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With less than a year to go until national elections in February 2023, the political temperature in Nigeria is rising as power brokers in the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) step out of the shadows and into the limelight.

For investors keenly watching developments in Africa’s largest economy, the primary concern is about who will win the election and what their policy trajectory will be. After the inertia and disappointment of the Buhari era, there is a mounting sense that the country is ripe for change and that its economic stewardship requires a radical overhaul.

In this context, Bola Tinubu has emerged as the early frontrunner in the race for the APC [party] nomination. Though hardly a new face, Tinubu has historically been known for his role as the kingmaker or godfather of Nigerian politics. Now he is said to have declared his intention to run for the top job — a position he has long coveted.

His candidacy has raised alarm in some quarters and excitement in others. Tinubu is a polarising figure, lauded for his role as governor of Lagos state, but tainted by allegations of corruption and financial impropriety. So, can the longtime kingmaker now become king?

Tinubu’s candidacy is complicated. Victory is far from a sure thing. Concern about his physical and fiscal health lingers, while a slew of influential governors opposing his candidacy will probably provide significant obstacles in the APC. Critics argue that a Tinubu victory would in effect be an extension of the Buhari tenure, especially given his age. Then there are the complexities of ethnic and religious factors.

After two terms by Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim, the expectation is that the presidency needs to now be held by a Christian candidate. While Tinubu is a southerner, he is also Muslim, which is likely to present another minefield to navigate, particularly if the APC opts for a Muslim-Muslim ticket (Nigerian parties tend to pick a presidential nominee and a running mate from opposite ends of the geographic and religious spectrum).

Then there are the cynics who suggest this is merely a Machiavellian power play aimed at expanding his kingmaker status even further before backing a preferred candidate. But Tinubu is not the only candidate to watch heading into the party primaries. Others include the vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, who is favoured by the business and investor community and seen as a reformer. However, critics argue that he lacks the political base, within the governing party or outside of it, to be successful.

One wild card is former president Goodluck Jonathan, previously of the PDP, who is viewed as a useful ally for the northern APC political elite given that he would be a one-term president (since he has already completed one full presidential term between 2011 and 2015). This would set the stage for a transfer of power back to the north after four, rather than eight years — at least according to their calculus. However, this remains highly speculative as Jonathan has not explicitly declared a political allegiance.

Other possible names include former and current APC governors such as Rotimi Amaechi and Kayode Fayemi. There has even been talk of the current central bank governor, Godwin Emefiele, contesting, but this suggestion is somewhat mischievous as his candidacy is unlikely for two reasons: he would need to relinquish his current duties at central bank governor (highly unlikely) and he lacks a strong political base to mount any significant presidential bid without the backing of Nigeria’s political elite.

If Tinubu contests in this crowded APC field, there will be room for a new set of kingmakers to influence the dynamic of the race. The first of these is Emefiele, who has been a controversial figure in recent years given the central bank’s unorthodox and often confusing approach to monetary policy. Though notionally independent, given the influence of the apex bank, managing the Nigerian economy control of the purse strings will play a key role in the election campaign.

Next is the 2022 committee — a collection of eminent and powerful private sector and civil society figures, including the likes of Africa’s wealthiest man, Aliko Dangote. Who this grouping decides to back could be a key determinant of the electoral outcome. Finally, and probably most importantly, there is Buhari himself, who has thus far been cautious to back a candidate publicly, but whose gravitas in the APC remains significant.

Whoever becomes “king” will inherit somewhat of a poisoned chalice. The recent oil price spike notwithstanding, Nigeria’s economy has been sleepwalking for the better part of a decade. The new president will have an uphill task to revitalise the economy amid a host of critical challenges. Economically, these include questions of how to manage costly fuel subsidies and how to approach foreign exchange liberalisation.

Reviving stagnant oil production amid the threat of vandalism is another. The new administration will also need to move away from distortionary policies and arbitrary interventions that have soured investor sentiment. Investors are eagerly waiting on the sidelines, hoping to see credible signs of reform.

Security wise, the challenges are multipronged. In the northeast, the Boko Haram and rival Islamic State-aligned Iswap movements continue to vie for pre-eminence as the dominant insurgent group, with the mutual aim of establishing an Islamic province.  Meanwhile, bandit groups — which may be collaborating with Islamist extremists — are expanding across Nigeria’s northwest and north-central state, while in the south, secessionist impulses remain a growing concern. 

As the country looks ahead to a season of tightly contested intraparty and electoral politics, the stakes have never been so high. Nigerians will go to the polls in February in what will be the country’s most consequential election since the advent of democracy in 1999. Whether the new leadership is kingmaker or king, the task will require a regal effort.

• Gopaldas is director at Signal Risk.

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