Nigeria’s modern democracy can only be traced to 1999, when former junta leader Olusegun Obasanjo was elected to office following decades of coups.
But since then, the country has formed a habit of keeping retired heads of state busy in politics campaigning for their preferred successors.
In 2007, retiring Nigerian president Obasanjo made a famous call live on television at a campaign rally.
"Umaru, are you dead?" he posed jokingly in Southeast Nigeria, speaking by phone with then ailing presidential candidate, late Umar Yar’Adua.
Yar’Adua, who later died in office, had been rumoured to have died overseas ahead of Nigeria’s 2007presidential election. But his party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which was the ruling party, had an election to win and keep its hands on the seat of power.
Bedridden, Yar’Adua said, “No, I am not dead.” Obasanjo then turned to his supporters saying, “You have heard him, he says he is not dead.”
There had been no opportunity for Nigerian sitting president to canvass for votes for a successor because of prolonged military rule until 2007 when the opportunity presented itself from which they took advantage.
Retiring Nigerian presidents often hint they would prefer someone who won’t undercut their legacies.
Obasanjo also campaigned for Dr Goodluck Jonathan of the same PDP in 2011 when he sought to get the peoples’ mandate after completing the tenure of Yar’Adua who had died in office on May 5, 2010.
While offering his support, Obasanjo said Jonathan should be commended for agreeing to do one term if elected, to assuage the bitterness of the those who prefer prearranged democracy between Southern and Northern Nigeria tribes.
Turned back on Jonathan
He said the emergence of Jonathan as the PDP presidential candidate should not have been seen as a violation of the zoning and federal character principle of the party. However, Obasanjo went against the same Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election and instead supported President Muhammadu Buhari.
Before the 2015 election, Obasanjo left the former ruling party PDP to support the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Buhari to end PDP’s 16-year reign in power.
“I know Buhari, and he knows me too. Till the day I die, Buhari will continue to address me as ‘sir.’ In 2015, if I didn’t support Buhari, he wouldn’t have won the election,” Obasanjo said.
However, in the 2019 presidential election, Obasanjo dumped Buhari and declared his support for his former vice president Atiku Abubakar.
Obasanjo said Abubakar he was the best candidate to win the 2019 presidential election. But he was defeated by Buhari.
Currently, Obasanjo is supporting Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of Labour Party, while Buhari is backing Bola Ahmed Tinubu to be his successor.
Buhari is the chairman of the Presidential Campaign Council of the ruling APC and he has been visible in some of the campaign rallies.
From Addis Ababa Ethiopia, where he went to attend the AU summit, Buhari recorded a video appealing to Nigerians to vote for APC.
Grand finale rally
On his return from Ethiopia, Buhari on February 21, 2023 led other leaders of APC, including the presidential candidate Tinubu, to Lagos for the grand finale of the party’s presidential campaigns.
Buhari endorsed Tinubu and his running mate, Kashim Shettima, and said, ‘‘I congratulate and assure you that, God willing, we are going to win through and through.’’
“As Tinubu said in his speech, I have known him for more than 20 years and I will continue to campaign for Bola Ahmed Tinubu. He is a committed Nigerian and I believe he will give all his best to Nigeria,” Buhari said.
As the Nigerian presidential election to be held on February 25 nears, the major candidates are still doing campaign trails.
Some political pundits see the support of Buhari for Tinubu as automatic inheritance of 12 million voters.
Salihu Abba, APC member, said that Buhari had a large following with or without election, who are ready to vote for anybody he supports.
The present election is not a two-party affair as it had always been since 1999.
“There are 18 political parties with 18 candidates out of which four are frontrunners and outstanding,” Sufyan Kabir, a Nigerian politician explained.
He said that each candidate has to work to earn his votes.
The frontrunners are 70-year-old Bola Tinubu of the ruling APC, 75-year-old Abubakar Atiku of PDP, 62-year-old Peter Obi of Labour Party and 65-year-old Rabiu Kwankwaso of New Nigerian People’s Party (NNPP).
There are issues likely to determine the outcome of the 2023 Nigeria presidential election.
Cash swap crisis
A cash swap crisis caused by a shoddy implementation by the government and biting fuel shortages are issues likely to complicate the vote.
Nigerians are also bogged by insecurity caused by extremists in the north and southeast.
Despite a pact among the Nigerian presidential candidates to avoid hate speech, their supporters often resort to divisive rhetoric. Ayo Obe, a human rights activist, and Nnamdi Obasi, Crisis Group’s Senior Nigeria Advisor, have noted this as a factor in the forthcoming elections.
Also in focus is the infighting in the major political parties, especially the APC and PDP.
Some governors of APC have gone to the Nigerian Supreme Court to challenge the implementation of the Naira currency swap which they considered harmful to their parties before the elections.
They see Buhari as being misled by Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor Godwin Emefiele, whom they consider a mole of the opposition PDP.
Mr Obasi Anslem, a Nigerian financial expert, said that the tension created by the cash squeeze policy and petroleum scarcity is a big dent on the ruling party APC.
Although President Buhari’s appearances at campaign rallies seem to be pacifying, APC party henchmen are suspicious of a fifth columnist agenda designed to sway votes in favour of opposition party PDP where a northerner is a candidate.
Professor Alhasan Bukar, a consultant, said all these social disequilibria would work against the APC and its candidate.
“Nigerians are suffering; they have no cash to do business or transact little things. Even traders have started folding up. Would you expect the people to be happy with the government and its party?” he asked.
Attacks and killings
The attacks and killings going on in the Southeast Nigeria by secessionists is another factor.
"Although the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has assured us of hitch-free election, the recent carnage in East Nigeria is enough to scare voters,” said Mr Kelechi Obioma.
Time will tell if President Buhari’s support for Tinubu will be fruitful.