Former Nigerian military ruler Muhammadu Buhari brought the northern city of Kano to a standstill on Tuesday as surging crowds packed the streets for a campaign rally ahead of elections in under two weeks time.
Buhari, the main challenger to President Goodluck Jonathan in the April 9 vote, has strong grass roots support in the north and his rally in Kano, the region’s most populous city, had long been expected to draw thousands of people.
But even residents were taken aback by the turnout.
Youths banging drums and chanting “Nigeria sai Buhari” — “Nigeria belongs to Buhari” in the local Hausa language — lined the streets. The congestion meant it took Buhari two hours to get the few kilometres from the palace of the Emir of Kano, the region’s Islamic leader, to a race course to address supporters.
“If I’m elected I will not disappoint Nigerians. We will all join hands together and fight this evil called corruption,” he told cheering crowds.
Jonathan, a southern Christian from the oil-producing Niger Delta, is the clear favourite in the election. The ruling party candidate has won every presidential race since the end of military rule 12 years ago, and polls in Nigerian newspapers have given him a substantial lead.
But Buhari, a northern Muslim, is hugely popular in his home region and the opposition are hoping they can capitalise on weariness with the ruling party and force a run-off.
Jonathan would need not only a majority but also more than 25 percent of the vote in at least two thirds of the country’s 36 states to win in the first round, an outcome Buhari’s supporters hope they can prevent.
Buhari, who ruled between December 1983 and August 1985, has a reputation as a disciplinarian and is best remembered for his “War Against Indiscipline”, a campaign against corruption which many Nigerians feel has since become endemic.
But he is distrusted in other parts of the country, particularly the south, where he is viewed as an Islamic conservative and where his authoritarian nature is remembered more for restricting freedoms than installing discipline.
Buhari’s Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) party, while popular in the northwest, lacks the nationwide machinery of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), meaning that his exuberant support in Kano is unlikely to be matched elsewhere.
He unsuccessfully contested the last two elections in 2003 and 2007 — both marred by ballot-stuffing and fraud — and diplomats fear that should he lose again, his northern supporters would interpret it as further rigging.
Even if the poll is credible, that could lead to protests.
“Buhari is very popular. He is on the side of the masses,” said Nasiru Mobi, 28, a textile trader in the local market.
“If votes will count, Buhari will win.”