AGAINST a backdrop of corruption, poverty and insecurity, Africa’s most populous country goes to the polls next week. Foreign Editor David Pratt takes stock of the two main contenders in the battle to be Nigeria’s president.

Lagos is an assault on the senses. At times the Nigerian capital is nothing short of a tumultuous pandemonium, for in the city’s teeming streets are found some of the worst traffic congestion on the planet.

Sitting in what can feel like an interminable log jam of vehicles, it’s not uncommon to see the trucks of a special paramilitary police unit with the acronym KAI emblazoned on the vehicles sides.

The initials are short for the rather more colourful full name, ‘Kick Against Indiscipline Brigade’ a law enforcement unit that is the brainchild of former Major General Muhammadu Buhari who today serves as Nigeria’s president.

In many ways the KAI says a lot about Nigeria, set up as it was back in 1984 to crackdown on everything from illegal petty traders to controlling the city’s notorious criminal street gangs in some of the poorest neighbourhoods.

Buhari the ex-general, who led a short-lived military junta back in the 80’s, was elected president in 2015 by an electorate who by and large accepted his claim to be a “reformed democrat”.

Four years on he rules over a country beset with problems, whose population of 190 million, one the largest in the world, will next weekend go to the polls in an election that will be the judge on whether Buhari is worth re-electing

Running against him is fellow septuagenarian and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, a wealthy businessman whose pointed campaign slogan is “Let’s Get Nigeria Working Again”.

Should Atiku - as he’s widely known here - win, he will undoubtedly have his work cut out fulfilling that campaign pledge.

Indeed many Nigerians argue that there is little to choose between the two leading candidates one of whom has presided over four years of lacklustre growth and the other an alleged kleptocrat of international repute.

Nicknamed “Baba Go-Slow” by his political opponents in reference to his age and sluggish response to crises, Buhari many insist is way past his political sell by date.

Atiku on the other hand continues to have trouble shaking off the air of impropriety that has surrounded his business and political dealings since 2010.

It was back then that a US Senate Report on keeping foreign corruption out of the United States concluded that Atiku and one of his wives had transferred $40 million of “suspect funds” into American accounts and said that his business dealings “raise a host of questions about the nature and source” of his wealth.

For his part Atiku has denied the claims but if one thing is certain it’s that corruption remains a major problem in Nigeria. Indeed many in the country and beyond regard it as a kind of plague, comprehensively infecting public officials who have embezzled vast funds generated from Nigeria’s crude oil exports, the mainstay of its economy.

Analysts are near unanimous in their assertion that corruption is now the single greatest obstacle preventing Nigeria from achieving its enormous potential as an oil rich nation.

“Nigerians themselves view their country as one of the world’s most corrupt; it perennially ranks in the bottom quartile of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index,” says Matthew Page, a Nigeria expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“This is not because there is anything unique about Nigerians that make them more corrupt,” Page observes, but because of a “perfect storm” of circumstances.

Nigeria's vast oil reserves he says mean, “there’s an enormous amount of money flowing into public coffers.”

Years of military rule prior to the return to democracy in 1999 “resulted in a hollowing out of public institutions,” he explains.

Tales of corruption in Nigeria are legion. Page himself tells for example of the mile-long “monorail to nowhere” in the city of Port Harcourt.

There a state governor invested $400 million into building it then shortly before completion, his successor halted construction. “So, it's never run a single train,” says Page.

For analysts like Page and most ordinary Nigerians any amusement at such tales however is tempered by concern over the larger implications and impact corruption has on people’s lives.

Nigeria after all has now overtaken India as the world's poverty capital, according to a report by the Brookings Institution, a US-based think-tank.

The 2018 study estimated that 87 million people - slightly less than half of Nigeria’s population, were living in extreme poverty, compared with 73 million in India.

Four of every 10 people in the country’s workforce are either unemployed or underemployed. Half of its population also has no electricity despite billions of dollars budgeted for power supply over the years.

For many people beyond Nigeria’s shores this most populous country in Africa is perceived as an oil-rich state from which the majority benefit. But nothing could be further from the truth with most of the country’s citizens surviving on the equivalent of $1 dollar or less a day.

Nigeria might be oil-enriched but that is only one side of the story. This oil wealth in part accounts for its 15,700 millionaires and handful of billionaires, sixty per cent of which live in Lagos. But as with other African metropolises, Lagos has long nurtured an elite class only marginally inconvenienced by the squalor and poverty enveloping the city as a whole.

In short, this is a city and country of stark contrasts and nowhere is this more apparent that in the lives of the poorest, especially young women. Of the 250 million adolescent girls in the world living in poverty, more than 14 million live in Nigeria. During my last visit to the country I was to meet some of the poorest, among them a teenage girl in Lagos called Elizabeth who lived on the streets.

Elizabeth lost her mother when she was six years old and never really knew her father who was from the neighbouring West African country of Benin.

Sleeping rough anywhere is a terrifying experience. Here in the frenetic madness that is Nigeria’s capital, where somewhere between 13 million and 18 million people live, sleeping on the streets doesn’t bear thinking about, especially for a young woman.

“I used to pray before sleeping,” Elizabeth told me when we met, her voice almost drowned out by the roar of a nearby ubiquitous petrol generator that provides round-the-clock power in a city where the electricity supply is erratic.

Elizabeth’s bed was wherever she could lie down in comparative safety. For over a year her nights were spent curled up on top of a sack inside a flimsy street kiosk.

If darkness brought its own terrors then daytime was not much better for her.

“I lived by begging, sometimes I would rub menthol on my eyes to make tears, so that passersby might give me a little money,” the teenager confessed.

For those millions of Nigerians like Elizabeth who struggle to survive or eke out a living, next week’s elections might as well be happening on the moon for all the impact it will have on their lives.

But it’s not only corruption and widespread poverty that pose the key challenges to those politicians contesting next weekend’s ballot.

Insecurity is also a major electoral issue for President Buhari as he seeks re-election. When he came to office in 2015 he pledged to end attacks by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram but has since struggled to keep that promise.

Most analysts doubt the government’s claim of victory over Boko Haram. While evidence shows that the jihadists have been pushed out of some territories they held, Boko Haram still continue to ambush security forces, launch attacks on civilians, and stage kidnappings.

A recent escalation of attacks these past months has ensured that insecurity and the continuing battle against Boko Haram dominates the election campaign right now.

To date the Islamist insurgency in the north east of the country has resulted in some thirty thousand deaths and the internal displacement of up to two million Nigerians. During my last visit to the volatile north eastern region I was to see for myself the horrific and devastating impact this was having on people’s lives there.

It was during the final months of the country’s dry season when I arrived in the town of Gombe. Nigerians call the town the ‘jewel in the savannah’. But nothing much glitters here. Gombe might not be much of a jewel, but for one young man called Abbas his family and thousands like them, the town is a precious sanctuary of sorts.

Even before speaking with Abbas I sensed from the faces of his family some of the trauma they had undergone during the five months that Boko Haram had stalked their village, Nduva, in neighbouring Borno State.

“We had to stay indoors much of the time and couldn’t go to our farms, there was little food and water and always Boko Haram slaughtering people,” Abbas told me.

“They cut off people’s heads with knives and placed the heads back on top of the shoulders,” he continued his grisly account.

“The decapitated bodies were left to rot in the street without burial, a sign that Boko Haram regard them as Kafirs – non-believers – and as a warning to others,” he went on.

As he told his story, nearby clearly exhausted, his elderly mother, wife and children sat in the dust of the sparse rundown compound in which they now sheltered.

Lined up along one wall were a handful of bulging trolley bags and holdalls containing all the personal belongings they could carry during the five gruelling days it took them to escape their village and come to this impoverished neighbourhood in Gombe.

Abbas still remembered the day Boko Haram came to his village, their black flags fluttering from the speeding pick-up trucks that had heavy machine guns on tripods bolted down in the back. Some fighters also arrived on motorcycles and others on foot, quickly overrunning Nduva.

“The moment you violated their instructions they either cut your throat or shot you,” he recalled. “I saw people tied up crouching, waiting to be butchered in this way.”

For what seemed like endless months, Abbas, his family, neighbours and other villagers lived in constant fear, struggling to survive as the cost of basic items soared.

It was only when the Nigerian Army fought its way into the area and gaps in the Boko Haram defences opened up that Abbas family and a handful of others managed to slip away.

In the days that followed, they trekked over 60 miles across scrubland studded with acacias and baobab trees that provided the only shelter from the searing sun. Finally they arrived at the town of Damboa, from where they journeyed to the comparative safety of Gombe.

The story of Abbas and his family is far from unique and the plight of those displaced by Boko Haram’s violence goes on unabated. These past days as Nigeria gears up for its election, thousands of people have fled in a continuous stream over the border into neighbouring Cameroon after Boko Haram attacked the town of Rann.

Andrew Mews, Country Director in Nigeria of the humanitarian organisation’ Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said the attacks gave the lie to suggestions of improved stability in the country’s north-east.

“The emergency is not over yet,” said Mews. “There’s been quite a lot of talk that perhaps the situation is stabilised, and that we could start looking at doing more development activities in the north-east, but the reality is the context doesn’t allow that. We wish that was the case.”

So too no doubt does President Buhari who has staked much of his election campaigning on the claim that Boko Haram are effectively neutralised. It’s against this stark unpalatable reality of the insurgents continued presence however that he will take on Atiku in the 16 February vote.

While there are more than 60 other candidates, it really only boils down to these two men who between them have run for president on nine occasions. That the election matters far beyond Nigeria goes without saying.

One out of every four sub-Saharan Africans is a Nigerian, and Nigeria’s economy is among the two largest on the continent. Given the country’s heft, credible elections next week would be a boost for multi ethnic democracy in Africa. But concerns over the outcome and post election period remain.

“In a society as ethnically and religiously divided as Nigeria’s, democracy is as fragile as an egg; if not handled carefully, it could drop and shatter into a thousand pieces impossible to glue back together,” warned the Polish-Nigerian journalist and political analyst Remi Adekoya last week. Few would be inclined to disagree with such an assessment.