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Atiku’s candidacy and Nigeria’s delicate balance

Atiku’s candidacy and Nigeria’s delicate balance
June 04
23:29 2022

If power does not go to the south in 2023, the pivotal role of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar will have to be scrutinised. His life ambition is to be president of Nigeria and his influence on the leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) effectively ensured that the main opposition party did not zone presidency to the south. With Rt Hon Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, governor of Sokoto state, dropping out at the last minute and handing over his votes to Atiku, a fellow northerner, there was going to be only one outcome. Atiku secured 371 delegate votes, outscoring Governor Nyesom Wike who got 237. The margin of 134 is attributed to the Tambuwal effect, to the chagrin of many southerners.

Dr Iyorchia Ayu, the PDP chairman and Atiku’s long-time associate, was caught on video celebrating Tambuwal as a “hero”. The immediate implication is that the All Progressives Congress (APC) will now have to take a decision: to zone its ticket to the north to counter Atiku or zone to the south for the sake of national sensitives. The easiest way to achieve rotation was for the two leading parties to zone to the south. Head or tail, presidential power would have gone to the south. However, the choice of Atiku as PDP’s flagbearer will test APC’s fidelity to the political understanding on rotation. Senator Abdullahi Adamu, the APC chairman, has been telling us there is no decision yet on zoning.

To refresh our memories, next year will mark the 30th anniversary of Atiku’s presidential ambition. His first attempt was in 1993 under the now-defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP). With the Option A4 experiment performed by the electoral commission, there were four stages to become a presidential candidate. Hence the name: Option A4. The first was at ward level, the second at local government, the third at state and the fourth at national. Every state had a presidential flagbearer, and since Nigeria had 30 states then, there were 30 contestants in each of the two parties. The SDP presidential convention was held at the Jos Township Stadium, Plateau state, on March 27-29.

Atiku was the SDP candidate from Adamawa, Bashorun MKO Abiola from Ogun and Alhaji Babagana Kingibe, former SDP chairman, from Borno. These were the top contenders. Kingibe had most of the SDP governors on his side, Atiku had Maj-Gen Shehu Musa Yar’Adia (rtd) and his political machinery, while Abiola had name recognition and widespread goodwill. At the end of the first round of voting in which delegates had to pick three contestants in order of preference, Abiola came tops with 3,617 votes, Kingibe second with 3,225 and Atiku third with 2,066. There was no clear majority. That meant there was going to be a run-off where delegates were limited to picking only one choice.

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Abiola went into intense negotiations with Yar’Adua/Atiku, reportedly promising to make Atiku his running mate if they jointly fended off Kingibe. With deal sealed, Atiku informed his supporters just before the second round of voting that he was quitting the race. “Distinguished national delegates, I very much appreciate your endorsement last night… But in order to ensure a rancour-free election tonight, I beg and I plead with you to allow me to discontinue the race,” he said. Abiola polled 2,683 votes to Kingibe’s 2,456 and was crowned the presidential candidate. He ended up picking Kingibe, and not Atiku, as his running mate and went on to win the June 12, 1993 poll. It was sadly annulled.

Meanwhile, Atiku kept nurturing his ambition. After winning the 1999 governorship in Adamawa on the platform of the PDP, he was picked as VP candidate by President Olusegun Obasanjo. But since he had his eyes on the presidency, he set up campaign structures ahead of 2003 — despite Obasanjo being eligible for second term. He said he had three options: to support Obasanjo, to go with Dr Alex Ekwueme, and to contest himself. He later pulled back but Obasanjo still blocked him in the PDP in 2007. He defected to the Action Congress (AC), ran for president and came third behind Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (PDP), sibling of his mentor, and Maj-Gen Muhammadu Buhari (ANPP).

With Yar’Adua terminally ill, Atiku returned to the PDP to pursue his ambition, insisting that it was the north’s turn after the south had done eight years through Obasanjo. President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner who became president after Yar’Adua’s death in May 2010, also wanted to run in 2011 and disingenuously denied the existence of power rotation in the PDP. Atiku rallied the north to produce a “consensus candidate” to face Jonathan at the primary, with Gen Ibrahim Babangida, Dr Bukola Saraki and Gen Aliyu Gusau all showing interest. The Northern Political Leaders Forum (NPLF), led by Mallam Adamu Ciroma, picked Atiku but he still lost the ticket to Jonathan.

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In a sense, the bitterness over power rotation in 2011, not ameliorated in any way by Atiku’s bid to get PDP’s ticket, gravely poisoned the geo-political atmosphere and I am of the opinion that we are still suffering from the consequences. Jonathan went ahead to win the presidential election in 2011, claiming 16 out of the 17 southern states and seven of the 19 northern states. Some key northern politicians supported him, allegedly with the pact that he would do only one term. Atiku stayed behind until it became clear Jonathan would run again in 2015. He walked out on the party, teamed up with the newly formed APC — an amalgam of four opposition parties — to help crush PDP.

Atiku re-launched his presidential quest in APC, but he could only come third in the primary as Buhari got the ticket with 3,430 votes. Dr Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso came second with 974 votes, while the former vice-president scored 954. In 2017, with the message quite clear that Buhari would seek a second term, Atiku returned to PDP yet again to continue the pursuit of his life ambition of being president. He was promoted as the best northerner to tackle Buhari in the 2019 presidential poll and he did not do his chances any harm by winning PDP’s primary, getting 1,532 delegate votes and pushing Tambuwal, who was heavily backed by Wike, to a very distant second with 693 votes.

Having lost the election to Buhari in 2019, Atiku was assumed to have ended his Aso Rock pursuit. It was expected that with Buhari in power from 2015 to 2023, it was only logical for PDP and APC to pick candidates from the south next. But Atiku would have none of it. He came back on the scene and has now won the PDP ticket, in the process kicking against the power rotation he had vehemently stood for in 2011. “The PDP, of which I am a founding member, should focus on winning, not on zoning,” he said in an interview. I recall arguing in 2010 that Atiku was only interested in actualising his lifelong ambition and not particularly keen on the rotation policy.

By now spitting on power rotation, Atiku has somehow vindicated my perception of him: that all he wants is power. He has participated in every presidential primary since 2007 — zoning or no zoning. The Atiku I know is not an ethnic champion or bigot, contrary to the impression he created in 2011 when he wanted the PDP ticket by any means necessary, even dangerously invoking John F. Kennedy’s quote about “those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable”. I testify that he is a broadminded Nigerian with friends and associates across every tribe and tongue, but he was so desperate for the ticket in 2011 he gleefully played the regional game.

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Finally, I want to be clear: I believe Atiku has every right to contest and has not broken any law by doing so. I also believe he is competent and has the experience to lead the country. However, he has proved not to be much of a statesman. His life-long ambition has the potential to upset Nigeria’s fragile balance at a time there is so much discontent with the union. Moreover, there are equally competent and experienced southerners. Our nationhood is constantly under threat because of our fault lines and sensitivities. I worry deeply that we are threading this divisive path yet again. If he wins the presidential election, power could be in the north for 12, or even 16, years non-stop.

It is particularly worrisome because of the inevitable scenarios. Whatever the APC does at its presidential convention this week will come with challenges. One, if the ruling party goes ahead to field a southerner, our troubling fault lines may be magnified. It may be cast as North vs South, as we saw in previous elections in parts of the country with the attendant consequences that we are still having to live with. I am one of those who believe that regional tensions are a major distraction to Nigeria’s development as sectional groups and ethnic champions continue to heat up the polity and make parts of the country ungovernable just to score a point. We can’t progress like this.

Two, if the APC decides to go north so as to snuff out any potential advantage that fielding Atiku can confer on the PDP, that would even be more problematic. We are going to be left having to pick between six and half a dozen, or between and betwixt. The majority of southerners may be left with a feeling of being edged out of the game, and this can only further widen and deepen our fault lines and create a hostile polity for several years to come. It is glaring that there will always be consequences either direction APC faces: north or south. Unfortunately, when the deed has been done, it is the rest of us, who are neither APC nor PDP, that will have to live with the consequences.

There is a third scenario: if APC/PDP decide to field northerners, the possibility of a third force — which will unfortunately further divide us along regional lines — may be stronger than ever. A possible southern solidary forged with some northern states may upset the APC/PDP duopoly and redraw our electoral map. I am not saying it is a certainty, but we have eight months to the elections and there is enough time for planning, realignment and mobilisation of forces. There will be unpalatable dynamics as regional tensions will become well pronounced again. All these scenarios because the PDP, in a bid to help the northern aspirants, did not do the rational thing on zoning.

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AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

TINUBU’S OUTBURST

Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu broke the internet on Thursday and Friday following his series of outbursts in Abeokuta, Ogun state, while addressing delegates to the APC presidential convention. The former governor of Lagos state, who is seeking his party’s presidential ticket, outlined how he has been betrayed by the people he toiled for day and night to help get into positions of power. While I cannot judge him for feeling the way he does (I think every human being will feel bitter about betrayals), I am amazed that he said all that in a public place, on camera and at a time no candidate had been openly endorsed by President Buhari. I think Tinubu needs to be calming down. Tact.

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UNIFORMED KIDNAPPERS?

Samuel Kanu Uche, the head of the Methodist Church Nigeria (MCN), is arguably the most prominent victim of kidnap-for-ransom in recent times. He was abducted by gunmen along the Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway in Umunneochi LGA of Abia state on Sunday. He said it took a N100 million ransom to get him and two other clerics freed. He made serious allegations against soldiers whom he said were involved in the dastardly crime. Although I flinched when he described them as “Fulani and non-Christians” because it sounds like the profiling that has become the order of the day, the military authorities will do Nigerians a world of good by investigating this diligently. Creepy.

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DREAM KILLERS

You can never make up some things about this our country. D’Tigress, our enterprising and inspirational female basketball team, fought tooth and nail to qualify for the 2022 International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Women’s World Cup in Australia. We were still clinking glasses to celebrate the feat when the Nigerian government announced that we were withdrawing from international basketball for two years “to revamp the sport from the grassroots”. There is apparently a power tussle in the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF) and the best way to resolve it is to slice off our nose to spite our face. We are killing the spirit of these athletes. What a country. Senseless.

AND FINALLY…

Mr Tanko Sabo, from Kaduna state, became an instant sensation on Wednesday when he disclosed that he had reinvested the money he made as a delegate in the welfare of his people. He did not reveal exactly how much he made but said he paid N6.9 million as WAEC and NECO fees for 150 orphans and the underprivileged, spent N3.2 million to buy 42 customised football jerseys for youths in his community, and another N350,000 to support elders, women and “executive beggars”. The economics of electioneering can be seen in the trickle-down effect in Sabo’s case. It is like wealth redistribution, although we would be overstretching things by saying he is Robin Hood. Amusing.

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