Nigerian senate president Bukola Saraki speaks in his office in Abuja, Nigeria, on July 24 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Nigerian senate president Bukola Saraki speaks in his office in Abuja, Nigeria, on July 24 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Abuja/Lagos — Nigeria’s leader Muhammadu Buhari suffered yet another blow as the senate president walked out of the ruling party less than a week after about 50 legislators joined the ranks of a swelling opposition movement ahead of elections in February.

"It is a decision that has been inescapably imposed on me by certain elements and forces within the All Progressives Congress [APC] who have ensured that the minimum conditions for peace, co-operation, inclusion and a general sense of belonging did not exist," Bukola Saraki said Tuesday in a statement.

"I leave all that behind me. Today, I start as I return to the party where I began my political journey, the People’s Democratic Party [PDP]."

The senate president is the third highest-ranked politician, after the president and his deputy, in Nigeria.

Buhari became the first opposition candidate since the end of military rule in 1999 to win power at the ballot box, in 2015.

The APC, formed after several opposition parties merged, managed to unseat the PDP, in power for 16 years. But the ruling party has since struggled to unite its various personalities and bitter internal rivalries have taken a toll.

Saraki is the highest-profile politician to leave the APC ahead of the elections with Buhari, seeking a second term. His decision follows the announcement last week by the legislators that they were joining opposition parties, with a majority going to the PDP.

Weakened party

"The significance of this, for the ruling party, is immense," Clement Nwankwo, executive director at the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, said by phone. "If the head of the legislative arm of government leaves the ruling party for an opposition party, then it certainly has a strong weakening effect."

The governor of western Kwara state, Abdulfatah Ahmed, also defected to the PDP shortly after Saraki’s announcement, according to a message from his Twitter account. Saraki is a former governor of that state.

A presidency spokesman, Garba Shehu, said he could not immediately comment on the developments when reached by phone in Togo’s capital, Lome, where Buhari was attending a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States. He was elected chairman of the bloc, the presidency announced in a press release.

Buhari, a former military ruler, won the presidency on his fourth attempt. The alliance that formed the APC included a faction of the then-ruling PDP that styled itself as the "New PDP" and went on to produce the senate president, Saraki, and the speaker of the house of representatives, Yakubu Dogara. Both men emerged legislative leaders against Buhari’s wish and have often gone against the party line.

Nigerian senate president Bukola Saraki speaks during an interview in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 8 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Nigerian senate president Bukola Saraki speaks during an interview in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 8 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Security challenges

Buhari pledged to fix a declining economy, fight corruption and improve security at a time when the jihadist group Boko Haram had killed thousands of people. While he has managed to improve tax revenue, enabling him to dedicate almost 30% of government spending to roads, rail, ports and power, much of the population remains mired in poverty.

A military offensive helped recover swathes of territory held by Boko Haram, but clashes between crop farmers and nomadic herdsmen have left many dead. The International Crisis Group estimated last week that more than 1,300 people were killed in the land battles between January and June, six times more than the number of deaths attributed to Boko Haram in the same period.

Buhari’s fight against corruption has, according to his supporters, reduced impunity in a country, which former British premier David Cameron called "fantastically corrupt". Critics, including Saraki, say the administration has used the campaign to target political opponents. The senate president was dragged to court on allegations of hiding assets, a case in which the supreme ruled in his favour.

Rivalries between Buhari and members of his own party, most notably Saraki, have been largely responsible for the stalemate between the executive and legislature that has hobbled the government for the past few years.

Delayed budget

The 9.1-trillion naira ($25bn) budget for this year was not signed into law until June, almost eight months after Buhari submitted it. Senators also delayed hearings on Buhari’s appointees to the committee that sets monetary policy, meaning no decisions on interest rates were taken for months.

The routine shifts in loyalties known locally as "cash and carry" politics are common in Nigeria, where governing is seen to be less about ideology than gaining access to wealth and power in the nation of almost 200-million people.

"When we left the PDP to join the APC in 2014, we left in a quest for justice, equity and inclusion," Saraki said. "In retrospect, it is now evident that the PDP has learnt more from its defeat than the APC has learnt from its victory."