Muhammadu Buhari. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/SODIQ ADELAKUN
Muhammadu Buhari. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/SODIQ ADELAKUN

Nigeria may be on the brink of change, with millions of voters going to the polls this weekend to choose candidates for a government that will guide the country for the next four years.

The focus of electoral efforts has been on the big prize — the presidential contest. Though there are about 70 candidates in the lineup, it is essentially a two-horse race between the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and Atiku Abubakar of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which the APC pushed from office in the last poll four years ago.

Both parties have attracted substantial support, but neither appears to offer the country the new start it needs to reboot its stagnant economy and address the myriad entrenched challenges it faces.

There is no compelling difference between the two in terms of policy and legacy. Before the 2015 election, many politicians crossed the floor from the PDP to the APC to take up political and government posts, while those who lost out crossed the floor back again. It led one analyst to cynically say Nigeria has one main party with two factions.

Buhari and Abubakar are both in their 70s and neither is new to the political scene. Buhari stood for president three times before he won in 2015; Abubakar was vice-president under Olusegun Obasanjo from 1999 to 2008.

Both men are also Fulani — Hausa-speaking Muslims from the north of Nigeria — so there is little separating them in terms of identity politics. This is important to note because, until recently, electoral support has split along geographic and religious faultlines. The trend shifted in the last elections, when Buhari received strong support in the Christian-dominated south.

He won by a landslide, despite misgivings about his stint as a military ruler in the 1980s. His campaign promises — fighting corruption, subduing the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in the northeast, and rejuvenating the economy — resonated with Nigerians who were tired of underdevelopment, looting by public officials, insecurity and growing poverty.

His APC party, a coalition cobbled together to challenge the PDP’s long period of uninterrupted rule, also won in most of Nigeria’s 36 states.

But Buhari’s star has faded since then. Though he still enjoys the support of many who believe his anticorruption campaign has made a difference, his detractors maintain that his hands-off governance style has allowed corruption to flourish. No high-profile arrests have been made, and the corrupt heads of state agencies have been replaced rather than prosecuted.

His government has won support for its infrastructure drive. Under Buhari’s rule, several railway projects have been revived or completed, including a rail line between Abuja and Kaduna, and the Abuja light rail from the airport to the city. Many other projects that were abandoned by previous governments or are incomplete have been earmarked for action.

But after a rocky four years, he has lost much of the goodwill that swept him into office. He took power soon after the oil price had begun its downward spiral, creating large revenue shortfalls in the oil-dependent economy. He then showed little urgency in tackling the economic crisis that the growing fiscal deficit precipitated.

In 2016, Nigeria slid into recession. Foreign exchange dried up, prices of consumer goods spiralled and pushed inflation to nearly 20%, and the currency was devalued in the middle of that year. The free spending that had attracted consumer companies, luxury goods salesmen and investors to Africa’s biggest market melted away.

Not only did Boko Haram not disappear, Buhari failed to tackle a new security challenge — the reign of terror conducted by Fulani herdsmen in the farming communities of Nigeria’s middle belt. Added to this was the president’s lack of public engagement, his ill health, and the lacklustre performance of many of his ministers.

But the APC team has bounced back with a set of campaign promises under the banner "Next Level" that focus on creating jobs and developing skills through a variety of measures — though unemployment has surged to a record 23% on Buhari’s watch, from 6.4% at the end of 2014.

Both Buhari and Abubakar have promised to address problems in the power sector, which generates less than 10,000MW despite billions of dollars of investment and the partial privatisation of assets.

Abubakar has channelled US President Donald Trump with his "Let’s get Nigeria working again" campaign. He has made many ambitious promises about building a broad-based and competitive economy, pledging to more than double GDP to $900bn by 2025, cut taxes and boost manufacturing output.

His pro-economy and pro-business campaign has won him support. Buhari is regarded as unfriendly to business, with regulators, tax collectors and other agencies considered overzealous in their attitude to investors, both local and foreign. The hefty fines that have been imposed on SA’s MTN, intended as a warning to companies to comply with local rules and regulations, and designed to boost the ailing fiscus, have undermined investor confidence.

Abubakar is a millionaire with considerable business interests in Nigeria. However, he has been plagued by allegations of corrupt dealings during his eight years as vice-president. US investigators examined claims that he used offshore companies to siphon billions of dollars illegally into their jurisdiction.

Though nothing conclusive was proved, he was added to a list of prominent Africans barred from being issued a US visa. Speculation abounds as to how he was able to travel to the US recently to meet members of the Nigerian diaspora — and why he would want to, given that the diaspora cannot vote.

His party, the PDP, lost support over the years because of the "normalisation" of corruption and looting of funds by public officials without consequence. There are fears the party may take a soft line on corruption should Abubakar win. He has made general pledges to tackle graft but has also offered amnesty to corrupt officials in order, he claims, to enable the return of looted funds stored offshore.

The important SA-Nigeria relationship, which has drifted in recent years, may be given new impetus by an Abubakar win.

Though Buhari and President Cyril Ramaphosa have met, sparks did not fly. Abubakar, in contrast, has a long-standing relationship with SA, dating from his days as Obasanjo’s deputy, and especially during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, when bilateral relations were at their height. (He is also a close friend of former president Jacob Zuma from this time.)

What happens in Nigeria is important not just to SA but to Africa in general. It is the biggest market on the continent by far, with more than 180-million people; it is the pivotal state in West Africa; and it remains an influential political force in Africa. But economically, it punches well below its weight, with its performance still inextricably linked to the vagaries of the oil price.

What Nigeria needs now is a president who really can get the country working again and take it to the next level. With just a few days to go, these elections are still too difficult to call. But whatever happens, citizens need to be clear that it cannot be business as usual, either way.

Games is CEO of advisory firm Africa@Work and executive director of the SA-Nigeria Business Chamber