Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party voted on Wednesday in key primaries to choose a candidate for next year’s election to replace President Muhammadu Buhari.
No clear favourite emerged among the APC frontrunners vying to lead Africa’s most populous country, including former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, former transport minister Rotimi Amaechi and Senate president Ahmad Lawan.
The APC convention in Abuja took place two days after gunmen killed 22 people in an attack on a church in the southwest — a reminder that security in the elections will be a major issue.
More than 2,300 APC delegates were voting to select a candidate to face Atiku Abubakar, 75, of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) among others in the February 25 presidential ballot.
Buhari, who is stepping down after the two terms he is allowed in the constitution, arrived at the Eagles Square convention centre on Tuesday evening before voting began very early Wednesday.
The Nigerian leader spent the days leading up to the party convention in negotiations with the APC’s factions seeking unity over one strong candidate though he gave no indication of his favoured name.
“We must choose a knowledgeable, fair-minded nationalist with a very strong belief in the unity of our nation, Nigeria, and strength of character and purpose to steer the country forward,” Buhari said in a speech to the convention.
“We should not allow the PDP to drag the country backwards.”
At least three would-be candidates backed out of the race shortly before voting began, and assigned their delegate votes to Tinubu, an APC stalwart and former governor known as the “Godfather of Lagos”.
Part of the APC’s debate over candidates relates to “zoning” — an unofficial agreement among political elites that Nigeria’s presidency should alternate between those from the predominantly Christian south and those from the largely Muslim north.
After two terms with northern Muslim Buhari, observers expected the presidency to go to a candidate from the south.
But the PDP — which held its primary on May 28 and 29 — chose Abubakar, a former vice president and political stalwart who is a northern Muslim.
The opposition’s choice to ignore “zoning” has made the APC reconsider how their candidate will appeal to the north, where voter numbers and participation are traditionally higher.
Buhari, who is the leader of the ruling party, had instructed APC members to “allow the delegates to decide.”
Heavy security was deployed in central Abuja earlier on Tuesday and streets were gridlocked as hundreds of APC supporters wearing the party colours of green, white and red gathered in and around the venue.
The results of the primary had been officially scheduled to be unveiled by 2100 GMT on Tuesday, when the victor was due to make an acceptance speech — though a delay was expected.
Security will be a top issue in the election with the military dealing with a 12-year-old jihadist conflict in the northeast and criminal gangs who carry out raids and mass kidnappings in the northwest.
The attack on St. Francis Catholic Church in Ondo State on Sunday during a service was a rare assault on the country’s usually more peaceful southwestern region.
The local state governor said on Tuesday, 22 people were killed and nearly 60 wounded when gunmen used explosives and machine guns to attack worshippers. No one has claimed the attack.
Nigeria’s economy is also recovering from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the fallout from the Ukraine war, with the World Bank projecting the number of poor Nigerians will hit 95.1 million this year.