By Alexis Akwagyiram
ONITSHA, Nigeria (Reuters) – The main challenger in Nigeria’s election next year aims to outflank President Muhammadu Buhari by campaigning in a sometimes neglected part of the country where the incumbent is deeply unpopular: the southeast.
With a tight race in prospect, a strong showing there could give Atiku Abubakar the votes he needs to deny Buhari, a former military ruler, a second four-year term as the elected leader of one of Africa’s most powerful nations.
Abubakar is targeting regional voters – who are mostly members of the Igbo ethnic group – through his choice of a local running mate and policies designed to meet calls for autonomy.
The numbers are tempting. There were 7.5 million registered voters in the five states of the southeast out of 67.4 million nationwide at the last election, in 2015.
The number of new voters registered in the southeast has grown faster than in other regions, according to electoral commission figures seen by Reuters.
The opposition will still need to overcome voter apathy in the southeast, where people have long felt there is little point in voting since presidents tend to be northerners from the Hausa ethnic group or Yoruba people from the southwest.
While presidential elections in Nigeria are usually cast as a fight between the mainly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south, victory may depend on a candidate attracting votes from outside his ethnic and religious base.
At this stage, most analysts expect a closely fought contest on Feb. 16, with some predicting a narrow victory for Abubakar.
Buhari is popular across the north, so it suits Abubakar to target a region where the president lacks support.
Buhari’s unpopularity in the southeast stems from his decision to send troops on to the streets last year to crack down on secessionists.
The issue is sensitive. For many, the deployment was a reminder of the 1967-70 war over Biafra, a short-lived breakaway nation that was predominantly Igbo.
Around a million people died, mostly from starvation and disease, before central government forces prevailed, and many in the southeast feel Igbos have been marginalised ever since. An Igbo has not been president or vice president since Nigeria’s most recent transition to civilian rule in 1999.
If there are votes for Abubakar in the southeast, he may also win support among the many Igbos living elsewhere in Nigeria.
Abubakar named Peter Obi, a former southeastern governor, as his running mate in October and proposed devolving more power to regions in a policy dubbed “restructuring” that promises to give states greater control over their finances.
Advertising hoardings for the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) featuring Abubakar’s smiling face alongside that of Obi outnumber those for Buhari in the southeastern cities of Onitsha and Enugu.
Chukwunonye Okereke, director general of Southeast Youths for Atiku, a PDP organisation, said: “The people in the southeast have not been treated fairly by this government. He (Buhari) has been a ruler of marginalisation.”
Abubakar himself said in a tweet earlier this month: “I am 100% for 100% of Nigerians 100% of the time. Nigerians should never be divided by ethnic or religious lines. We must be united. We are ONE Nigeria.”
The comment may have struck a chord in the southeast since it reflects criticism that Buhari has governed as a northern president concerned only with northern people.
A group of influential Igbo traditional rulers earlier this month endorsed Abubakar – a move that gives them potential access to important patronage networks if he wins.
Buhari is unpopular among market stallholders and shoppers in Onitsha, the biggest city in Anambra State.
“I don’t want Buhari any longer in this country. We pray there will be a change,” said Ifeoma Eze, who runs a business selling plantains.
“In Nigeria everybody is crying – there is no money. The money is not circulating,” she said, complaining about the government’s handling of the economy, which experienced its first recession in 25 years in 2016, only emerging last year.
Eric Onyeka, who runs a toiletries stall, said: “We have had economic instability since 2015,” – the year Buhari took office.
Buhari’s supporters say much criticism is based on ethnic and religious prejudices rather than his policies.
“The current infrastructure that has been put in place surpasses what the People’s Democratic Party did in 16 years,” said Ebubeagu Okafor, a spokesman for Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) in Enugu.
He said Buhari’s administration had improved roads between the region’s major cities and was developing a railway line to link the southeast with the oil heartland and the northeast.
Okafor also cited the resumption of building work on the Second Niger Bridge, a major river crossing, as an example of Buhari’s commitment to the region.
Abubakar is thought to be betting that Buhari’s largesse may not be enough to win the region.
“Atiku is probably banking on a growing voter population in these traditional PDP strongholds, combined with a higher turnout of Igbo voters who want to see an Igbo vice president,” said Malte Liewerscheidt, West Africa analyst at Teneo, a consultancy.
Liewerscheidt also said Abubakar’s courting of the Igbo vote could help him elsewhere.
“Igbo support could also prove decisive in other regions, particularly the southwest, as there are huge Igbo communities scattered across the country. In a key battleground state such as Lagos, this could swing the vote in Atiku’s favour,” he said.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)