by Pauline Bax and Yinka Ibukun
Uncertainty over whether Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari will run for a second term in 2019 has set off an early race to succeed him in Africa’s most populous nation, according to a senior ruling party official.
Buhari, 74, stayed more than seven weeks in the U.K. this year to receive treatment for an undisclosed ailment, sparking concern about government paralysis and triggering speculation about the severity of his condition. He returned to Nigeria on March 10, but is expected to fly back to London for further care, his spokesman said last week, without specifying when he would depart.
“Because of the feeling that the president may not run for a second term, people are already gearing up,” Nasir El-Rufai, a senior official of the ruling All Progressives Congress and governor of the central state of Kaduna, said in an interview Monday in Johannesburg. “All of us are getting distracted by the coterie of ambitious presidential aspirants that are trying to kick-start the political process ahead of the normal timeline.”
A former military leader, Buhari in 2015 became the first politician to unseat an incumbent Nigerian leader in an election. Nearly halfway through his four-year term, he’s struggling to revive growth in an economy that’s been hit by a plunge in crude oil revenue and a severe shortage of foreign exchange. Nigeria’s elections commission announced last month that the next presidential vote will be held on Feb. 16, 2019.
El-Rufai said that most ruling party members would like him to seek a second term.
“The president is saying nothing about his intentions and many of us that campaigned vigorously for him in 2015 are hoping that his health will improve and stabilize and that he will run again in 2019,” he said. “We need the policy continuity and the stability in the political environment for the country to make progress.”
El-Rufai, a 57-year-old Harvard graduate seen as close to Buhari, argued against a devaluation of the naira, saying it wouldn’t benefit Nigeria because it exports almost nothing apart from oil.
Global investors say the central bank, which has been holding the currency at around 315 per dollar since August, needs to let it weaken to attract inflows and boost the economy, which contracted in 2016 for the first time in 25 years. The naira has plummeted to 395 on the black market as the scarcity of the hard currency that businesses need to import raw materials and equipment has worsened.
Buhari has likened devaluing the naira to “murder” and lamented that the currency has fallen from roughly parity to the dollar since he was last in power in 1985.
“The reason why many of us are against the devaluation is that we’ve gone that route many times before and we’ve not seen the benefits,” El-Rufai said. “It really doesn’t make any sense. It’s not an ideological or emotional concern that we have as politicians. All the arguments propounded by the economists in favor of devaluation have not materialized in Nigeria. Devaluation will begin to make sense when we become a net exporter of agricultural products and minerals.”