Nigeria: Is Buhari’s northern voting bloc falling apart?

By Sada Malumfashi

Posted on Wednesday, 25 August 2021 10:03, updated on Thursday, 2 September 2021 15:19
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari speaks a launch campaign for his re-election, in Uyo
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari speaks a launch campaign for his re-election, in Uyo, Nigeria December 28, 2018. REUTERS

The presence of Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari used to fill stadiums. Now, a bitter cocktail of kidnapped schoolchildren and economic pain has left his loyal supporters wondering who they can trust next.

With the forming of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party in 2013 from a merger of three other parties, the battleground was drawn for the 2015 presidential election, which the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had won since 1999. Muhammadu Buhari emerged as the APC’s candidate after several attempts for the presidency.

He had ran in 2003, 2007 and 2011 gaining considerable numbers, but without success.

Since 2003, Gaskiya Dokin Karfe (Tried, Tested and Trusted) was the most evident slogan in Buhari’s campaign posters – a testament to his strong grassroots support across the core Hausa states of northern Nigeria where his rallies for more than 12 years consistently drew thousands of people.

Once upon a time…

During his campaign rallies, Buhari brought the northern states to a standstill with surging crowds packing the streets whenever he made an appearance with youths banging drums and chanting “Nigeria sai Buhari” – (Nigeria belongs to Buhari).

In 2015, Muhammadu Buhari won the key northern states of Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara States. He received more than 90% of the votes on offer in Kano state running up a 1.7 million-vote edge that accounted for more than half of his final margin of victory over then President Goodluck Jonathan.

Over the course of the Buhari campaigns since 2003, at least 12 million people queued up consistently for 12 years demanding for a Buhari presidency through their time, money, resources and thumbprint with a belief in a new era for their regions, of opportunities, peace and prosperity.

Northern Nigerian politics has always centred on individuals rather than ideology. Just like Sir Ahmadu Bello, you could see that cult like followership also for Muhammdu Buhari.

To these core Buhari supporters before 2015, the only living Nigerian who could turn the nation’s fortunes around was Buhari. With freewill donation of as low as N100 by supporters, this bloc of about 12 million people across the core of northern Nigeria who have stuck with Muhammadu Buhari since his first foray into politics raised about N200million to the APC’s presidential candidate’s campaign kitty.

Core bloc are losing faith

Six years into Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency, the “Nigeria Sai Buhari” bloc are losing faith. The cult-like trust in the Nigerian president is diminishing from negative economic impacts and undelivered campaign promises.

For Suleiman Usman Yusuf, the founding Chairperson of Youth Party, a new generation political party set up by a group of young people that contested in the 2019 general elections, the Buhari folklore is akin to that of a faux messiah. “Northern Nigerian politics has always centred on individuals rather than ideology. Just like Sir Ahmadu Bello, you could see that cult like followership also for Muhammdu Buhari. But in the case of Buhari, it is a followership not grounded on any past political precedent or logic but pure sentiment,” he says.

Continued abductions of schoolchildren and citizens and armed banditry and terrorism across the core northern Nigerian states and Buhari’s traditional strongholds are among the incidences of the deplorable state of security in the country.

Ongoing activities of armed groups in six states, all states that provided a sustained voting bloc for Buhari since 2003, Zamfara, Katsina, Sokoto, Kaduna, Niger and Kebbi have continued to rise.

‘This government is not trying for us that supported it’

Reactions on the streets, with growing rates of poverty in the country hint to reducing numbers of passengers along the Buhari bandwagon. A survey commissioned by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) in Nigeria found victims of conflict are less likely to trust the government.

Ibrahim Tijjani, a vegetable seller in Kaduna State contributed to the Buhari campaign kitty in 2015, and voted for him again in 2019, but even his hope that things will eventually change has waned. “I cannot even harvest fresh vegetables anymore, everybody is scared to go the farm due to the abductions,” he says.

“The truth is, this government is not trying for us that supported it. Imagine I cannot afford to buy a bag of onion; it is so expensive because of the middlemen that are risking their lives to get them from the villages. Things are not easy.” Tijjani adds.

Recently, in Kaduna State, where Muhammadu Buhari had lived before his presidency, the opposition, PDP won a decisive victory in a local house of assembly bye-election for the seat of the former speaker of the Kaduna State House of Assembly. A Buhari stronghold, the PDP had previously never won an election there for 18 years. This may serve as an indication of a wane of the Buhari support.

Yusuf believes the Buhari charisma is no longer enough to sustain the cult followership. “Everyone is suffering from this insecurity. The greatest function of government is to secure lives and properties,” he says.

How will candidates adapt?

A core test for APC as 2023 elections approach will be the ability to regain the trust of the Buhari bandwagon. It will be the first time in 20 years that a certain Muhammadu Buhari will not be on the voting ballot, and the political cycle will find it difficult to bring forward another charismatic individual that will pull 12 million votes alone.

In the APC ranks, the case is being made for both Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State, a close ally of President Buhari and, APC national leader and two-times governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu.

But the demand from the southern governors under the umbrella of the APC for the presidency to return to one of the 16 states in the south in 2023 is getting the backing of the governors from the core states of Borno, Kaduna, Kano and Katsina, with one of them touted as a possible running mate to a southern presidential candidate from the APC.

Campaign posters of the incumbent Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo have also been plastered across streets in Kano.

For the main opposition, PDP, former governors Peter Obi and Rabi’u Kwankwaso are among the options for the presidency in 2023 with Buhari’s closest opponent in 2019 and former vice president Atiku Abubakar a key candidate.

In northern Nigeria, with the Buhari umbrella no longer available, it will be interesting to observe the shift in political engagement in the region. Tijjani had cast his ballot for the President in every election without question. But come 2023, he is interested in asking questions of how any candidate plans to tackle insecurity in the region.

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