The leading challenger in Nigeria’s tightening presidential race has refused to participate in a pre-election debate with his rival, incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, citing past election snubs, a party spokesman said Wednesday.
With the country buffeted by sinking oil prices and a brutal insurgency by the Islamist group Boko Haram, the March 28 vote is turning into the most contested race since Nigeria returned to civilian control in 1999.
Jonathan, a Christian from the southern Niger Delta, is trying to hold off the challenge from Muhammadu Burahi, a Muslim from the north and former military officer who led the country briefly during a period of military rule in the 1980s.
Buhari lost to Jonathan in the 2011 vote, and opposition protests over alleged voter fraud morphed into a spree of sectarian and ethnic rioting in many northern states.
Officials from Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party have accused Buhari of not wanting to participate in a debate because he fears his promises of change would be exposed as a publicity stunt.
But Shehu Garba, director of media and communication of the Buhari’s All Progressive Congress, said in past elections, Buhari participated in pre-election debates all by himself, when the PDP refused to send their candidate.
“So if they have avoided General Buhari three times in a sequence, now what is wrong in General Buhari saying, ‘I will not participate this time around?’” Garba said. “So, if you present yourself, you are dignifying President Jonathan with a debate, he is just going to stand there and insult you, abuse you and throw mud at you. So, General Buhari is not available for that.”
Some Nigerian media have speculated that Buhari’s suffers from ill health and that he could be pushed from office early if elected. Some critics have even demanded Buhari show a medical certificate that proves he is well.
Buhari “is as fit as a fiddle. He is an athlete and he exercises very well and his doctors have certified him fit,” Garba said. “In any case, who said that a medical certificate is a requirement for running for an office in Nigeria?”
“Our messages are simple and that is why General Buhari keeps his rallies short,” Garba said. “We will tackle corruption, security. We will deal with the economy and unemployment and then we will tackle the issue of infrastructure. Basically straightforward messages and these are the things that the country needs.”
Buhari and APC allies will be kicking off a southern swing for the campaign on Thursday, Gaban said, with rallies planned in the oil town of Port Harcourt on Thursday, followed by visits to Oweri and Ibadan.