By Eromo Egbejule and Ruth Olurounbi
Abuja, Nigeria – In April 2003, four years after Nigeria’s return to democracy, 11 of the 36 state governors were defeated at the polls after serving just one of two constitutionally allowed four-year terms.
One of them was Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, who lost control of Kano, economic hub of the country’s more populous north, to Ibrahim Shekarau, a man he had demoted from senior civil servant to classroom teacher after a disagreement between them.
Two decades later, Kwankwaso, 66, has remarkably turned around his fortunes and is in the race to succeed outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari.
For the first time in Nigerian history, the presidential race is no longer a two-horse contest. This time, the race to lead Africa’s biggest economy is between 18 contestants. Four candidates lead the pack, including Kwankwaso.
Most of the attention has so far been focused on Bola Ahmed Tinubu, leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and former governor of Lagos, Nigeria’s economic powerhouse; former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the leading opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Obi, former governor of the southeastern state of Anambra.
A few polls have put Labour Party’s Obi ahead, with Kwankwaso lagging behind or being excluded.
Still, he claims to be unfazed, insisting that he and his newly-formed New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) can win the vote. His opponents, he told Al Jazeera, are “spare tyres” interested only in taking “everything for themselves in the country”.
“We have tremendous goodwill,” said the politician who first emerged on the national scene by winning a federal parliament seat in 1992. “Nigerians are wiser now than many people thought.”
Across the northwest, which has 22.5 million voters – Kano accounts for a fourth of that (the second highest count nationwide) – Kwankwaso is immensely popular.
Various reports estimate that the Kwankwasiyya – his followers, who wear the same trademark red Sufi cap as the one they call Madugu (Hausa for “leader”) and dwell on his every word – are as many as three million people, mostly youths.
To clinch the presidency, a candidate must secure the highest votes and 25 percent in two-thirds of all the states. So even those who dismiss his chances still see him as a wildcard who could force a runoff – another first in Nigeria’s political history.
And Kwankwaso knows this, even if he does not envisage a second round.
“Those guys who are sponsoring media and sponsoring opinion polls to go write fake results can go ahead,” he told Al Jazeera. “We know results will come out and Nigerians and even the international community will be surprised.”
The winner will need more than goodwill to stabilise a country facing numerous issues.
More than half of the country lives on less than $2 a day despite Buhari’s pledge to lift 100 million people from poverty. Unemployment rose from 9.9 percent in 2015 – after Buhari’s inauguration – to 33.3 percent in 2021, according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics.
There are multiple security crises spread across Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones, including rampant banditry and secessionist agitations by multiple armed groups. Additionally, a crusade of terror by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has displaced more than two million people and left thousands dead in the northeast since 2009.
For Kwankwaso, it is another challenge worthy of taking on.
In her book Economic Diversification in Nigeria: The Politics of Building a Post-Oil Economy, Zainab Usman writes that after losing out in 2003, being appointed defence minister by the federal government did not improve his local standing.
“In this so-called political obscurity, Kwankwaso vowed to, if given a second chance as governor, immortalise his legacy by tackling the socio-economic problems in Kano,” wrote Usman, now director of the Africa Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He wanted to join the list of Kano’s revered leaders … and position himself for a potential presidential run, which he attempted in 2015.”
After winning re-election in 2011, he subtly styled himself after Aminu Kano, the progressive Islamic scholar and socialist politician who led an opposition against British colonial rule in the 1940s and also loved red caps.
Kwankwaso, a known micromanager, also came up with “the idea of a welfare state whereby he mainstreamed the needs of the people”, Abdulkasim Abdulkadir, an Abuja-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera. “Infrastructural development and urban renewal of Kano began, he gave commoners access to education and healthcare.”
The “game changer”, he added, was free education at all levels and establishing two universities and dozens of schools in the state known for high numbers of Almajirai, child beggars.
He also instituted a scholarship scheme for thousands from low-income households to study marine engineering, aviation, medicine and other disciplines in universities across the world.
The transparency in the selection process boosted his popularity, Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), told Al Jazeera.
“You can touch and feel the love for Kwankwaso by young people in Kano,” she said. “I’ve seen people I personally know of, who were in Arabic school, get the opportunity to go to school in Uganda, Malaysia and different parts of the world under his scholarship … he visited and fraternised with them as if they are his friends … he gave each state of the country three scholarships to one university.”
“[More] often than not, when we talk about scholarships in Nigeria, more than 70 percent [of beneficiaries] will be somebody who knows somebody influential,” Hassan explained. “But in this regard, in almost every family, they applied and got selected.”
“[It] no doubt changed the fortunes of many families as it gave them access to a better life [and] he in turn earned their unflinching loyalty,” Abdulkadir told Al Jazeera.
He has continued to give grants to small businesses even after leaving office.
That grassroots love provided the momentum for a second-place finish – and national name relevance – in the 2014 APC presidential primaries, after eventual President Buhari but ahead of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar.
In 2018, Abubakar returned the favour, beating Kwankwaso to the PDP ticket, both men having exited the governing party.
If elected, Kwankaso plans to reproduce policies he implemented in Kano and also prioritise tackling security, he told Al Jazeera. He intends to increase Nigeria’s understaffed police force and retrain them as well as recruit heavily to swell the military to four times its current size.
He insists he is used to being underestimated politically and can secure 25 percent of the votes in all northern states as well as make inroads into the south.
“In 1999, when I was contesting to become governor, many people thought that they were more important candidates, but we had a landslide,” he told Al Jazeera. “The same thing happened in 1992. Not only did I win my election as a member of the House of Representatives … but I became the deputy speaker.”
Still, some say his influence in this election cycle is limited.
“He won’t make much of an impact in this election because he is squeezed between Tinubu and Atiku in the north and is not well known at all in the south,” Joachim MacEbong, senior governance analyst at Lagos-based data analytics consultancy Stears Intelligence, told Al Jazeera. “His prospects are best served for subsequent cycles, as Buhari and one [or both] of Tinubu and Atiku will not be in play.”
“His support is almost entirely in one state and, at best, very small percentages of neighbouring states such as Bauchi and Jigawa,” Lagos-based political risk advisory SBM Intelligence wrote in a research note.
“However, his ability to win votes in Kano as a key state can deny any potential winner the constitutional requirement of a simple majority of votes cast and 25% of votes cast in 24 states to emerge a winner. He could be a key reason if the presidential elections should get to a runoff.”
For Hassan, ruling out Kwankwaso, who has been visiting traditional rulers in parts of northern and central Nigeria recently to campaign without media fanfare, is premature.
“The story that is not being told is that he is operating as an insurgent politician, going from village to village to campaign,” she said. “I believe he will be the kingmaker in this election, especially if it gets to a second round.”