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It says something for the political climate – and the power of social media – that Reuters on 2 December ran a story headlined: “Nigeria’s Buhari denies dying and being replaced by lookalike.” It quoted President Muhammadu Buhari telling diaspora Nigerians in Poland, where he was attending COP24 climate talks: “It’s real me, I assure you. I will soon celebrate my 76th birthday and I will still go strong.” He was referring to internet rumours that he had died and been replaced by a Sudanese-born body double.

Buhari’s health and ability to drive forward reform are preoccupying many Nigerians ahead of the presidential election on 16 February. Despite spending five months of 2017 in Britain receiving treatment (AE 347/19) and presiding over a government apparently incapable of carrying through much of its programme, Buhari had seemed a clear favourite to secure a second term. But as his fragile All Progressives Congress coalition has splintered, the rival People’s Democratic Party has gained momentum behind its candidate, free-spending former vice-president Atiku Abubakar (AE 377/19). The result is no formality: a divisive campaign is expected in a country still struggling with security crises – including the destructive Boko Haram and south-eastern insurgencies, and bloody herder-farmer conflict in the Middle Belt – and where voters lack confidence their leaders can ever enact change.

Nigerian officials play down the consequences of a likely bitter election. An industry regulator told African Energy: “I don’t think the election is influencing decisions”, or hindering policy implementation by technocrats. Following a series of contested elections in which the defeated candidate has (eventually) accepted the result, “in Nigeria we now know that if you win you win, and if you don’t you go home”. But unwelcome political interventions mean decision-making often remains painfully slow – as underlined by the tortured passage of oil industry legislation, which has been persistently blocked by legislators, vested interests and, more recently, by Buhari himself (AE 378/12). Atiku has donned the mantle of pro-business candidate with promises of sweeping privatisation including of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.

Few analysts believe Atiku can deliver radical change, but his well-financed campaign is channelling Donald Trump, promising his business success can create jobs and spread prosperity, under the hashtag #LetsGetNigeriaWorkingAgain. Atiku’s poor governance record grates, but previous critics have endorsed him – including ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo, who backed Buhari in 2015.

The incumbent is undermined by a fragile economy recovering only slowly from the 2016 recession that marked Buhari’s first year. GDP grew by only 0.83% in 2017, but the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has forecast 1.75% growth this year. The government has been borrowing on domestic markets and abroad (where it has raised almost $9bn from Eurobond issues since 2017) to make up deficits.

New finance minister Zainab Ahmed’s efforts to bridge the budget deficit and finance infrastructure saw the launch of a Eurobond issue worth $2.86bn in November. Demand reached $9.5bn, underlining continued investor appetite, but critics have said that international borrowing so close to the polls is politically motivated. Buhari’s administration counters by arguing (with some substance) that it is the cleanest government in modern Nigeria’s history. However, it has failed to sweep clean as candidate Buhari promised and his government has not engineered the economic lift-off the majority of the 160m population demand to raise their standards of living. Preparations to ensure petrol and power supplies during the election period may not be enough to boost confidence (AE 379/14).

There are fresh faces among the long list of candidates contesting the presidential poll, such as former education minister and World Bank official Oby Ezekwesili and ex-CBN deputy governor Kingsley Moghalu. But few doubt the polls will be dominated by the Buhari-Abubakar face-off, and that technocrats will be hard-pressed to maintain a calm façade during a highly charged contest.