Nigeria is gearing up for a tight presidential poll in four weeks’ time. But opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari has been in London for the past week and he won’t say much about why.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and biggest economy, faces its tightest presidential race ever on March 28. In one corner, there's the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, under fire for graft scandals and for failing to quell the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram.
In the other, there's Buhari, an ascetic former military dictator who ruled Nigeria in 1983-5, a stint best known for a crackdown on corruption and rule-breaking dubbed the "War Against Indiscipline." He has since run unsuccessfully for president three times.
Buhari's campaign team says he has met two former British prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, while in town. But they won't say what was discussed at the meetings, nor what other meetings he had during over one week in London.
Blair's office confirmed to BuzzFeed News he had a private meeting with Buhari in London on Feb. 21, but declined to comment further. Brown's office did not respond to repeated requests for confirmation.
Buhari has not used any foreign public relations or political consulting firms to set up this trip, Lai Mohammed, the spokesperson for Buhari's All Progressives Congress (APC) party, told BuzzFeed News.
The U.S. political consulting firm founded by former Obama message guru David Axelrod has done stints working for the APC as recently as December. Both Axelrod and the firm also currently work for the U.K.'s opposition Labour party, which Blair and Brown both belonged to when they were prime minister.
Buhari’s campaign team has given slightly different reasons for the trip at different times. At first, they presented it as a working visit to schmooze with “global institutions.”
However, later in the week, Buhari himself and the same campaign team official said the trip was primarily a private holiday to get a rest from campaigning in Nigeria, with a few official engagements thrown in.
"I have to come away from Nigeria to get some relative peace. That is what brought me here," Buhari told reporters on Thursday, after giving a speech at the London think-tank Chatham House. He pointed to the sudden six-week delay to Nigeria's election as giving him time to take a break.
Jonathan's supporters, such as this prolific tweeter based in New York, say the 72-year-old Buhari is secretly in town for medical treatment and has health problems. Buhari says he is fit.
And other Jonathan supporters staged a noisy protest outside Chatham House on Feb 26.
Jonathan and his ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) face their strongest challenge ever next month, having ruled Nigeria since the end of the last period of military rule in 1999.
The challenge to that long rein has helped lead to the increasingly intense and ragged mud-slinging between the two political camps. This might even account for the furtive nature of Buhari's trip.
"The politics in Nigeria is getting very dirty. So many people are keeping this [trip] close to their chest," said Bimbo Roberts Folayan, the chairman of the Central Association of Nigerians in the UK, who added that his association would normally be kept in the loop if a presidential candidate was in town.
Shyamantha Asokan is a foreign news reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Shyamantha Asokan at email@example.com.
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