Mr. Clean v. Mr. Action: Nigeria’s Top Contenders Square Up



incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, who is widely perceived as clean but inefficient, and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, an entrepreneur who’s long been accused of corruption

Two main contenders have emerged as Africa’s top oil producer heads to presidential elections: incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, who is widely perceived as clean but inefficient, and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, an entrepreneur who’s long been accused of corruption.

As Nigeria, a nation of 200 million people, prepares for a close election in February, the two septuagenarians are laying out the policies they hope will lead them to victory.

They may both be northern Muslims and stalwarts of the political establishment, but their careers and ideas for how to take Nigeria forward differ

Buhari, 75, who led the OPEC member as a military dictator in the 1980s before returning to power as a civilian ruler in 2015, has promised to curb graft and invest in infrastructure if he wins another four-year term. He has a reputation for honesty in what ranks as one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

His opponents say he’s aloof and that his administration’s statist policies have sent foreign investors fleeing. Abubakar, 71, the flag-bearer of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party, has business interests ranging from oil services to beverages and a private university.

He says that his experience in the private sector puts him in a better position to revive an economy still struggling from the 2014 crash in oil prices. Critics have long accused him of using positions in government to enrich himself, which he denies. It’s a contest “between ‘Mr. Clean’ and ‘Mr. Action’,” said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah and Harrison Declan, analysts at Toronto-based DaMina Advisors.

“While Buhari’s campaign highlights his reformist non-corrupt persona against charges of economic mismanagement and incompetence, Abubakar’s is built around his business savvy, competence and elite support, albeit with a tinge of corruption.”

Here’s how they would contrast as leaders: Governance Style: Abubakar, commonly known as Atiku, may be less controlling than Buhari. The president, a former general, has been faulted for not trusting his ministers enough to enact reforms and giving too much power to a clique of fellow northerners, such as Chief of Staff Abba Kyari.

“Buhari, given his military background, has been inclined to run a sort of centralized command system,” Paul Collier, a professor at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, said in an interview.

He should have concentrated on security issues and “left others with more economic expertise to take the major economic decisions.”

The Economy:

Buhari’s approach probably won’t change much, according to Michael Famoroti, an analyst in Lagos at Vetiva Capital Management Ltd. That would mean more large budgets, high borrowing, subsidized gasoline and greater spending on social welfare. Abubakar, who spearheaded Nigeria’s privatization efforts as deputy leader between 1999 and 2007, claims he’ll be more market-friendly.

He criticized the central bank and government’s handling of a multi-billion-dollar dispute with MTN Group Ltd., which saw the South African company’s shares plummet. But he might struggle to push through reforms such as raising fuel prices or selling inefficient state companies, given the inevitable political backlash, Famoroti said.

The Naira and the Central Bank: The two candidates differ sharply on how to handle Nigeria’s currency. Buhari favors tightly controlling the naira and supports central bank Governor Godwin Emefiele’s system of multiple exchange rates. The International Monetary Fund and many foreign investors want it scrapped.

So does Abubakar, who said in an interview last month that he’d deregulate the foreign-exchange market, even if he wouldn’t necessarily go as far as floating the naira. Abubakar would “almost certainly” replace Emefiele, whose first term ends in June, said John Ashbourne of London-based Capital Economics Ltd. Oil Sector: While Buhari made himself oil minister and promised big changes, he’s largely kept the structure of the energy industry and state-owned behemoth Nigerian National Petroleum Corp.

unchanged. He also spent $1.3 billion on subsidies in the first six months of this year to keep pump prices down, according to Renaissance Capital. That would change under an Abubakar presidency, said Abiodun Keripe, head of research at Elixir Investment.