by Kunle Oluwunmi Jnr.

Nigeria will conduct an exciting presidential election on March 28th. For the first time since democracy returned in 1999, the ruling party, the PDP, is in danger of losing the elections and giving up control of the federal government. Polls show its candidate, the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, is neck and neck with the leading challenger, General Muhammadu Buhari, a former military Head of State.

The PDP’s current weakness is down to party disunity, poor performance in power, and a consolidation of the opposition parties. This might be good news for the country, as a change in leadership will deepen democracy and improve the level of government performance.

The PDP was formed in 1999 as the military hurriedly returned power to the political class, as a coalition of politicians from across the country. Politicians from every corner of the country were recruited in a bid to avoid the ethnic divisions that had marred political parties in previous regimes. The ideology was broadly conservative, but the tent was large enough to accommodate several different camps – the driving goal of the party was to capture and retain political power. It’s no accident that its logo is an umbrella.

The PDP succeeded in 1999 – it captured more state governments than any other party, and won majorities in both houses of the National Assembly. Its candidate was elected President. In 2003 it made gains, capturing additional states and increasing its National Assembly performance. In 2003 Muhammadu Buhari, this year’s opposition candidate entered partisan politics, running for President against the PDP’s Olusegun Obasanjo. Buhari  got 32% of the vote, to Obasanjo’s 62%.

However, since 2007, and especially from 2008 onwards, the party has faced problems holding onto its control. In 2007, one of the PDP’s founding members, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, left the party to run for President as the Action Congress of Nigeria candidate. He had been unable to get the PDP ticket. Instead, Umaru Yar’Adua, brother of a former military no2, got the blessing of the PDP. A Northerner, he fulfilled the party’s zoning rule, where candidates would be selected on a rotation among the geopolitical zones of the country to avoid division. Yar’Adua won with 70% of the vote. Buhari, running again, got 19%.

Yar’Adua passed away in 2010 after a long illness, during which his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan from the South, had difficulty becoming Acting President. Since Jonathan (or GEJ, as he is commonly referred to) was not from the North, he ran the risk of damaging the party’s zonal mechanism since it was the North’s turn to produce the President. Constitutional rules prevailed however, and he became Acting President and upon Yar’Adua’s death, President for the rest of the deceased’s term.

In 2011 Jonathan won the party’s nomination despite pressure for the party to pick a Northern candidate. Sensing an opening, Atiku Abubakar, the former Vice President, had rejoined the PDP. Running a “fresh” campaign which emphasized his unconventional bootstraps story, and his difference from most PDP elite, Jonathan won 59% of the vote. Buhari won 32%. Notably, Buhari, having created a new party, the CPC, won the states in the North West and North East, while Jonathan won the Southern and Middle Belt states.

Jonathan’s performance has been disappointing. The Punch newspaper’s Tolu Ogunlesi has assessed Jonathan’s performance with reasons for and against him. Jonathan has failed to deal with Boko Haram and the declining economy in the midst of vast corruption most notably the missing money from the oil subsidy revenue. The subsidy saga illustrates one of Jonathan’s many failures. After recognizing that the government system for subsidizing the price of petrol was too expensive, the government decided to scrap its subsidies. This was done without satisfactorily explaining where the savings would go, or punishing petroleum retailers who had been illegally inflating subsidy receipts. The petrol subsidy, one of the only social welfare programs available to Nigerian citizens, was removed in the way most likely to cause hardship to the general population. Jonathan has also largely ignored the Boko Haram crisis, allowing the insurgents to control part of Nigerian territory and naively ascribing its activities to opposition detractors.

All is not well within the PDP either. Jonathan admits that a promise was made to delegates that he would not run for President in 2015. As 2015 approached and he began to show his intention to run, his party began to splinter. Several governors left the party in 2014, some alarmed at the President’s treatment of governors, and others because of political ambitions. Atiku Abubakar left the PDP once again. Jonathan was able to unanimously get the ticket for 2015.

The opposition was waiting for the governors. The ACN, CPC, and a faction of APGA had merged to form the APC in 2013. The ACN had controlled Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, since 1999. Lagos is also Nigeria’s largest revenue-generating state. Buhari’s CPC, built around its founder’s popularity in parts of the North, added geopolitical spread to the new party. So did Imo’s APGA, from the  South East. Several PDP governors, and federal legislators joined them in the 2014 exodus. Among them was Rotimi Amaechi, Governor of Rivers, one of the largest oil producing states, and Aminu Tambuwal, a Northerner who is Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives. Atiku Abubakar also joined the APC. By February 2015, the APC had a majority of legislators in the House of Representatives – the first time the PDP was not in control.

This context explains serial contender Buhari’s strong prospects at his 4th time of asking. As Afrobarometer (an African-led public survey) revealed, the PDP and APC are neck and neck with 42% support each among likely voters. Buhari has a strong base in some parts of the North, but he is reviled in many quarters as a former dictator and ethno-religious bigot. His reputation is enhanced by his personal asceticism, and reputation for being incorruptible.

His record is mixed. A Fulani soldier from Daura, Buhari was part of  the Murtala Mohammed faction in the Nigerian military, participating in the July 1966 coup and civil war. He was prominent in the 1975 coup that dethroned Yakubu Gowon and put Mohammed in power. He was compensated with the military governorship of North East state (the area now menaced by Boko Haram) and made Commissioner For Petroleum.  During the Second Republic he put down the Maitatsine revolt, and was unafraid to cross into Chad with troops in pursuit of the brigands. Maitatsine was a fringe sect led by a Kano preacher that tried to seize control of Kano in 1980 and had to be wiped out by the military. His followers continued to cause unrest in many Northern cities throughout the following decade. This caused animosity between him and then Head of State, Shehu Shagari. When Shagari’s massively corrupt government was overthrown by a coup, Buhari was invited to take over as Head of State. His short tenure from January, 1 1894 to August 1985 was marked by a strenuous effort to reform Nigeria, with the full powers of the military at his disposal. Politicians were broadly punished, even without evidence of corrupt activity. The military tried to discipline society, with harsh punishment for any indiscipline. Drug pushers were murdered extrajudicially, and his government censored the press heavily. Efforts to right the economy had shown little progress when he was toppled by members of his own government in 1985.

As Buhari will have it, he became convinced of the virtues of democracy when the Soviet Union fell peacefully and liberal democracies replaced several communist regimes. Since 2003, Buhari has contested in presidential elections and contested the results through the courts. His present party controls the states that generate the most internal revenue (a marker of economic development) and the states that have the lowest poverty levels. His 2015 campaign has been slick, rehabilitating his image by emphasizing his ability to engage with several parts of modern Nigeria. He has visited all the country’s geopolitical zones. A faction of MEND, a Niger Delta militant movement (the region from where Jonathan originates) has even endorsed him!

Buhari was gaining momentum when the elections were postponed because the military could not guarantee security. Since February 14, Jonathan’s government has sprung into action, making gains in the war against Boko Haram, and even finally visiting Chibok, the village from which hundreds of girls were abducted last year that launched the #BringBackOurGirls movement. Yet his administration continues to make errors. The Foreign ministry, in a bid to gain traction with Nigeria’s Tijanniyya Muslims, announced that the President had conversed with Mohammed VI of Morocco. Morocco is one of the heartlands of the Tijaniyya sect. However, Morocco denied that the conversation had happened, and recalled its Ambassador from Nigeria. Jonathan was left having to own the deception and promising to punish the perpetrators of the lie. His wife has also fanned the flames of ethnic violence on the campaign trail.

The incumbent Jonathan is still the favorite to win. Yet many believe that Buhari’s APC will do a better job in control of the Presidency than Jonathan has done so far. In my opinion, it is time for the PDP to be punished for its poor performance, and I believe that the APC has provided a better candidate than the incumbent.