Mass Defections Upend Nigeria as Buhari Seeks Re-Election

(Bloomberg) -- After a series of missteps on economic and security issues, one of the things Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari could pin his re-election hopes on was a feeble opposition. Not anymore.

More than fifty lawmakers and a state governor quit Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress this week, with the vast majority switching allegiances to the People’s Democratic Party. While both parties have struggled with internal divisions, the mass defections are breathing new life into the PDP, which ruled Africa’s most-populous nation from the end of military rule in 1999 until former President Goodluck Jonathan was ousted by Buhari in the 2015 election.

The goal now for the PDP, which gained a majority in the senate just before the end of the summer session, is to unite behind a candidate who’ll take on Buhari, a 75-year-old former military ruler, in elections scheduled for February.

For the APC, which still has control of the lower house, it’s to stop the hemorrhaging of politicians, particularly the powerful state governors, and convince as many defectors as possible to “trace their steps back,” as one senator said after an emergency meeting with Buhari late Wednesday.

Internal Rivalries

“The opposition has significantly strengthened over the past few weeks but at this point it’s still not strong enough,” said Cheta Nwanze, an analyst at Lagos-based SBM Intelligence, a risk advisory firm. “The people who can really move the needle are the governors,” he said. “If the PDP can get three or four incumbent governors then they’ll be in a much better position than they are now.”

Much of the stalemate between the executive and legislature that’s hobbled the government for the past years has been fueled by rivalries between the president and members of his own party, most notably Bukola Saraki, a former governor of Kwara who’s now the senate president, the third most-powerful position in Nigeria.

Saraki has long accused Buhari’s administration of using its anti-graft campaign to target political opponents, including by dragging the senator himself into court to answer charges of hiding assets. The supreme court ended the case in Saraki’s favor. While he hasn’t resigned from the APC, he’s threatened to, saying he won’t be compelled to stay in a party that harasses its members and where “injustice is perpetrated at the highest level.”

Lawmakers have repeatedly delayed voting on key executive policies and appointments. The 9.1 trillion-naira ($25 billion) budget for this year, for example, wasn’t signed into law until June, almost eight months after Buhari submitted it. Senators also delayed hearings on Buhari’s appointees to the committee that sets monetary policy, meaning no decisions on interest rates were taken for months.

Buhari’s solid support base in the country’s northeast and northwest, which make up 40 percent of the vote, remains his “real edge,” said Amaka Anku, head of Eurasia Group’s Africa practice. The two regions respectively gave 78 and 84 percent of their votes to Buhari in the 2015 election, according to a breakdown by the Abuja-based Center for Development and Democracy West Africa.

“It was helping to keep the APC together. There’s nobody like that in the PDP. There’s no obvious candidate who can help unite them,” Anku said.

Oil Rebound

Political infighting is one reason Nigeria is struggling to recover from the collapse in crude prices, which triggered the first economic contraction for Africa’s largest oil supplier in a quarter century in 2016. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting growth of 2.1 percent this year.

Still, a recovery in oil prices has swollen the nation’s foreign-currency reserves to more than $40 billion, while tax revenue jumped 42 percent during the first half of this year, allowing Buhari to make good on pledges to boost spending on roads, ports, power and bridges to almost a third of total outlays. The leader can also take credit for backing unorthodox measures the central bank took to try and stabilize the naira after the oil rout.

“Nigeria remains an oil dependent economy and regardless of who wins the election they will need to ensure that oil continues to flow unencumbered,” Malte Liewerscheidt, vice president of Teneo Intelligence, said by phone from London, referring to the decades-old conflict with armed militants in the Niger River delta. “That means leaving in place the current policy of paying off those who would blow up the pipelines.”

Security Issues

Buhari came to power vowing to fight corruption, fix the economy and improve security, particularly in the northeast, where the jihadist group Boko Haram was killing people by the thousands. The Nigerian camps of Boko Haram, now known as the Islamic State in West Africa, have been largely eradicated, but sporadic violence continues to flare.

More pressing for the president is another series of deadly clashes -- between crop farmers and cattle herders who’ve moved south in search of water and pasture -- that he’s been criticized for failing to contain.

The International Crisis Group estimated Thursday that more than 1,300 people were killed in the land battles between January and June, six times more than the number of deaths attributed to the Islamic State of West Africa in the period. The fighting poses a major threat to Nigeria’s stability and clouds Buhari’s re-election prospects, according to the research and advisory group.

“Buhari’s administration has neglected the farmer-herdsmen clashes,” Teneo’s Liewerscheidt said. “We expect that there will be more emphasis on trying to resolve the problem if the opposition wins the elections, but even then, they might not do so much because Nigeria’s police and military are already over-stretched dealing with various crises.”

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