As campaigns in Nigeria intensify ahead of the highly anticipated presidential election in February, frontrunners Atiku Abubakar and Bola Tinubu have shifted focus and resources to the north in search of support and votes in a region still battling poverty and insecurity. The prize? The critical 12 million vote bloc controlled by outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari which many believe will decide the election.
Northern Nigeria is not your typical vacation spot or business destination if you’re visiting Africa’s largest economy but for its political relevance, it is worth every national political interest.
The region for years has witnessed an unprecedented rise in insecurity and poverty. The activities of Islamist insurgents and bandits who last year alone killed over 2,500 people and abducted thousands more, including schoolchildren, have worsened the situation.
Earlier in the year, Kaduna State – northern Nigeria’s political capital – was cut off completely as rail services were suspended following an attack where 62 passengers were abducted and eight others killed.
The airport was shut after it came under an attack by bandits while the main expressway linking the nation’s capital to Kaduna was taken over by gunmen, making road transport nearly impossible.
But with elections fast approaching, the north has now transformed into the most attractive bride in the country as politicians chase after the Holy Grail – power.
Atiku’s Freudian slip?
Atiku Abubakar, the candidate of the main opposition, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has perhaps been most “open” with his lobbying game among the candidates.
At least, his Freudian slip at the recently held interactive session with northern political leaders under the Arewa Joint Committee at Arewa House, Kaduna, has brought this to the fore.
In trying to appeal to northern leaders, Atiku said: “What the average northerner needs is somebody who’s from the north and also understands that part of the country and has been able to build bridges across the country. This is what the northerner needs, it doesn’t need a Yoruba or Igbo candidate, I stand before you as a pan-Nigerian of northern origin.”
The comment was viewed to be against Atiku’s political mantra in the current election period, which has been that he is the “unifier.”
‘Only yours can be for you’
As such it generated several controversies with even event organisers having to disassociate themselves from the comment. His party member and now political foe, Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike, called on Atiku to apologise for the “gaffe”.
But for those familiar with Atiku’s political strategy, the Kaduna statement was not an off-the-cuff one. In 2011, when he ran against former President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern candidate, his slogan was “Naka sai naka”, a Hausa saying that loosely translates as “Only yours can be for you”.
“What he did in Kaduna is not something that is entirely new. When he goes out of the north, he will play a different card. This (Kaduna statement) may be a push to get the northern electorates to see him as one of their own and to vote along regional sentiments. Politicians have been known to do that,” Dr Kabiru Sufi, a public affairs analyst and lecturer of politics and international relations in Kano, tells The Africa Report.
Atiku, though from the northeast, does not have widespread acceptance in the north. He is perceived to be “too liberal” and as such must do more to convince the mostly-conservative region.
Obi visits Gumi
Peter Obi of the Labour Party also visited Kaduna State where he presented his plans before northern elders. But the bigger news that shocked even his supporters was his visit to the controversial cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, who had become a negotiator for terrorists and bandits.
Obi, a staunch Roman Catholic, not only visited Gumi but posted the photographs on social media, a move which many of his supporters say was done to appeal to northern voters.
Kenneth Okonkwo, a spokesman for Obi’s campaign, defended the visit to Gumi, saying, “Politics is about carrying everyone along. Everyone is needed for a new Nigeria to be possible…Obi has come for every Nigerian whether you are a saint or sinner, whether you’re rich or poor. He has the intention of uniting all Nigerians.”
Tinubu focuses on Kano
For the candidate of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC), Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the lobbying game for the heart and soul of the north predated his emergence as flag bearer.
Since December 2020 when he graced the wedding of the daughter of a popular Islamic cleric, Sheikh Muhammad Bin-Uthman in Kano state, and met top Islamic clerics, political analysts have continuously seen this as a step towards warming his way into the heart of northerners.
With several other visits since then, his decision to host his 2021 annual colloquium in Kano, a departure from the norm of hosting it in Lagos or Abuja, more than buttressed analysts’ observations.
This special interest in Kano, with its over six million registered voters, as well as Tinubu’s “investments” in most, if not all the governments of the northwest states, played a significant role in his emergence as the party flag bearer.
As such, it was not surprising when Tinubu’s first outing after the inauguration of his campaign council on 21 October was to Kano state for sessions with religious, traditional and political groups. He also donated N100m ($232, 558) to victims of the flood in Kano during his three-day visit.
His decision to break with tradition by picking a fellow Muslim as his running mate was also done to boost his appeal in the north.
The north with its 19 states naturally constitutes the majority. It also boasts of having the highest voting population with 49.57 million of the total 96.2 million voters.
But Dr. Sufi says aside from the statistics showing the north has the highest voting population, the attention the region always gets during the election period could also be because the region also has a high voter turnout.
According to Dataphyte, a media research and data analytics organisation, voter turnout for the 2019 election stood at 35.66% (28.6 million of the total 84 million registered voters). Of the top 10 states with the highest turnout, nine are from the north.
Also up for grabs in this election is the vote bank belonging to the outgoing president, Muhammadu Buhari. This is said to be in the region of 12 million, albeit the figure is believed to have dwindled as evidenced in the 2019 election.
Another factor is Rabiu Kwankwaso, who is also from Kano and enjoys a large following there. Although he lacks a nationwide appeal, he is hoping to inherit Buhari’s bloc votes in the northwest.
Observers have noted that since Buhari is no longer on the ballot, for the first time since 2003, there may be so many undecided voters from the north available for everyone that can convince them.
“People think that Buhari’s goodwill in the north has reduced drastically since 2019; but that notwithstanding, if he and the northern APC governors can throw their weight behind their candidate, he is likely going to take home the traditional Buhari votes,” says Dr Sufi.
But Professor Kamilu Sani Fage, a former Vice President of the Nigerian Political Science Association (NPSA) believes it is also because Buhari may not have the “clout” he used to enjoy in the north that has given room for all the candidates hoping to have a bite.
“PDP will have a problem in the southeast that used to be its stronghold because of Peter Obi and also in South-South because of this rift with Governor Wike; that is why Atiku is now focusing on the north.
“One thing that will work against the APC is that it is in power and people are not generally happy with its performance. For the Buhari votes, many people are disenchanted with him and the party in general; so it may not be a bloc vote as it used to be. It will be a major political gamble to think because Kwankwaso will chip into PDP’s votes in the north, the APC will have a smooth sail. They have to work for it,” he tells The Africa Report