Presidential candidates look to friends in the north

Tens of thousands of people turned out as President Muhammadu Buhari’s boisterous campaign bandwagon rolled into northern Nigeria’s biggest city, Kano.

Some came on horseback. Others rode camels. A daredevil few even climbed the floodlights at the Sani Abacha Stadium to wave flags of the All Progressives Congress party.

Last week’s frenzied rally reflected the interest in Kano, a key prize in Nigeria’s presidential elections on February 16.

Buhari and his main challenger Atiku Abubakar are fiercely bidding for votes in the country’s second-biggest city and a centre of commerce and learning for centuries.

But crowd sizes are an unreliable indicator of political support in Africa’s most populous nation, where by and large, no-one does anything for free.

Parties are known to drum up support at rallies with cash, food and free transport. Some even expect the same people to turn out this week for Abubakar.

In 2015, some 1.9 million people or 89 per cent of voters in Kano chose Buhari compared to just 216,000 for president Goodluck Jonathan, of the Peoples Democratic Party.

The APC has promised to do even better this time.

“We will deliver five million votes for Muhammadu Buhari and (vice president) Yemi Osinbajo,” the crowd was told repeatedly at last Thursday’s rally, to roars of approval.

At the Aminu Kano Centre for Democratic Research and Training, a think-tank at Kano’s Bayero University, Kabiru Bello Dumbulun dismisses the boast as “just election talk”.

There are only about 5.5 million registered voters in the entire state, he pointed out.

– Market views –

From the posters around Kano, Buhari has retained his image as a man of the people, even if four years in power has taken some of the shine off his appeal.

At the city’s Sabon Gari market, traders Aminu Uba Sanka and Kabiru Isa conceded that Buhari had not fulfilled all his pledges.

But they see him as the best person to represent ordinary folk like them.

“If Buhari leaves office, these people will suffer,” Sanka told AFP in Hausa, gesturing to a gathering crowd around him.

“We need another four years to be able to finish all these programmes he’s started.”

For others, the mere fact they are able to come to places such as Sabon Gari is good enough to vote Buhari, even if the cost of living has risen during his time in office.

Four years ago, Kano was still a frequent target for Boko Haram Islamists’ bombs and bullets.

“We have relative peace,” said Kursiyya Abdullahi as she browsed at one stall. “Life is hard. But I think it’s better to have inflation than lack of security.”

Some in the market’s narrow alleyways say Abubakar has had his turn. He was vice president from 1999 to 2007. But many voiced doubts because of corruption allegations against him.

Others disagree, saying Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign has been one-sided in that it has mostly targeted his political opponents.

“We should give (Abubakar) another chance,” said tailor Aminu Yumba.

– Split vote? –

Buhari’s near-total support across the mainly Muslim north gave him a clear advantage over Jonathan in 2015 and high numbers will again prove crucial.

“Elections are about mass of votes,” said Moses Aluaigba, an associate research professor at the Aminu Kano Centre.

“If you have this mass, the APC will have the upper hand.”

Both Buhari and Kano state governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje could benefit from the lack of a strong, united opposition, Aluaigba said.

The embattled Ganduje has recently been embroiled in a corruption scandal in which he was seen receiving bundles of cash, earning him the nickname “Gandollar”.

Tanko Yakasai, though, believes the result in the north is not as clear-cut as many predict.

At 93, his view is based on first-hand experience of all of Nigeria’s post-independence politics since 1960.

With two Hausa-speaking, Muslim Fulani northerners as the main candidates, the political veteran — who was a special advisor to Shehu Shagari, the president former army general Buhari deposed in a coup in 1983 — predicted a split vote.

That could play in Abubakar’s favour, as the PDP is traditionally strong in Nigeria’s mainly Christian south, he assessed.

“It’s inevitable,” said Yakasai. “This time around, there is no religion, there is no ethnicity, there is no sectionalism, there is no tribalism.”

He added: “It could be very close or Atiku will win.”