Thousands of delegates from across Nigeria converge on Lagos this week, as the main opposition party chooses its candidate to run for president in next year’s elections.
Unlike the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which has endorsed President Goodluck Jonathan as its only candidate, the All Progressives Congress (APC) has to choose from among five hopefuls.
But Wednesday’s primary looks set to be a two-horse race, although opinions are split as to who is the favourite.
“It is going to be a straight battle between Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar,” Olusegun Adeniyi, who was former president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s spokesman, said.
At stake for the winner of the February 14 vote is the chance to wrest the presidency from the PDP for the first time since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.
Nigeria may be Africa’s most populous nation, leading economy and top oil producer but it could hardly be described as being in the best of shape.
Boko Haram’s insurgency is raging in the northeast; the economy is reeling from falling global oil prices; while corruption, impunity and poor governance are seen as worse than ever.
“People want to see a candidate who represents some significant shift,” said Clement Nwankwo, director of the Policy and Legal Advisory Centre, a civil society group.
In theory, the APC — a coalition of four opposition parties buoyed by a wave of defections from the PDP — has never been in a better position to challenge for government.
It has focused its campaign on the Jonathan administration’s stewardship of the economy, insecurity and its perceived failure to tackle corruption.
Its argument is that the country needs change but it still faces an uphill battle to overcome the financial clout and organisation of the PDP.
Buhari, who lost to Jonathan four years ago and to Yar’Adua in 2007, and Atiku, a four-time candidate for the presidential nomination, are among Nigeria’s most well-known politicians.
The 71-year-old Buhari, who was military ruler from 1983-85, has a reputation for a no-nonsense approach to corruption, even though human rights groups condemned his methods during his time in power.
The former general would be expected to take a tougher line against Boko Haram and may be favoured because he is backed by the APC’s political godfather Bola Tinubu.
Abubakar, 68, is seen as the better political operator.
Buhari had to take out a 27.5 million naira ($150,000, 122,000 euro) bank loan to pay for his own presidential form.
The wealthy Abubakar, who was vice president under Olusegun Obasanjo from 1999 to 2007, has funded his own campaign — and those for other APC governorship candidates in the south.
That is likely to win him party votes from those regions. His eight years of experience in government and friends across the political divide as a former ruling party member are also possible assets.
“Atiku has the better political machine and he’s a past master at winning political primaries,” said political commentator Chris Ngwodo.
“He’s more comfortable with the wheeling and dealing and whole transactional, backroom dealing.
“Buhari is a former head of state who has a reputation for being tough on corruption. But he doesn’t do this wheeling and dealing,” he said.
Abubakar has set himself apart from other presidential hopefuls by publishing a detailed policy document, which includes 100-day and five-year plans for government.
Buhari in contrast has been seen more at campaign events. Other than pledges to tackle graft, he is seen as policy light.
Abubakar has “decades of business experience, which should give him an edge over Buhari, who has no known experience in the private sector,” said political and social commentator Tolu Ogunlesi.
But past accusations of corruption dating back to Abubakar’s time as head of the customs service may also count against him if the APC maintains its strong line on graft.
Buhari’s past as a military ruler, however, is unlikely to mark him down: most of today’s voters in youthful Nigeria were either too young or not even born yet when he was in power.
“The passage of time has polished his record and created a myth,” Ngwodo said.
In 2011, Buhari won 12 million votes despite the lack of a well-organised party machine behind him.