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The Famous Five: Who will lead Africa’s largest democracy?

Nigerians will go to the polls this month for presidential and parliamentary elections. The winner of the presidential election will lead Africa’s most populous country for the next four years – at a time it is grappling with security, economic and infrastructural challenges, among others.

Eighteen candidates are seeking to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari, whose tenure ends in May. Prominent among them are Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar, Peter Obi, and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso. And also in the running is Chichi Ojei, the only woman in the race.

Here’s where the five stand in the run-up to the polls.

Atiku Abubakar, the old warhorse 

Atiku Abubakar, 76, is a veteran Nigerian politician and the presidential flagbearer of the main opposition, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). This is the sixth time Atiku is attempting to clinch Nigeria’s presidency, starting in 1993 when he sought the presidential ticket of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). He lost the last election in 2019 to the incumbent Buhari of the All Progressives Congress.

Abubakar has a Diploma in Law from Ahmadu Bello University’s Institute of Administration and a Master’s Degree in International Relations from Anglia Ruskin University in the UK. He has also been a businessman with a significant share in an oil and gas logistics company for years.

The retired customs officer was elected the governor of his northeastern state of Adamawa in 1998 when Nigeria was returning to democracy following years of military rule. 

But before he was sworn in, he was given the offer to be the running mate of the then-presidential candidate, Olusegun Obasanjo, under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). They won the election and led the country from 1999-2007. 

During Obasanjo’s administration, when Atiku was vice president, Nigeria successfully negotiated a debt relief to the tune of $18 billion from the Paris Club after paying $12 billion of the total debt.

The government also oversaw the liberalisation of the country’s telecommunications sector, leading to more foreign direct investments and employment opportunities. Nigerians began accessing mobile phone services more easily in the early 2000s.

This time, Abubakar is promising to unite the country, devolve more powers to state governments and improve security. He is also promising Nigerians more economic prosperity if elected.

“I am going to set aside $10 billion so that we can empower our young men and women in small and medium enterprises,” Atiku told a campaign rally in Lagos in January. The former vice president said he plans to privatise the country’s state-owned oil refineries as one of the ways to get more money to achieve his economic policies for the country.

Although Atiku was unsuccessful in his previous presidential bids, he believes he will win this time. 

His party, the PDP – which governed Nigeria from 1999 to 2015 – now has 14 of Nigeria’s 36 state governors and a sizeable number of MPs and senators. It has significant support across the country as well.

Bola Tinubu, the ‘City boy’ digging in

Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the ruling APC’s flag bearer, was a two-term governor of Lagos state, the country’s commercial capital. His administration from 1999 to 2007 was praised for growing the state’s internally generated revenues considerably. 

His government had come up with several initiatives for landmark projects, like building the Eko Atlantic City – a land reclamation work to protect Lagos’ Victoria Island against the surge of the Atlantic Ocean. 

His government also established the Lekki Free Trade Zone, which helped boost economic activities, and set up new businesses, including an ongoing oil refinery project by Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote.

Tinubu, 70, has promised Nigerians the kind of economic prosperity he oversaw in Lagos while he was a governor. He has also promised better security in the west African country.

Tinubu graduated from the Chicago State University in the US in 1979 with a degree in Accountancy. After a career as an accountant with companies like Delloite and Mobil Nigeria, Tinubu joined politics in the early 1990s, rising to prominence when he was elected senator for Lagos West in 1992.

Tinubu was among the key figures who formed the current governing APC party in 2014, which later swept to power in 2015 when Muhammadu Buhari defeated then-incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP. 

That was the first time in the history of Nigeria a seating president was defeated in an election. 

Tinubu is fondly called the ‘City Boy’ by some of his supporters because of his role in developing Nigeria’s largest city – Lagos – where he was born.  Some call him the ‘godfather’ of Lagos, given his huge political influence there.

He has promised to consolidate what he described as the successes of President Muhammadu Buhari’s government. His party has 21 out of the country’s 36 state governors and the majority in both the Senate and the lower house of parliament – the House of Representatives.

“If you vote for APC, your headache is gone,” Tinubu told supporters in the northcentral state of Benue. At another campaign rally in Jigawa state, he said if “you vote for me, you vote for progress, you vote for development, you vote for agricultural business, you vote for constant electricity.”

Princess Chichi Ojei, the lone ranger

Princess Chichi Ojei, 44, is the only woman among the 18 candidates contesting for the Nigerian presidency. She is the flag bearer of the Allied Peoples Movements (APM) party.  

Princess Chichi hails from the oil-producing state of Delta in the south of the country. She was educated both within and outside Nigeria. She attended institutions like the American International School of Lagos, Institut Le Rosey, and Northeastern University.

The daughter of billionaire businessman Emmanuel Ojei, her LinkedIn profile shows her as a Corporate Finance Specialist at Nuel Ojei Holdings.

Nigeria has never had a female president. In the past, women like Sarah Jubril and Oluremi Sonaiya had contested the presidency. But they were not able to actualise their dream of leading the country. If Princess Chichi wins, she will make history as the first woman to become the president of Nigeria. 

She hopes to get the required votes, particularly from women and young people who she said have been “marginalised” in running the country’s affairs. 

In an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria, Chichi said: “I will create an enabling environment for economic prosperity, political stability, national cohesion, and socio-religious harmony.” 

Giving her reasons for seeking the presidency, she said, “I am driven by the passion to restore Nigeria to the path of glory.”

Peter Obi and his ‘Obidient’ movement

Another top contender for the Nigerian presidency is Peter Obi of the Labour Party. The 61-year-old is a businessman.

He attended the Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics for some of his management courses after his studies in Nigeria.

Obi, who graduated from the University of Nigeria Nsukka in 1984 with a degree in Philosophy, is promising to take Nigeria from a “consumption” to a “production” economy.

During a campaign rally in the northern city of Kano, he promised to “secure and protect the people of Nigeria”.

“We will ensure that the enemy, the criminals, are not stronger than the government,” Obi told his cheering supporters at the rally.

Obi’s main support base is among the young urban with high visibility on social media. His campaign is known as the ‘Obidient Movement’, a take on his first name and the level of loyalty of his supporters. 

His popularity increased after he defected from the main opposition PDP party last year – just weeks before the party’s presidential primaries, and then announced his candidature from the Labour Party.

Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, leading the Red Cap Movement

Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of the NNPP party is another frontline candidate in this year’s presidential election. Kwankwaso is a former defence minister and a former governor of the country’s most populous state – Kano. He has a PhD in water engineering from Sharda University in India.

As the governor of Kano state, his government was noted for massive infrastructural and educational development, including several major roads, bridges and hospitals. 

His government also built numerous learning institutions, including the Kano State University of Science and Technology and the Northwest University. 

 The Kano state government under Kwankwaso gave postgraduate scholarships to more than 2,600 students – mainly from low-income families – to study in about 14 countries worldwide.

Kwankwaso, a former senator, believes his achievements are good enough to convince Nigerians to vote for him in the presidential election. In addition, some politicians have recently defected from the ruling APC and the main opposition PDP to his party – boosting his campaign.

His political movement, known as Kwankwasiyya, has a massive number of followers in northern Nigeria, many turning up for election rallies in the movement’s symbolic red caps.

While campaigning in the southwestern state of Ogun, Kwankwaso said: “Our blueprint has taken care of all the people of this country, especially the young men and women who are aspiring to go to various schools, who are aspiring to get jobs and so on and so forth.” 

He also restated his commitment to providing educational opportunities to the less privileged, saying, “nobody will be denied education at all levels because of his social status”.

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