Nigerian lawmakers dump Buhari for opposition

Scores of lawmakers left Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s ruling party for the main opposition and smaller parties on Tuesday, in a move heaping pressure on his re-election bid next year.

Buhari and his All Progressives Congress (APC) party have until now been seen as in a stronger position to win presidential and parliamentary elections in February.

But his opponents are now picking up momentum before party primaries in August, amid mounting discontent at his style of government and handling of widespread violence across the country.

Fourteen senators and 37 members of the lower chamber House of Representatives left the APC, on the last day before parliament adjourned for recess. There are 109 seats in the Senate and 360 in the House of Representatives.

Most of those leaving joined the main opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Senate President Bukola Saraki told senators their colleagues have “decamped, have defected”, leaving Buhari with a minority in the 109-seat upper house.

“37 @HouseNGR Reps members defect from @APCNigeria,” said Saraki’s aide Bamikole Omisore on Twitter. Saraki has not made any announcement of whether he will stay in the APC.

The list of senators includes Rabiu Kwankwaso, a former governor of the key northern state of Kano, who lost to Buhari in the APC presidential primaries before the 2015 election.

He has been seen as a potential presidential candidate for the upcoming election in February next year but has not yet declared.

Should he do so, that would put him up against former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, who quit the APC late last year, accusing it of failing to deliver on its promises.

PDP national secretary Kola Ologbondiyan called the defections “a good development for our democratic culture” and blasted Buhari for “intimidating” and “harassing” the opposition.

‘Converted democrat’

Buhari, a 75-year-old former army general who once served as military ruler, came into power in 2015 promising Nigerians that he was a “converted democrat”.

He enjoys strong support from his base in the north and the power of incumbency, which until he defeated president Goodluck Jonathan had been seen as a guarantee of electoral supremacy.

But he has been criticised as authoritarian against opponents, prompting increasing moves to stop him securing a second, four-year term.

Earlier this month, more than 30 parties, including the PDP, said they were forming a new alliance, while a splinter group formed within the APC of disaffected party members.

They called his stewardship of Nigeria in the last three years “a monumental disaster”.

READ MORE: Buhari can’t have it both ways

Social unrest has flared in Nigeria over an escalation in bloody clashes between farmers and cattle herders and Boko Haram Islamist attacks persist as a constant threat.

That has threatened Buhari’s pledge to tackle insecurity, overhaul the oil-dependent economy and create much-needed jobs.

Under pressure

Rumours of potential defections have been swirling in recent weeks because of deteriorating relations between the executive and legislature, with lawmakers complaining that the security services were being used by the government to target perceived political opponents.

Buhari has held closed-door meetings with the ambitious Saraki, who despite being a member of the ruling party believes he has been marked out as a critic and rival by the presidency.

Many of those under investigation or on trial for corruption are PDP members. Saraki himself defected from the PDP to the APC before the last election.

Earlier this month, Saraki was cleared at Nigeria’s Supreme Court of corruption charges, which he said were politically motivated.

Police on Monday summoned Saraki in person to answer claims he was linked to a gang that conducted a violent armed robbery in April in his home state of Kwara.

Saraki on Monday evening called the invitation a “ploy” to stop the mass defection and said the police were being used by the executive to conduct a political “witch hunt”.

On Tuesday morning, police surrounded his house in Abuja but he managed to make it to parliament after sending a decoy to the station.

Police said in a statement that they did not “besiege” his house.

© Agence France-Presse

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