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For the first time in Nigeria's 16 years of democracy, there is real chance that the president could be someone other than the candidate of the People's Democratic Party (PDP).

Many times, I have described Muhammadu Buhari, the man who will face Jonathan in 2015, as a "perennially-losing presidential candidate".

In 2003 he emerged as the sole candidate of the All Peoples Party (APP), after two candidates Rochas Okorocha and Harry Akande were pressured into stepping down, while Yahaya Abubakar failed to show up on the date of the primary. In the elections, Buhari lost to then incumbent, Olusegun Obasanjo of the PDP.

In 2007, he was consensus candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) after Bukar Ibrahim and Pere Ajunwa were made to back down on

For the first time in the last 16 years - Nigeria's longest spell of democracy - there is a real chance that the president could be someone other than the candidate of the People's Democratic Party (PDP).

Many times, I have described Muhammadu Buhari, the man who will face Jonathan in 2015, as a "perennially-losing presidential candidate".

In 2003 he emerged as the sole candidate of the All Peoples Party (APP), after two candidates Rochas Okorocha and Harry Akande were pressured into stepping down, while Yahaya Abubakar failed to show up on the date of the primary. In the elections, Buhari lost to then incumbent, Olusegun Obasanjo of the PDP.

In 2007, he was consensus candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) after Bukar Ibrahim and Pere Ajunwa were made to back down on convention day. Buhari then lost to PDP's Umaru Musa Yar'Adua.

In 2011, he contested the elections on the platform of the Congress for Progressives Change (CPC), which he formed, losing again, to Goodluck Jonathan. In all three cases, his emergence was without intra-party opposition.

But I am first to admit that Buhari's story has changed. By contesting and winning the presidential primary of the All Progressive Congress (APC) - the first time his presidential ambition has been challenged - Buhari has recorded the most important victory of his political career. And if the 2015 election is free and fair, he could well better that record.

Why Buhari may win

Buhari remains the single most popular man in northern Nigeria. Despite lacking real party structure, Buhari, with CPC in 2011, defeated Jonathan in Yobe, Zamfara, Sokoto, Niger, Kebbi, Katsina, Kano, Kaduna, Gombe and Jigawa. He single-handedly polled a total of 12,214,853 votes, which amounted to 54.3 percent of Jonathan's tally. Riding on the back of APC's nationwide structure backed by 14 governors and their war chest, a Buhari victory in 2015 is quite possible.

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Buhari is popular outside the north as well. Four days after he created his Twitter account (@ThisIsBuhari), he had already amassed 45,000 followers. This is testament to Buhari's growing national - not just northern - acceptability, because the north remains Nigeria's least literate zone. The north, therefore, has a sparse population of Internet users, which means that Buhari's crowd of Twitter followers probably come from across the country.

In truth, Buhari cannot take full credit for his popularity outside the north. Full marks should go to Goodluck Jonathan, the man who has unravelled as the antithesis of his opponent's unique selling point.

Presidential spokesman Reuben Abati can deliver the floweriest prose about his boss's aversion to corruption while his colleague Doyin Okupe hurls the foulest words at the opposition and other Nigerians daily puncturing the president's professed incorruptibility. But the majority of Nigerians have come to accept that Jonathan, even if re-elected for 10 terms, will never fight corruption. The courage is lacking, the political will is nonexistent, the desperation for re-election is so consuming that he would not hurt the weakest of his corrupt political allies. So Nigerians are prepared to turn to Buhari, unarguably the least stained presidential aspirant in the eyes of the people.

When APC was formed in February 2013, senior PDP figures dismissed it as a failure-bound union of four parties. Who would blame them? Many were sceptical that this merger would not survive even a year. Yet, in another two months, this merger would be two years old. But that is not the story.

The story is that all APC presidential aspirants defeated by Buhari have offered him their support. Few expected it. Atiku Abubakar, the man most expected to bolt out of APC in the event of a loss, congratulated Buhari the moment the ex-general's vote count overtook his, even though the winner had not yet been officially announced at the time. There is a massive movement for Buhari, which Jonathan didn't face in 2011.

Negative perceptions

That Buhari stands a good chance of winning does not mean he is not facing challenges. Nigerians, though forgetful, are largely an unforgiving lot. Their memories only need to be reignited by reminders of an individual's past indiscretions.

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That was what Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka did, first in 2007; and his thoughts have been massively re-circulated since Buhari's emergence as the APC candidate. The unjust execution of Lawal Ojuolape, Bernard Ogedengbe and Bartholomew Owoh, through a retroactive decree, will haunt Buhari ahead of February.

There is nothing Muhammadu Buhai can do - and he himself knows - to extricate himself from his perception as a religious bigot. For the second time running, he has chosen a pastor as his running mate. But even if he chooses a pope, there are Nigerians who won't pick Buhari for fear of enthroning a religiously extreme president.

In 2011, Buhari was accused of inciting the violence that followed his loss to Jonathan. The following year, he said "the dog and the baboon would all be soaked in blood" should the 2015 election be rigged. Buhari has shed blood before for his presidential ambition, some people believe. And they think he would do it again. Such man, they reason, should never taste power.

And there are those who would never vote for a 72-year-old. How can APC be trumpeting change while fielding a man who was military president more than three decades ago? That's no change; it's recycling.

The candidature of a septuagenarian is a dent on whatever progress we think we have made as a democracy. And although there have been arguments on the immorality of voting for either Buhari or Jonathan, Nigeria badly needs the "recycled freshness" that voting Jonathan out would herald!

Fisayo Soyombo edits Nigerian online newspaper TheCable. 

Source: Al Jazeera