Nigeria – Ruling party defections threaten President Buhari’s re-election prospects

Nigeria – Ruling party defections threaten President Buhari’s re-election prospects

- Geopolitical Risk - Intelligence


  • Senior lawmakers and three state governors defected from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The defections came after other lawmakers formed an opposition coalition against President Muhammadu Buhari’s second presidential term.
  • The APC lost its majority in the Senate after 15 senators defected, while its majority in the House of Representatives fell to two seats following the defection of 37 lawmakers. The defections worsen the already strained relationship between legislature and presidency, further slowing policy-making ahead of the February presidential election.
  • The defections will threaten President Buhari’s re-election chances if the PDP can rally behind a presidential candidate after the August-October primaries. The withdrawal of governors gives the PDP access to large patronage networks in key constituencies that helped Buhari win in 2015.

Prominent politicians defect from APC

Political uncertainty in Nigeria has increased after prominent APC politicians defected from the ruling party to join the main opposition party PDP in late July and early August. The defectors include the influential Senate President Bukola Saraki as well as the governors of Sokoto, Benue and Kwara states. They join fifteen senators and 37 lawmakers from the lower house, who also switched their allegiance to the PDP and other opposition parties.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara is also expected to defect in the coming weeks. The latest defections mark an escalation of a dispute within the ruling party, after many of the defectors previously formed a splinter group, the Reformed All Progressives Congress (R-APC), on 4 July. The splinter group rejected Buhari’s leadership and joined an opposition coalition on 9 July.

Reasons for defection

The defections are motivated primarily by political manoeuvring ahead of the 16 February 2019 presidential election, though defecting lawmakers have cited Buhari’s ineffective government for their decision. Those who broke with the ruling party are frustrated with their lack of influence in government, especially access to patronage networks linked to Buhari’s inner circle. Most defectors joined the party in 2013, when they crossed over from the PDP. Buhari has not, however, substantially rewarded the governors and lawmakers for their support.

For instance, a list of companies approved by the government to sell oil produced by the state oil company published in June favoured Buhari’s allies in southern states, rather than those linked to Saraki, Dogara or the three state governors. Defectors have also criticised Buhari for failing to offer them strong political support in the face of personal controversies. Senate President Saraki denounced Buhari for launching a corruption investigation into him over his links to bandits in his home state and opaque asset declarations. House speaker Dogara has also criticised Buhari for failing to support him in a power struggle with the governor of his home state Bauchi, Mohammed Abubakar.

Impact on President Muhammadu Buhari’s re-election chances

The fragmentation of the ruling party and defections of senior party members pose a significant threat to President Buhari’s re-election prospects, especially if the opposition can rally behind a single candidate. The coalition of PDP, African Democratic Congress (ADC), Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the R-APC faction will need to agree on a single candidate following primaries in August-October or risk splitting the opposition during the February poll.

There is no clear front-runner within the coalition, with Saraki, former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, Sokoto governor Aminu Tambuwal and Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso all vying for the position. The coalition is a loose alliance that includes former political rivals beset by internal divisions. For example, the nomination of Abubakar would likely drive former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s ADC out of the group due to historical rivalries. Failure to agree on a single candidate could in turn benefit Buhari by splitting the vote and preventing unified campaigning.

The defection of three state governors will have a particularly significant impact on the electoral map in 2019. State governors are highly influential in Nigeria, having access to large budgets and resulting patronage networks and personal followings. The defection of the Sokoto and Kwara state governors will bolster the PDP vote in two states that typically fall within President Buhari’s traditional voter base, the Muslim north.

The defection of Benue state governor, Samuel Ortom, in the usually highly contested Middle Belt will also lead constituencies loyal to the governor to vote for the PDP. The issue of voters switching to the opposition will also likely be exacerbated by widespread discontent over Buhari’s inability to contain communal violence between herders and farmers in central Nigeria, which has killed over 1,600 people in 2018.

Impact on policy making in Nigeria

The defections will also have immediate effects on policy-making, as the ruling APC has lost its majority in the Senate and its majority in the House of Representatives has been reduced to two votes in the 360-seat chamber. The defection of leaders of both houses of parliament will substantially worsen the prospect of coordination between the executive and the legislative branch, further obstructing policy-making.

  • Personal disputes between Saraki, Dogara and Buhari had previously slowed crucial legislative processes. For example, the 2018 budget bill only passed parliament after eight months of deliberation and included amendments that Buhari claimed made the budget impossible to implement. These tensions will have worsened after the defections and no significant legislation is likely to pass before the election. Saraki and Dogara will refuse to implement the government’s legislative priorities, such as increased infrastructure spending and a supplementary budget. The government will also now need opposition votes to pass the electoral budget for the February poll through the Senate.
  • Saraki and Dogara could use parliamentary oversight to obstruct government attempts to buy support ahead of the vote. Such attempts could include issuing lucrative government contracts to allies or using state funds to pay voters, as seen in the 14 July Ekiti state governorship election. On 18 July, the Senate initiated an investigation into alleged anomalies in the renewal of oil exploration licenses issued by the petroleum ministry.

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