Pulse Opinion: Will Nigerians choose the devil, the deep blue sea, or the highway for President?

The presidential election has been billed as a showdown between two septuagenarians, but is there hope for a shocking victory from any one of the numerous alternative candidates?

An incumbent whose public goodwill has taken a dent over the course of his first term, or a blast from the past who vows he can do a better job?

In the lead up to the 2015 general elections, then-incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, was facing a massive vote of no confidence from the Nigerian public and eventually lost to a former military Head of State, Muhammadu Buhari, who vowed he was a "reformed democrat".

Four years later, the tables have turned and Buhari is employing all the weapons in his arsenal to fight off the challenge from Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president, who swears the nation could be doing so much better under his leadership.

At the centre of Buhari's plea for a second term is the necessity of consolidating on the achievements of his first term so as to stabilise the country for a prosperous future.

However, many are eager to point out that he doesn't have any achievements to be proud of. The president ran on three primary campaign promises in 2015 to fix the economy, secure the country and fight corruption to stop the irresponsible bleeding of public resources.

Nigeria went into a crippling recession under his administration and even though it has since crawled out of it, the growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) has not been all roses. Many of the president's economic policies and decisions have been panned to be archaic and so destructive that Nigeria is now the poverty capital of the world with an estimated 91 million living in extreme poverty.

As a retired military general, many Nigerians had believed Buhari when he promised to put a swift end to the insurgency of terrorist group, Boko Haram, in the northeast region. In December 2015, he declared the terrorists 'technically defeated' and promised that the group was in its dying phase, a claim he's stuck to since then.

However, many consider the acclaimed victory to only exist in the president's mind as the humanitarian ramifications of the insurgency continues to ravage the troubled region. Even though the president recovered the remaining Boko Haram-held communities when he came in, and terror-related deaths dropped significantly over the subsequent years of his administration, the pain of Boko Haram's insurgency is still alive in the northeast.

During a campaign rally last week, Buhari claimed that Boko Haram has been forced to resort to recruiting young boys and girls to carry out suicide bomb attacks in vulnerable places. However, with the rise of an ISIS-affiliated Boko Haram faction named the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), there's been a worrying rise in the number of attacks staged by terrorists on military bases. The group has killed dozens of soldiers in attacks on military bases that have intensified since June 2018, rendering the president's defiant rhetoric on the defeat of the group an empty boast borne out of delusion or the intent to deceive the public.

Buhari's fight against corruption has also been tainted by allegations of unfairness as he's been accused of sheltering looters in his camp while using federal anti-graft agencies to aggressively pursue perceived political opponents.

Even though many looted funds and properties suspected to have been acquired with proceeds of looted funds have been recovered under his administration, his insincerity over who gets pursued and who gets to play around the system has drawn criticism.

Perhaps, President Buhari's greatest misstep in his first term is the fact that he has failed to properly harness the goodwill he rode on to achieve electoral victory in 2015.

Despite his "reformed democrat" shtick, his human rights and democratic record as a democratic president has left a lot to be desired, to put it mildly.

Under his watch, the Nigerian Army extra-judicially killed over 300 members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) due to a provocation, and no one has been brought to book over it. His government has refused several court orders to release imprisoned members of the public whose incarcerations have been heavily politically-tinged. 

This show of military force has also been extended into trying to strong-arm other independent arms of government. Last year, operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) bizarrely invaded the National Assembly complex for unexplained reasons at a time when Buhari's ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) was hell-bent on instituting a change of leadership.

His latest infraction is the controversial suspension of Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, an act that was widely considered to be a violation of the judiciary's independence and an invitation to a constitutional crisis.

Despite the wave of criticisms faced by his government from home and sometimes abroad, Buhari believes quite religiously that he's taking Nigeria through a necessary period of strife before the good times really start rolling. To make sure that this paradise-like future is achieved, he's warned Nigerians against allowing the return of those who used to be at the helm of affairs.

The comeback the president is warning Nigerians against is the one led by Atiku, a former top civil servant and successful businessman, who's the arrowhead of the quest of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to return to the centre.

Like Buhari who had to contest for the presidency four times before he won, Atiku has made four previous attempts, while sometimes hopping between political parties, to become Nigeria's Number One Citizen. His last attempt was ended by Buhari who beat him to the presidential ticket during the APC's primary election in 2015.

In 2017, he left the APC for a second return to the PDP and has steadily launched a comeback attempt both for himself and the party by drawing on the supposedly stark failures of the current government and trumpeting how he can make the country better and set it up for a truly prosperous future.

While many have jumped on the Atiku train, which has grown in leaps and bounds since he won the PDP's presidential ticket four months ago, he has been dogged by allegations of an unscrupulous past.

Many of the graft allegations against him stem from his stint as Vice President between 1999 and 2007 when his principal, the former president Olusegun Obasanjo, accused him of several misconducts that almost jeopardised his 2007 presidential campaign. Those allegations have stuck and been an albatross of Atiku's current campaign no matter how vehemently he denies them.

Even though Obasanjo is now on his side after over a decade of sabotaging him with accusations of being a thief and plunderer of the nation's wealth, the former president has not withdrawn the allegations.

Despite this, with his political influence and the PDP's extensive network, Atiku is solidly placed as the most threatening obstacle to a dreaded second term for Buhari.

With the faults of both candidates placed under the blinding lights of public opinion, the rhetoric, like in 2015, has been that choosing between Buhari and Atiku is choosing between the lesser of two evils - the devil and the deep blue sea.

However, unlike in 2015, there's a more conscious discussion about looking for a new different way to decide the nation's fate other than simply flipping a coin with two undesirable sides.

Even though the real competition has been made to revolve around Buhari and Atiku, there are 70 other candidates in the race, many of them scrapping to be crowned the most prominent face of what has been labelled the Third Force.

While the pool of Third Force candidates is littered with all manner of pretenders and ill-prepared hacks, there are a few who have come to be more prominent when the conversation comes up.

Kingsley Moghalu, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), has run a diligent campaign as the flag-bearer of the Young Progressive Party (YPP) and become a well-known face of the Third Force campaign for the 2019 presidential election.

Omoyele Sowore, who has decades worth of advocacy under his belt and is the founder of Sahara Reporters, has also been a mainstay in the conversation about whether it's time for a new alternative to be given a chance to clean up the mess that the long-ruling political class has made.

To ensure that his impassioned vision for the direction of the country is not contaminated, he founded his own party, the African Action Congress (AAC), last year and commands a dedicated following among his small pool of supporters.

Fela Durotoye, a management consultant and leadership expert, has also commanded some attention to his corner as the flag-bearer of the Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN) as he's relentlessly appealed to Nigerians to be deliberate about beating the path for a new direction for the country.

Another notable Third Force candidate, Oby Ezekwesili, a former minister, recently withdrew from the race due to a clash with her party, the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), while another one, Donald Duke, a former governor, has had his campaign tied up by litigation and internal party crisis he might as well not be competing.

A footnote of the 2019 campaign has been the concern that Buhari (76 years old) and Atiku (72) are relics of Nigeria's past, both in respect of their ages and the fact that they belong to Nigeria's everlasting ruling class.

Buhari's failing health, a major sticking point of his first term, has worsened the concerns and this has not been helped by his high-profile gaffes on the campaign trail, including referring to the Delta State governorship candidate as the APC's presidential candidate during a rally.

With Nigerians aged between 18 and 50 making up 81.08% of the total 84 million voters registered for the 2019 elections, it should surprise many casual observers that septuagenarians are the front-runners to win.

However, Nigeria's politics is too complicated for such a simple-minded calculation.

For many electoral cycles, the PDP was indomitable because of its pool of influential backers with deep pockets and extensive roots until some of those split and formed a coalition with other less influential parties to birth the APC and finally put an end to PDP's reign with Buhari's victory.

That's a major handicap for the Third Force.

Durotoye, Moghalu, and Sowore were some of the then-presidential aspirants who met in July 2018 to form a coalition, named Presidential Aspirants Coming Together (PACT), with the goal of presenting a consensus candidate that'd have the support of the scattered pool of Third Force candidates.

While Sowore soon dropped out due to his objections to the direction of the group, Moghalu stuck around until he lost the consensus ticket to Durotoye, leaving PACT essentially dead in the water after he disputed the process.

Since then, Nigerians have made several appeals to the so-called alternative candidates to band together with a strong coalition and give themselves a chance of making a dent on the 2019 elections.

However, despite these calls, it's immediately clear to see why it's difficult for these candidates with their range of similar yet divergent ideas to gather seamlessly under the same banner.

Moghalu is championing an economic restructuring that he's passionate about but no one else is, Sowore has been criticised for being populist in nature and Durotoye wants a new Nigeria, he's vague on the details and seeks to power everything through vision and patriotism.

Even if a coalition like PACT had held together, it's instructive to note that there'd still be a daunting task for the Third Force to rustle the top dogs simply because they don't possess the influence necessary for a presidential election in a country like Nigeria.

To get around this problem, many of them have made conscious efforts to appeal directly to the electorate in the grassroots where elections are believed to be won and lost. However, in a country where political literacy is low and money politics reigns supreme, their insurgent campaigns have not ruffled nearly enough feathers.

With only days to the election, these candidates cannot be said to have done enough, despite their best efforts, to have sparked enough political support to win February 16's presidential election. It'd be injudicious to expect that kind of surprise to spring up when the winner is announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

The spectacular odds of a Third Force candidate pulling off a victory has led to the puzzling rhetoric that voting for the alternatives is wasting your vote, a narrative mainly pushed by the main opposition hoping those votes should go to it so that the current administration becomes history.

Many argue that Nigeria is not ready for ideology politics where you vote your conscience instead of being more concerned about ending up on the winning side, but others would point out that it's the same thinking that got the country into its present situation.

It's foolhardy to simply cast your vote for who you think is more likely to win instead of who is more in tune with your hopes and dreams for the country. And the truth is electoral data matters, and the votes perceived to be wasted today can shape future decisions in ways that one cannot currently imagine. So, are there really ever any wasted votes?

Irrespective of this, everything points to the fact that one of Atiku and Buhari is still expected to win the election and Nigeria will still be choosing between the lesser of two evils - two septuagenarians who each swear they're the best choice to steer the nation into the future.

It's another impossible situation that Nigerians will have to navigate for themselves when they go to the polls.

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