LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria's presidential race sparked to life Thursday with the announcement by Senate president Bukola Saraki that he intends to run next year.
Saraki is the most well-known challenger yet to President Muhammadu Buhari, the former military dictator who won office in 2015 with vows to fight widespread corruption and Boko Haram extremists in Africa's most populous nation. Both have proven to be difficult tasks.
The 75-year-old Buhari has repeatedly faced questions about his health after extended stays in Britain for treatment, while offering few details. He has said he will run for a second term.
"Why are we not growing? There is no time to waste," the 55-year-old Saraki said while announcing his candidacy during a speech to young politicians in the capital, Abuja, to cheers. "I have decided to answer the call."
Saraki, Nigeria's third most senior politician, late last month defected from the ruling All Progressives Congress party to the opposition People's Democratic Party, which he left four years ago. He met with former president and Buhari rival Goodluck Jonathan on Wednesday.
Days after Saraki's defection, Nigeria's political turmoil led to a dramatic standoff in the National Assembly early this month as agents of the Department of State Services prevented lawmakers from entering. Saraki called it "an act of cowardice by those seeking to carry out an illegal impeachment of the leadership of the Senate."
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, acting as president while Buhari was again in Britain, quickly fired the head of Nigeria's intelligence agency.
Buhari on Thursday in comments to the ruling party's national executive committee dismissed recent defections, saying that "the exit barely made a dent in our superstructure as they could not muster the figures they had envisaged to cause an upset" in the National Assembly.
The president also pledged "free, fair and credible" elections next year, repeating comments he made to British Prime Minister Theresa May on her visit to Nigeria on Wednesday.
Buhari's election win in 2015 was the first time in Nigeria's history that an opposition party had democratically taken control from the ruling party.