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The battle to lead Nigeria

With Nigeria’s presidential election just two days away, two political heavyweights are competing to lead the African giant through a critical four years.

Supporters of the opposition People's Democratic Party in the town of Jimeta. Photo: Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images

Why it matters: The winner will govern a country with massive unfulfilled economic potential and worsening humanitarian and security crises. There are fears a bruising and close-fought election could give way to violence and instability.

  • Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy but the government is almost entirely reliant on oil revenues. The country is ranked among the most difficult in the world in which to do business, due in large part to corruption and insecurity.
  • “Nigeria has a laundry list of challenges, and it’s hard to see any positive inroads on any of them,” says Matthew Page of Chatham House, a U.K. think tank. He says the question is: “Can they take them on or will they just twiddle their thumbs as Nigeria barrels toward this moment of catharsis?”

Incumbent Muhammadu Buhari made history in 2015 — three decades after he was toppled as a military strongman — by becoming the first opposition candidate to defeat a sitting president.

  • Buhari’s appeal rests on his incorruptibility, but institutionalized corruption remains unscathed after four years, according to Transparency International. He is accused of wielding his anti-corruption drive to hammer his political rivals while taking a far softer approach with allies.
  • It has been a grueling four years. Buhari has faced health struggles, economic headwinds and a relentless Boko Haram insurgency.

Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president, represents the People’s Democratic Party, which ruled Nigeria for 16 years until Buhari’s election. This is his fourth run for the top job.

  • Abubakar, a wealthy businessman, says he’ll open the country up for more investment. He has been dogged by allegations of corruption and “almost symbolizes” Nigeria's infamous system of political patronage, Page says.
  • As Max Siollun puts it in Foreign Policy: “It seems that voters can have a fight against corruption or economic stimulus, but not both.”

Both men are in their 70s. Both are Muslims from Nigeria’s north. Neither is proposing transformative reforms. “This is kind of their last bite at the apple before a younger generation comes in,” Page says.

The big picture: The population has doubled over the past two decades to 200 million and is set to double again by 2050 — at which time Nigeria will have the third-largest population on Earth.

  • Nearly 3 in 4 Nigerians polled told Gallup they struggled to afford food over the past year. They’re evenly divided as to whether things are getting better or worse.
  • Confidence in the fairness of elections is improving but still low, while confidence in the government improved after Buhari’s election but has ticked down more recently.

John Tomaszewski, Africa director for the International Republican Institute, says that beyond who wins, it’s essential that this election keeps Nigeria’s democracy moving forward.

  • What he’s watching for: Voter intimidation from police or security personnel, a lack of transparency from the electoral commission, long lines and confusion at polling places, and “tensions spilling over into possible violence.”

The bottom line: “Nigeria needs to get this right for Nigeria, first of all. That will have reverberating effects all around Africa but also for Europe. This is an important election for the world,” Tomaszewski says.