A month before Nigeria’s presidential election, top candidates have been exchanging a colourful tirade of insults and accusations over their pasts, the state of their health and even calls for each other’s arrest. With barbs such as “wobbly, wonky” to describe a candidate, a reference to another’s “empire of fraud” and a likening to the “Artful Dodger” — Charles Dickens’ pickpocket character — the rhetoric has heated up as candidates campaign for the February 25 ballot. The election to replace President Muhammadu Buhari looks set to be a tight race, with a major third-party candidate challenging the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party and opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the first time since Nigeria’s military rule ended in 1999. Nigeria’s past elections were often marred by fraud, vote-buying and veiled rhetoric appealing to ethnic or regional loyalties in a country almost equally split between a Christian south and mostly Muslim north. Two of the favourites for the presidential election — APC’s Bola Tinubu and PDP’s Atiku Abubakar — are old guard politicians, both in their 70s, wealthy businessmen and accused of past corruption, charges they firmly and repeatedly deny. In recent weeks, Tinubu’s campaign has ramped up verbal attacks on Abubakar, accusing him of running a “criminal enterprise” and an “empire of fraud” by stealing public funds between 1999 and 2007, when the latter was vice-president. Tinubu, himself nicknamed “the Godfather of Lagos” for his political influence, called on his rival to withdraw or surrender to authorities for corruption. “They both seek to ‘demarket’ each other,” said Jude Ilo, an analyst at the Thoughts and Mace consulting firm. “The candidates, mainly from the APC and the PDP, are seeking to rally public opinion against each other.” More than 93 million Nigerians will go to the polls to elect a successor to Buhari, who steps down after two terms. Whoever wins the presidency of Africa’s most populous nation faces countless challenges, from armed gangs and jihadists, to high living costs that have helped push millions into poverty. A former Lagos governor, Tinubu dubs Abubakar “Mr Sell Everything”, describing him as ready “to run off the proceeds”. A US Senate investigation cites Abubakar’s name in a money-laundering case.