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2019 Elections: Buhari battles perceptions of frailty in poll race

Supporters say Muhammadu Buhari is ‘guiding force’ but question his resilience

The President, his vice and other members of the APC at arecently held rally in Lagos.

Sani Abacha Stadium in Kano swelled with tens of thousands of Nigerians standing in the sun for hours as they awaited the arrival of President Muhammadu Buhari. Thunderous cheers erupted as the 76-year old former general shook a broom above his head — a symbol of his party and its claim to be sweeping Nigeria clean.

The huge crowd at last month’s rally exemplified Mr Buhari’s near-mythical status in the country’s populous north, whose votes will be key to determining the winner of a presidential election on February 16. But the president’s demeanour also betrayed some of his greatest vulnerabilities in a closer-than-expected race against former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, the main opposition candidate.

The speech lasted all of a few minutes, as have many of Mr Buhari’s campaign addresses. Critics have used such brevity to question whether the president — who has spent months at a time in London seeking treatment for an undisclosed ailment over the past few years — is physically or mentally up to running Africa’s most populous nation for another four years.

At a recent televised townhall he seemed to struggle to understand the questions and his vice president answered for him so frequently that the anchor was forced to intervene. Along with campaign trail memory lapses and a near fall, the episode gave more fodder to opponents sceptical about his health.

Mr Buhari even felt compelled to publicly address one conspiracy theory that he had died and been replaced with a clone, joking at a meeting with Nigerians in Europe in December that “it’s [the] real me, I assure you”.

The president’s supporters insist that he remains a guiding force, and that his is just a soldier’s reticence – the same that he exhibited as the country’s disciplinarian military ruler for 20 months in the 1980s.

Critics, however, claim that the country is not run by Mr Buhari but by “the cabal” of unelected power-brokers who have long surrounded the president. Even Mr Buhari’s wife Aisha echoed that sentiment in a 2016 BBC interview, suggesting the government had been hijacked by “a few people” who determined presidential appointments.

A senior politician close to the president did not dispute that close allies largely drive policy. But he insisted that this was part of Mr Buhari’s style of governance. He focuses on a few themes — anti-corruption, national security and state-led growth — and allows his appointees to meet those ends however they see fit.

“General Buhari doesn’t delegate, he abdicates,” the politician said, indicating he did not see it as a problem.

His supporters argue that the style has led to some unfortunate freelancing by subordinates who have overseen troops killing scores of unarmed protesters, fined foreign investors billions of dollars, and used security forces to influence state elections. They have even attempted to shut down the national assembly.

Mr Buhari is trusting to a fault, his allies say, and reluctant to eject anyone from his inner circle. Critics accuse him of being soft on those who have served him poorly or been accused of corruption. On stage at the Kano rally Mr Buhari locked hands with a state governor who was the alleged subject of a series of viral videos in which a man reported to be him is seen accepting stacks of hundred dollar notes.

But the president may have found his perfect foil in Mr Abubakar, who has long been dogged by accusations of crony capitalism and corruption, which he denies. Despite allegations of graft among some of Mr Buhari’s closest associates, the president retains a reputation for incorruptibility. He won in 2015 largely because his predecessor’s government was accused of looting billions of dollars from the country’s coffers.

This year was supposed to be different. Mr Buhari has overseen lacklustre economic growth, a spike in joblessness and plummeting purchasing power. He campaigned on a promise of robust national security, but deadly crises have flared up across the federation.

But Mr Abubakar’s nomination has allowed the president’s campaign to raise the spectre of Mr Abubakar and his People’s Democratic party returning Nigeria to the graft-ridden 16 years in which they ruled before Mr Buhari’s 2015 victory.

Mohammed Alonge, a 43-year-old who repairs mobile phones in the northern city of Kaduna, said he voted for Buhari in 2015. “Four years down the line, this government deserves more time. I’m not denying the faMct that there are economic problems in the land; I’m not denying the insecurity,” he said. But despite his own concerns about the president’s health, he added: “I don’t trust this man Atiku, so I would rather continue with Buhari.”

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