Nigeria: What is Kaduna Governor Nasir el-Rufai planning for 2023?

By Dele Yusuf
Posted on Thursday, 14 October 2021 14:09, updated on Tuesday, 19 October 2021 10:17

Executive Governor of Kaduna State Nasir El-Rufai speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kaduna, Nigeria
Executive Governor of Kaduna State Nasir El-Rufai in Kaduna, Nigeria November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna state in northwest Nigeria is one of the country’s most prominent politicians. He is a regular face in newspapers, usually with controversial comments on the core issues. This time, he is said to be determined to defend the interest of northern Nigeria, especially in relation to the 2023 presidential poll. But his close contacts tell The Africa Report that the governor has his undivided attention on Kaduna state, with no plans yet for the election... and that is he is a more national-minded politician than he is given credit for.

Preparations for Nigeria’s general elections in 2023 continue in Kaduna, where the state governor Nasir el-Rufai recently hosted colleagues from the 19 northern states in Nigeria. The meeting, held on September 27, discussed key issues affecting the region, but chief among them was the presidential election.

Days after the meeting, el-Rufai defended the northern leaders’ position in their condemnation of a statement – about the 2023 presidency – issued by governors from southern Nigeria. The southern leaders had said the presidency “must” be rotational and zoned to the region in 2023 when the 8-year tenure of President Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner, elapses.

In the message to southern governors, el-Rufai said: “We are not saying there cannot be rotational presidency, it can be done, but you have to come and sit with the politicians in the north and dialogue and then we agree to give our support to the south. But no one has the right to sit in Lagos or Port Harcourt and say whether northerners want it or not, [or that] they must relinquish power to the south. That is wrong! It is not how we do politics, and in fact, it is foolish.”

He is a Nigerian patriot running the most diverse state cabinet in the history of this country … (and) nobody has been as forthright as he has been in talking about national problems.”

El-Rufai’s comments have triggered a controversy and reopened the debate about Nigeria’s deep regional divisions and how the north, with their demographic advantage can call the shots during elections. Some also see it as yet another sign that he is the defender of the north’s interests.

However, the governor is not just after the interest of the north, according to two contacts close to him, who argue that his influence only revolves around his power as Kaduna governor.

“Kaduna is the capital of the northern region and is the venue for meetings of governors of the north,” one of the governor’s close aides tells The Africa Report. “The first elected official from the northern part of Nigeria to openly say that the power shift in 2023 should go to the south is Mallam Nasir el-Rufai.”

Beyond northern Nigeria but with a ‘focus on Kaduna’

The Kaduna governor started out in the corridors of power as the director-general of the Bureau of Public Enterprises in Nigeria’s capital. He later became minister of the federal capital territory from 2003 to 2007 under the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

In December 2019, Obasanjo famously said el-Rufai had recreated a “mini Nigeria” within the state executive council, citing the diverse origins of the cabinet members. Not much has changed since then – some of his closest aides even come from the southern part of the country.

“He is a Nigerian patriot running the most diverse state cabinet in the history of this country … (and) nobody has been as forthright as he has been in talking about national problems,” one of el-Rufai’s top aides says. That notwithstanding, he is “focused on being governor of Kaduna,” the source says.

The source also claims that after leading the All Progressives Congress (APC) panel charged with recommending how Nigeria can be restructured, el-Rufai has been “the most ardent advocate of the recommendations of that committee.”

With Kaduna connecting many states in Nigeria’s north, it remains a key factor in the economic and political issues affecting the region. el-Rufai is among the northern governors who have imposed sweeping security measures, including a phone blackout in parts of their state, amid rising security challenges. He is also one of the few northern leaders who have consistently criticised southern governors over the series of bans on open grazing in their states.

Only recently, the Kaduna governor warned that although the seven states in northwest Nigeria have the largest population compared to any other region in the country, these numbers could end up being a curse.

“When you disaggregate the national data into zones and regions, it’s clear that most of southern Nigeria [has] statistics that are leading income in the country, while most of the north-west have human development indices that are closer to those of Afghanistan. Our region is in crisis,” he told a forum in Abuja on September 22.

Another close contact of the governor says although “people might not like the man’, “it is a fact” that all his attention is on the state and nowhere else.

“I do not believe that he (the governor) is assuming more prominence and the governors are lining up behind him. I can assure you that that is not the case, and it is strange when people call him tribalistic while his cabinet is filled with Yoruba and Igbo people,” the source says.

What is the el-Rufai plan for 2023?

In July, the Kaduna governor had said he is not interested in running for president in 2023 because, in addition to being a stressful task for a 62-year-old like him, he believes the next president should be a southerner, since Buhari, a northerner, will have completed his term in office.

“Look at my grey hair. If you see my picture when I was sworn in, my hair was very black but look at how it has become. This is a very difficult job and that is just state governor — one state out of 36,” he said.

However, with a support group in northern Nigeria still in court seeking an order compelling the governor to run for president in 2023, his body language and utterances show [that] he could still take a shot at it or at least become a vice-presidential candidate, says Idris Shehu, a Kano-based analyst.

Shehu describes el-Rufai as a “very popular politician here (in the north) and one of those that people can rally around him to defend their interests.”

However, the two close contacts of the governor who spoke to The Africa Report say the governor has not shown any interest yet in the next elections. “There is no plan for 2023, we don’t do that,” one of them says, insisting that el-Rufai “means it when he says power should be zoned to the south […].”

He says: “He (el-Rufai) is focused on being governor of Kaduna and serving the people till the end of his tenure in 2023 and ensuring that his party APC becomes a stronger one and retains power in 2023. He has made his position clear, but don’t forget that others have made him a potential presidential candidate since 2007.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options