told Reuters in a weekend interview that there was widespread disillusionment with the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has dominated politics in Nigeria since its return to democracy in 1999.
The PDP candidate has won every vote since the end of military rule, all of them elections marred by intimidation and fraud. Buhari, who lost two of those races, faces another tough battle against President Goodluck Jonathan, Reuters reports.
“Having been the biggest casualty of election rigging from 2003 through to 2007, I think this (election commission) is better led and has therefore raised our hope that the election will be free and fair,” Buhari, 68, told Reuters in the gardens of a villa in the commercial capital Lagos.
“More important … is the awareness among Nigerians that this time around they want their vote to count,” he said.
“With what is happening in north Africa, the Middle East, and the Gulf states I think the message is getting across to politicians, especially the ruling party, that they either behave themselves or the ordinary people will take over.”
Autocratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt have toppled by popular uprisings this year and there have also been protests in countries including Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.
A political system based on patronage and dominated by a wealthy elite, rather than an autocratic individual, locks out the majority in Nigeria and few imagine protests on the scale of Tunisia or Egypt could spread to Africa’s most populous nation.
But more than 65 million people have registered on a new electoral roll, meant to help stamp out the multiple voting and omissions that have undermined previous polls, and civil society groups have vowed they will monitor the process closely.
Jonathan is considered the front-runner in the polls but is resented in parts of the mostly Muslim north because he is a southerner whose candidacy breaks a pact in the PDP that power should rotate between north and south every two terms.
Buhari, who is from the northern state of Katsina, could capitalise on some of this resentment, his supporters hope. But the former military strongman played down the north-south issue, saying free elections were more important than ethnicity.
“HAEMORRHAGE OF PUBLIC MONEY”
Buhari ruled Nigeria between December 1983 and August 1985, an iron-fisted administration best remembered for its “War on Indiscipline”, a campaign against corruption in which politicians were jailed and drug traffickers executed.
Dressed in a crisp white agbada — traditional robes — Buhari said his main priorities would be to stop the haemorrhage of public money under the PDP and to improve security.
“There is a problem about the PDP accounting for the 12 years (it has been in power), the resources that were available to it, and the collapse of infrastructure and social services,” he said, speaking in soft, measured tones.
“To all intents and purposes, education has collapsed, healthcare has collapsed,” he said.
Jonathan has made privatising the power sector and ending chronic electricity shortages — one of the main brakes on economic growth — a cornerstone of his campaign, but Buhari said the PDP’s record spoke for itself.
He said Nigeria was generating around 5,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity at the end of military rule in 1999, more than it currently produces, despite having spent $10-12 billion supposedly on power sector projects over the past decade.
“Coupled with that … there is so much insecurity, so much abduction, assassinations, tribal and religious clashes, which can be traced to real government incompetence. These are the issues, security and the economy,” Buhari said.
Some analysts believe Buhari, whose Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) party has its power base in the north, could only beat Jonathan if he forms an alliance with the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), another opposition party strong in the south.
But the ACN has fielded former anti-corruption tsar Nuhu Ribadu as its nominee, potentially splitting opposition votes.
Buhari was unfazed, saying that after serving as a state governor, oil minister and head of state under the military he was now a convert to multi-party democracy.
“But there is a big caveat,” he added.
“Elections must be free and fair, that is the bottom line. If people choose bad legislators, let them freely change them. But if they can’t, what is happening in some parts of Africa and the Middle East is bound to happen.”