Mr. Clean vs. Mr. Action: How Nigeria’s Top Contenders Square Up

(Bloomberg) -- Two main contenders have emerged as Africa’s top oil producer heads to presidential elections: incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, who is widely perceived as clean but inefficient, and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, an entrepreneur who’s long been accused of corruption.

As Nigeria, a nation of 200 million people, prepares for a close election in February, the two septuagenarians are laying out the policies they hope will lead them to victory. They may both be northern Muslims and stalwarts of the political establishment, but their careers and ideas for how to take Nigeria forward differ.

Mr. Clean vs. Mr. Action: How Nigeria’s Top Contenders Square Up

Buhari, 75, who led the OPEC member as a military dictator in the 1980s before returning to power as a civilian ruler in 2015, has promised to curb graft and invest in infrastructure if he wins another four-year term. He has a reputation for honesty in what ranks as one of the world’s most corrupt countries. His opponents say he’s aloof and that his administration’s statist policies have sent foreign investors fleeing.

Abubakar, 71, the flag-bearer of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party, has business interests ranging from oil services to beverages and a private university. He says that his experience in the private sector puts him in a better position to revive an economy still struggling from the 2014 crash in oil prices. Critics have long accused him of using positions in government to enrich himself, which he denies.

It’s a contest “between ‘Mr. Clean’ and ‘Mr. Action’,” said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah and Harrison Declan, analysts at Toronto-based DaMina Advisors. “While Buhari’s campaign highlights his reformist non-corrupt persona against charges of economic mismanagement and incompetence, Abubakar’s is built around his business savvy, competence and elite support, albeit with a tinge of corruption.”

Mr. Clean vs. Mr. Action: How Nigeria’s Top Contenders Square Up

Here’s how they would contrast as leaders:

Governance Style:

Abubakar, commonly known as Atiku, may be less controlling than Buhari. The president, a former general, has been faulted for not trusting his ministers enough to enact reforms and giving too much power to a clique of fellow northerners, such as Chief of Staff Abba Kyari.

“Buhari, given his military background, has been inclined to run a sort of centralized command system,” Paul Collier, a professor at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, said in an interview. He should have concentrated on security issues and “left others with more economic expertise to take the major economic decisions.”

The Economy:

Buhari’s approach probably won’t change much, according to Michael Famoroti, an analyst in Lagos at Vetiva Capital Management Ltd. That would mean more large budgets, high borrowing, subsidized gasoline and greater spending on social welfare.

Abubakar, who spearheaded Nigeria’s privatization efforts as deputy leader between 1999 and 2007, claims he’ll be more market-friendly. He criticized the central bank and government’s handling of a multi-billion-dollar dispute with MTN Group Ltd., which saw the South African company’s shares plummet. But he might struggle to push through reforms such as raising fuel prices or selling inefficient state companies, given the inevitable political backlash, Famoroti said.

Mr. Clean vs. Mr. Action: How Nigeria’s Top Contenders Square Up

The Naira and the Central Bank:

The two candidates differ sharply on how to handle Nigeria’s currency. Buhari favors tightly controlling the naira and supports central bank Governor Godwin Emefiele’s system of multiple exchange rates. The International Monetary Fund and many foreign investors want it scrapped. So does Abubakar, who said in an interview last month that he’d deregulate the foreign-exchange market, even if he wouldn’t necessarily go as far as floating the naira. Abubakar would “almost certainly” replace Emefiele, whose first term ends in June, said John Ashbourne of London-based Capital Economics Ltd.

Oil Sector:

While Buhari made himself oil minister and promised big changes, he’s largely kept the structure of the energy industry and state-owned behemoth Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. unchanged. He also spent $1.3 billion on subsidies in the first six months of this year to keep pump prices down, according to Renaissance Capital. That would change under an Abubakar presidency, said Abiodun Keripe, head of research at Elixir Investment Partners in Lagos. He’s likely to appoint a full minister to oversee oil and gas and may carry out a “total restructuring and part-privatization of NNPC” that would include splitting its operating and regulatory functions, Keripe said.

Security:

Although Boko Haram militants have intensified their attacks in recent months, Buhari is widely perceived to have weakened the Islamist group, whose violent campaign since 2009 has left tens of thousands of people dead, and contained it to the northeastern state of Borno.

A bigger liability during the elections may be the president’s slow response to clashes between farmers and herdsmen, which killed around 1,300 people in the first six months of 2018, according to the International Crisis Group. That could lose him votes in central states, which have borne the brunt of the conflict, even if Abubakar hasn’t proposed any firm solutions, said Jared Jeffery, an analyst at Paarl, South Africa-based NKC African Economics.

Corruption:

Buhari swept to power in large part due to his fervent anti-corruption stance, which continues to appeal to Nigeria’s masses, though opponents say he uses it to settle political scores. Abubakar said in the interview that he would shift the focus from “punitive” to “preventative” measures, including moving more government services online so that civil servants find it harder to ask for bribes.

Analysts say the corruption allegations against Abubakar will be a major obstacle in his electoral campaign. Though he’s never been charged with or found guilty of corrupt practices, a U.S. Senate report in 2010 said that he and one of his wives wired $40 million of “suspect funds” to the country and that his dealings “raise a host of questions about the nature and source” of his wealth. But voters might still back him if they think he’s more likely than Buhari to boost the economy and create jobs.

“The public probably has a greater awareness of Atiku’s skeletons and the ‘grey areas’ he has waded in in the past, but consider him to be trustworthy enough and crucially, more competent,” said Famoroti of Vetiva.