As founder of one of Nigeria’s top investigative news websites, Omoyele Sowore takes a quiet pride in winding up his country’s rulers. In 12 years running the "Sahara Reporters" news portal, he has run up no shortage of libel suits and death threats, plus the occasional arrest warrant. His most daring moment, though, was when his staff confronted Robert Mugabe during a state visit in 2015, and asked the 91-year-old if he’d ever give up power.
"It was a big risk, because his security people were pissed off and they pulled a gun on us, " says Mr Sowore, whose footage of his colleague Adeola Fayehun doggedly chasing Mr Mugabe went viral across Africa. "But it showed people he wasn’t invincible."
In 2017, Mr Mugabe finally stepped down as leader of Zimbabwe, leaving Africa with one less geriatric leader in charge. Yet as Mr Sowore notes wearily, when it comes to the 2019 Nigerian presidential elections" the gerontocracy is still very much alive – if not necessarily well.
On Saturday, just hours before voting was due to begin Nigeria’s electoral commission delayed the election until February 23 over unspecified "challenges" amid reports that voting materials have not been delivered to all parts of the country.
Commission chairman Mahmood Yakubu said that "this was a difficult decision to take but necessary for successful delivery of the elections and the consolidation of our democracy." In 2015, Nigeria delayed the election by six weeks over insecurity.
The incumbent in the looming election is President Muhammadu Buhari, 76, who has spent months of his time in office having treatment abroad for suspected cancer. Meanwhile, the chief challenger is a fellow septuagenarian, Atiku Abubakar, 72, a former vice-president who has run for the top job four times before without success. Both are stalwarts of the old, incompetent establishment that has served Nigeria so poorly in the past. But since both enjoy the backing of the two main parties, it is effectively a two-horse race, with Mr Buhari the marginal favourite.
That, though, is not stopping Mr Sowore, a relative youngster at 48, from making a presidential bid himself. After years of exposing how the rotten the system is, he has reluctantly concluded that that the only way to change it is from within.
"Nigeria has a very young population, yet we are ruled by a bunch of frail old people who are living in the past," he told The Daily Telegraph while campaigning in Nigeria’s western Ondo State. A majority of eligible voters in Africa’s most populous nation are now 35 or younger, a demographic that will help double the continent’s population by 2050. At at least 14 million young voters registered since 2017.
"I’ve spent years reporting on them," Mr Sowore added of his competitors. "Yet it gets to a point where it doesn’t actually matter what you write, they don’t care. Eventually, I thought: ‘I can probably do better than these guys myself’."
Certainly, few would argue that Mr Buhari’s performance could not be improved on. A tough, austere former general, he was elected in 2015 on pledges to stamp out rampant state corruption and crush the Boko Haram insurgency that has claimed nearly 30,000 lives.
Yet from being defeated, Boko Haram has been in resurgence in recent months, terrorising towns that the government had declared recaptured. And while Mr Buhari has introduced measures to make government financing more transparent, the sluggish performance of the oil-based economy has meant that few Nigerians have seen the benefit.
In 2017, he also spent five months receiving undisclosed private medical treatment in London, fuelling speculation that he had cancer. In December, he was even forced to deny rumours that he had actually died, and had been replaced by a body double from Sudan.
Against Mr Buhari’s lucklustre presence, the main challenger, Mr Abubakar, has been able to present himself as relatively dynamic, despite being only four years younger.
A wealthy businessman and admirer of Margaret Thatcher’s free-market policies, he paints himself both as a politician and philanthropist. In 2004, he bankrolled a private university in Nigeria’s north-east, revealing that his father, a conservative Muslim, had tried to stop him having a Western education. Among those on bursaries at the university are former schoolgirl hostages from Chibok, where Boko Haram staged a mass abduction five years ago.
Yet Mr Abubakar’s image as a benign patriarch is not unblemished. Much of his early wealth came from running a docks logistics company when he was also a top customs official, leading to claims of conflicts of interest. In 2006, he was also accused of taking a $500,000 bribe from William J. Jefferson, a US Republican Congressman, in return for help winning a Nigerian telecoms contract. He denies wrongdoing.
"Buhari came in with high expectations in terms of cleaning things up, and hasn’t really managed," said Matthew Page, a Nigeria analyst at London’s Chatham House thinktank. "But Abubakr isn’t suggesting any real reforms. He’s an old school wheeler-dealer, who is just saying: ‘let’s go back to the existing broken system of patronage, and see if we can squeeze a few more years out of it’."
Criticising that system has been lifeblood of Mr Sowore’s website, which operates from the US, where he moved after spending his youth in political activism in Nigeria. To its critics, the website is simply a gossipmonger, but to its fans, who include many diplomats, it is an African Wikileaks. Among the other cases it has covered is that of James Ibori, an ex-Delta region governor jailed in Britain in 2012 for using millions of pounds of embezzled cash to buy flats in Mayfair and Hampstead.
Although Mr Sowore runs a network of reporters in Nigeria, having the website based Stateside makes it harder for Nigeria’s political class to silence it, either by writ or by force.
Still, when it comes to winning elections, the old-school politicians in Nigeria still have the upper hand. Mr Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) party charges nearly £100,000 just to stand for nomination as a candidate, while Mr Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party charges around £25,000. Campaign spending also runs into the tens of millions. That makes politics a game only for the very rich, or for those who can find a "Godfather" figure to back them, who later demands favours.
Vote-buying is also rampant, as Mr Sowore, who has financed his campaign through crowd-funding, has now experienced first-hand for himself.
"We get people asking us for 5,000 Naira (about £20) to vote for them or attend a rally," he said. "But they stopped asking when they realised we were talking about how to actually make the country better."
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