Nigerian President Suffers Senate Blow as He Prepares for Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Nigeria’s ruling party lost its majority in the Senate after more than a dozen lawmakers defected to the main opposition group, dealing a blow to President Muhammadu Buhari before he seeks re-election in seven months.

A group of 15 senators quit the All Progressives Congress to join the People’s Democratic Party, Senate President Bukola Saraki said Tuesday in the capital, Abuja. The Senate later said on Twitter that two of the defectors were joining a different opposition party.

“It’s significant,” APC spokesman Bolaji Abdullahi said by phone. “What happened is not something that we just allowed to happen. We’d been having deliberations with our members up until last night to stave off this particular situation,” he said Tuesday.

Buhari, a 75-year-old former military ruler, will seek a second four-year term as leader of Africa’s biggest oil producer at elections due in February. He is contending with the unraveling of the coalition that formed the APC and brought him to power by defeating an incumbent in 2015 for the first time since independence.

The president urged his supporters “to see the defections as a seasonal occurrence” when elections are approaching, adding that it would have no impact on the ruling party, his spokesman Garba Shehu said in an emailed statement.

Incumbent Advantage

While APC spokesman Abdullahi conceded the majority loss, a senator from the ruling party, Ahmed Lawan, insisted that it still had the biggest number of seats after the defections, according to an emailed statement.

“It’s a blow to the APC,” Jared Jeffrey, an analyst at NKC African Economics near Cape Town, South Africa, said by phone. “Buhari still has the advantage of being the incumbent, but it’s getting more and more difficult and competitive for him.”

About 37 APC members of Nigeria’s lower chamber, the House of Representatives, also defected Tuesday, with 32 joining the PDP, majority leader Femi Gbajabiamila told reporters. The ruling party retained the majority, he said.

Tuesday’s defections came weeks after an APC faction, made up of former PDP members who joined the ruling party in 2015 -- including Saraki and the speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara -- announced they would join a broad opposition coalition led by the PDP, which held power for 16 years until its 2015 defeat,

Neither Saraki nor Dogara have publicly confirmed leaving the APC. Relations between Nigeria’s legislature and executive have been strained, with Saraki and Dogara often going against the party line.

Witch Hunt

On Tuesday morning, security operatives surrounded the houses of Saraki and his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu, in Abuja, their spokesmen said.

Saraki said in a statement earlier that he was asked to appear at a police station in Abuja for questioning over his alleged link to an armed robbery in his home state of Kwara. He said the police had turned the investigation into a witch hunt against people seen as government opponents.

He accused the police of acting in concert with the government to detain him as a way to prevent some lawmakers from defecting from the APC.

“This plot is aimed at compelling me and my associates to stay in a party where members are criminalized without just cause, where injustice is perpetrated at the highest level and where there is no respect for constitutionalism,” Saraki said.

Playing Games

The police denied deploying operatives outside Saraki’s residence, saying the policemen seen at the site were those attached to the Senate president. Police spokesman Jimoh Moshood confirmed in a statement that Saraki had been invited to report to a station in conjunction with the robbery investigation.

According to Jeffrey at NKC African Economics, Saraki is likely to leave the APC and seek the leadership of the opposition coalition.

“The Senate president is playing the game and he is playing it quite well,” Olusegun Sotola, research fellow at the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis, said by phone from Lagos. “For 15 senators to defect, there must have been discussions and discussions.”

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