By Alexis Akwagyiram
MAKURDI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s bid for re-election next year could hinge on the swing states of the country’s “Middle Belt”. Worryingly for him, a surge in violence there and rising food prices are chipping away at his support.
The 75-year-old former military ruler declared this week that he would seek another term, ending months of speculation about his future after bouts of ill health. His candidacy still depends on party approval, which is seen as a formality.
He was responding to public “clamor” to run again, his spokesman said, but among those caught up in clashes between semi-nomadic herdsmen and settled farmers in the central Benue state there was little sign of enthusiasm.
“We will look for someone who is fit to protect lives and property in Nigeria,” said Philip Usartse, a farmer who fled with his family when armed herdsmen attacked their village in January, leaving corpses and burnt houses in their wake.
“We are going to fish him out of that office,” the 42-year-old added.
At stake is the leadership of Africa’s top oil producer and most populous nation that is central to regional stability as it battles Islamist militants concentrated in the northeast.
During Buhari’s presidency, the Boko Haram insurgency has lost most of the territory it held, but it still carries out suicide bombings and kidnappings.
Buhari’s party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), says he is the person to modernize refineries and roads and stimulate agriculture to wean Nigeria off its dependence on oil.
But the main opposition People’s Democratic Party, which has yet to choose its candidate, says Buhari’s protectionist policies have stifled growth, and fueled joblessness, unemployment and crime.
Hundreds of people have been killed this year in the Middle Belt, and Usartse, his wife and four children are among an estimated 35,000 people living in the Abagena camp on the outskirts of Benue state capital Makurdi.
The sprawling camp, where generations of the same family share mats to sleep and flies swirl around weary children, is a visible product of the clashes. So too was the public mourning in the city in…