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In 2003, Buhari ran for the presidency representing the now defunct All Nigerian Peoples Party. He ran against then president Olusegun Obasanjo, who was running for a second term. About 18 others – including Gani Fawehinm, a civil rights activist, and Emeka Ojukwu, the leader of the defunct Republic of Biafra – were also on the ballot.
Although Buhari would eventually lose that election by polling about 32% of the total votes cast, the 12.7 million votes he amassed in the Muslim areas of the north were impressive for a new entrant in partisan politics. Buhari won elections in the 11 states that had, two years prior, adopted sharia law. These states include: Kebbi, Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna, Kano, Jigawa, Bauchi, Gombe, Borno and Yobe.
In 2007, Nigeria conducted one of its most controversial elections. International observers described it as a sham and the eventual winner, Umaru Yar’Adua of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), even criticised it. On the day of his inauguration, he vowed to introduce electoral reforms.
Despite the unprecedented rigging in this election, Buhari still came second. This time around, his northern vote count was reduced drastically as he contested against Yar’Adua, a Muslim Fulani from the same state –Katsina – as Buhari.
In 2011, Buhari ran for president on the platform of the now defunct Congress for Progressive Change, a party he created just a year before the poll. Despite the party being largely unknown, Buhari garnered 12.2 million votes, winning all 11 states in the Muslim north to cement his position as the region’s most popular politician. He was, however, defeated by the PDP’s Goodluck Jonathan.
He became an advocate for sharia at a time no northern leader of his stature and status was willing to stick out their neck for it
This defeat was not taken lightly as it led to riots and killings in Buhari’s strongholds. Leveraging on Buhari’s northern popularity and 12-million-vote bank, notable southern politicians led by Lagos godfather, Bola Tinubu, met with him in 2013 in order to form a mega party – the All Progressives Congress (APC). This culminated in Buhari’s eventual victory in 2015 where he polled 15.4 million votes to defeat Jonathan.
In the 2015 election, more than 61% of Buhari’s votes came from these key 11 Muslim northern states, where he polled 9.3 million votes. Due to the merger, he was, for the first time, able to win two Christian dominated states in the north, such as Plateau and Benue, along with five in the southwest, thereby giving him victory.
Similarly, in the 2019 election, Buhari defeated fellow northern Muslim Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, winning all 11 states in the Muslim north, albeit by a smaller margin this time around. The 8.5 million votes that these states contributed to Buhari’s win represented about 56% of the votes he got.
Why is Buhari popular?
Social commentator and author Farooq Kperogi, who is also a professor of journalism and emerging media at Kennesaw State University, Georgia, tells The Africa Report that Buhari’s popularity in the Muslim north can be traced to his controversial stance on sharia at the beginning of the fourth republic in the early 2000s. At the time, a few “rebellious” northern states had decided to adopt sharia law, which then president Obasanjo insisted was in contravention of the constitution, which stipulates that Nigeria is a secular state.
Buhari, who was a former military dictator, was one of the few prominent Nigerians to embrace the idea of sharia publicly.
At a seminar organised by the Supreme Council for Sharia in Kaduna State on 27 August 2001, Buhari said: “I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria… Godwilling, we will not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the sharia in the country.”
Buhari’s cult followership in those 11 states has a religious undertone
While this statement cost him support among Christians, it boosted Buhari’s popularity in the Muslim north. Buhari’s support for sharia contributed to his three defeats at the polls.
“He became an advocate for sharia at a time no northern leader of his stature and status was willing to stick out their neck for it, which the masses of the Muslim northerners, and particularly the Muslim clerical establishment, embraced wholeheartedly,” Kperogi says.
Buhari’s northern base
Abimbola Oyarinu, who holds a PhD in social and economic history from the University of Lagos, tells The Africa Report that Buhari’s stance on Islam, as well as his strong pro-north pronouncements, gained him support.
“Buhari’s cult followership in those 11 states has a religious undertone. I cannot pin it to one event but a series of events. It is a historical fact that Buhari supported the sharia movement and he has favoured Nigeria’s northern neighbours like Niger Republic, which he recently sent car gifts to and is working on a $1.9bn railway line that extends into that country,” he says.
In order to attract a larger share of votes in 2015, Buhari decided to work with Yemi Osinbajo, a pastor from one of Nigeria’s biggest churches. Ever since Buhari became president, Christian conservatives have viewed his administration with suspicion.
Buhari’s reputation as an anti-corruption crusader from his days as military dictator in the early 1980s, coupled with his modest lifestyle, also endeared him to many poor northerners who saw him as a departure from their corrupt leaders that had diverted public funds and lived ostentatious lifestyles. They saw Buhari as the hero that could rescue them from the poverty and squalor they had endured for years and nicknamed him ‘Mai Gaskiya‘, meaning the man of truth.
“Buhari was viewed as a messiah because after he was ousted in 1985 and Nigeria adopted the structural adjustment programme of the International Monetary Fund, the economy worsened; so the narrative was that Nigeria would have been better had he been allowed to continue,” Oyarinu says.
33 million votes
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has released the latest voter statistics in the country, showing that approximately 96 million Nigerians are registered to vote in next February’s elections. A breakdown of the statistics showed that these 11 states supporting Christian conservatives have a total of 33 million registered voters, which represents about 35% of the total votes.
Apart from having a large voter base, these states are also known to have a larger voter turnout than many southern ones, hence they have become the target of the major presidential candidates. The presidential candidate of the governing APC, Bola Tinubu, who is a southern Muslim, broke Nigeria’s established political tradition by choosing a fellow Muslim from one of these northern states in order to boost his chances of victory, a move that Christian conservatives have criticised.
With former Borno State governor Kashim Shettima as his running mate, Tinubu is trying to attract the base that has consistently voted for Buhari since 2003.
Atiku vs Tinubu
Tinubu is taking steps to garner support from the Muslim areas of the north. After emerging as the party’s presidential candidate, Tinubu consulted governors from the north.
“We advised him to pick a Muslim deputy. He has agreed,” said Kano State governor Abdullahi Ganduje in July. His media team has also been posting photographs showing him praying in mosques more frequently than before.
Similarly, the main opposition PDP refused to give its presidential ticket to a southerner, in disregard of its tradition of rotating its presidential ticket between the north and the south. Instead, the party chose Atiku Abubakar, a Fulani Muslim northerner, with the hope that he would be able to bring in the much-needed votes.
Also, all key positions in the PDP are occupied by northerners, which insiders say was done in order to boost the party’s chances of victory in the north. However, this development has angered some of the prominent southern members of the party like Rivers State governor Nyesom Wike. Atiku’s decision to delete his tweets condemning blasphemy killings in the north in order not to anger Muslim hardliners in the region also revealed his hand.
Who will pick up Buhari’s base?
Kamilu Fage, a professor of political science at the Bayero University, Kano, tells The Africa Report that Buhari’s popularity in the north is not transferable.
Fage says he believes that notable northern politicians like senator Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigerian Peoples Party and Abubakar of the PDP could share Buhari’s bloc votes in next year’s election.
He says: “I don’t think there is a single individual that can inherit Buhari’s followership. Some politicians may have some votes in the north-west and the north-east, but as for having bloc votes like Buhari, I don’t think there is a single individual that can pull it off.”
At the moment, no one comes anywhere close to Buhari in mystique, popularity and acceptance in the Muslim north
“[…] Kwankwaso and Atiku may get votes there, but they may not be able to replicate the feat of Buhari,” he says.
Professor Kperogi tells The Africa Report that Buhari’s northern popularity cannot be replicated.
“At the moment, no one comes anywhere close to Buhari in mystique, popularity and acceptance in the Muslim north,” he says.
However, Oyarinu argues that Tinubu, who represents Buhari’s party, could inherit a sizeable share of Buhari’s voting bloc.
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