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Published On: Sun, Jul 29th, 2018

Atiku: As the serial defector declares

are the odds in his favour this time

By OBINNA EZUGWU

A serial defector, former vice president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, back in the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), is poised to take one final shot at Nigeria’s highest office, the presidency, for the fourth time. At 72, the Adamawa born politician’s days in active politics is in twilight.

It’s a political journey that has seen him go from Social Democratic Party (SDP) to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), to Action Congress (AC), back to PDP, then to All Progressives Congress (APC) and again back to PDP. 2019 will most likely be his last chance, but it could possibly be his best.

With his former boss, turned political adversary, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo out of the PDP, Atiku would have a real chance of finally flying the presidential flag of a major political party in an election, and it’s a party very much on the ascendancy; one which, with each passing day, its chances of toppling the ruling APC gets ever brighter.

The blatant failures of the President Muhammadu Buhari led APC government has given rise to a scenario similar to one that brought him to power in 2015, after being rejected three times prior. With his government dismissed as inept and riddled with corruption, former president, Goodluck Jonathan faced a situation in 2015 where most Nigerians wanted anybody but him. That anybody happened to be Buhari, who became the presidential candidate of the APC, a party that had through mergers and coalitions, evolved into a formidable opposition party.

But his government has so far, in many people’s reckoning, proved to be more inept, and indeed, more corrupt than the one it replaced. And like in 2015, 2019 could yet present a scenario where Nigerians would seek to elect anybody but Buhari.

And thus far, Atiku stands shoulder high above the rest and is looking likely to be that anybody this time. But he faces stiff challenge from other equally formidable aspirants like former Kano governor, Musa Kwankwaso; former Jigawa governor, Sule Lamido; Gombe governor, Ibrahim Hassan Dankwambo and a number of others in the race for the party’s ticket.

As it happened in the lead up to 2015 several political parties and political heavyweights merging into APC to remove Jonathan, it is happening in the lead up to 2019 with parties and top politicians fusing into a PDP-led alliance to oust Buhari.

But Buhari is no Jonathan who was, in all honesty, a political orphan from a minority ethnic groups and a region weakened politically by war. For the former vice president, it’s a long walk on a road riddled with thorns and traps, enough to ensure that the woes that has been his lot since he first sought to become president in 1993 under the SDP could continue.

Having spent over 20 years in the Nigerian Customs Service, rising to the position of Deputy Controller General, Atiku retired his khaki in 1991 and stepped into the murky waters of the Nigerian politics. He has had fortunes and misfortunes aplenty and 2019 would define him more than any.

That year, 1991, he sought to govern the then Gongola State under the SDP. He won the parties primaries, but was disqualified from contesting, and in any case, before the election could hold, the state was broken up into two states: Adamawa and Taraba by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida military government.

He fell into the new Adamawa State where he would eventually successfully secure governorship mandate under the PDP with the return of democracy in 1998, but was snapped up by Obasanjo to serve as vice president. Thus on May 29, 1999, both were sworn in as president and vice president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Atiku’s first shot at the nation’s top job was however in 1992. Following the disqualification of his political mentor, Gen. Shehu Musa Ya’Adua by the IBB military government from contesting in that year’s SDP primary, the late military officer threw his weight behind Atiku in a bid to help him secure the party’s ticket. But that was not to be as he came third behind MKO Abiola and Babagana Kingibe in the party’s convention primary.

However, because Abiola who emerged winner in the primary election had done so by only about 400 votes, a run-off was due. Nonetheless, Atiku stepped down for Abiola, asking his supporters to cast their votes for him, believing that Abiola would announce him as his running mate. But Abiola announced Kingibe as his running mate.

Atiku’s relationship with Obasanjo had on account of personal ambitions, degenerated before another election was due in 2003. Prior to the 2003 polls Atiku, with a number of governors by his side, had a firm grip on the PDP structure and intended, as plan B, to form an alliance with the late Dr Alex Ekwueme. The idea had been for him to support Ekwueme to emerge PDP presidential candidate and eventually join him as running mate with a view to succeeding him in 2007.

But it was a plan doomed to fail, and so it did. The military establishment could neither contemplate an Ekwueme presidency nor an Atiku succession. Atiku was soon back with   Obasanjo on the party’s ticket and that marked the beginning of his political travails.

Once both won a second term in 2003, Obasanjo relentlessly sought to cut him down to size. He largely did, such that by 2007 when their tenure ended, Atiku had not the slightest chance of succeeding him.

The highlight of their fight was, however, in 2006, over Obasanjo’s bid to amend certain provisions of the constitution to take another shot at the presidency for the third consecutive time. Atiku resisted the move, in part because he wanted to succeed Obasanjo in 2007.

Obasanjo and Buhari
courtesy Vanguard

But Obasanjo in retribution shut him out of the PDP and picked Umaru Musa Ya’Adua as the then ruling party’s candidate. He eventually defected to the Action Congress of Nigeria where he ran for president, coming third behind Ya’Adua and Buhari in an election adjudged to have been heavily rigged.

Atiku’s fight and eventual defeat to Obasanjo would ordinarily look like a rivalry between an ambitious vice president and his overbearing principal, but it was a lot deeper than that. It was, as economist professor and former presidential candidate, Prof Pat Utomi points out, a fight between the Class of 1966 whom he said, has held the Nigerian state under capture since the counter coup of July 1966 and a new order as represented by Obasanjo and Atiku respectively.

“It was this fight that Obasanjo fought in Atiku,” Utomi says. “Perceiving a strong vice president who would move the country away from the dominance of the class of 66, they wanted to stop Atiku.”

Once defeated by the superior force of the class of 66, Atiku’s political influence waned considerably, such that many pundits had begun to predict his political demise. But such predictions appear to have come too soon.

 

Atiku, having aligned himself with the growing calls for restructuring, has gradually walked his way back to reckoning. But the critical question is, does he have what it takes this time?

With Buhari having lost a vast amount of goodwill on account of poor handling of herdsmen, perceived nepotism and general poor performance in office which had seen the economy nosedive into recession and prices of essential commodities rise beyond the reach of many households, many say 2019 may be Atiku’s best and perhaps, final shot at the nation’s highest office.

On his way to victory in 2015, Buhari swept votes across the 19 states of the North, losing only Taraba and Gombe to the then incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. But today, many particularly in the North East and Central say the president’s goodwill has eroded significantly and that he can lose to the former vice president.

“Atiku can beat Buhari in the North Central for obvious reasons,” said Yusuf Mohammed, journalists and political analyst from Kogi State. “Those urging him (Buhari) to run are doing so for selfish interests.

“As for the North Central, it depends on how well Buhari plays his card. The average person from the middle-belt is not happy with the way he is handling the Fulani herdsmen situation. On the political front, many of those who worked for him to win in most North Central States in 2015 have been sidelined. If he can appease them ahead of 2019, he may stand a chance.”

Of the country’s six zones; three each in the North and South, Buhari won in four, comprising all three in the North and the South West. But the North Central is now uncertain, and the North East, Atiku’s constituency is no longer given, although one would still expect a Buhari win.

The deciding zone in 2019 could still be the South West, since the South East and South South will most likely remain PDP, and many in the zone say Buhari has fallen short of their expectations.

“In as much as President Buhari is constitutionally allowed to contest for second term in 2019, winning will be a herculean task,” said Barr. Oladotun Hassan President and founder Yoruba Council of Youths Worldwide.

“The facts are visible. Most Nigerians trusted the change mantra; had hopes for better life and good governance, but what we have seen so far is only wanton display of arrogance and fleets of corruption cases involving those he appointed. It would be an albatross for him to survive another election.

“The Southwest has been told that their votes do not matter when it comes to election by some field men of the Northern oligarchy. Without caution, they disappointed many right thinking Yoruba and other domiciled interest in South West.

“I speak on behalf of all the youth organizations in South West. When the time is ripe, we shall collectively decide our next line of action.”

The president apparently understands the critical role the South West will play in 2019 and has successfully wooed the zone’s political leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu to his side once again.

Easily the most influential politician in the South West, Tinubu’s support for either of the two candidates would be key in determining their fate, but more so for Buhari. However, some pundits insist that the zone will not follow Tinubu in his support for Buhari this time.

Obasanjo and Tinubu

“With due respect to Tinubu and his political sagacity, it does not appear that he would be able to carry Yoruba people along in this adventure,” noted Chief Tola Adeniyi, author and veteran columnist.

“And any Yoruba person who is seen to be supporting Buhari would be going contrary to Yoruba wishes. It is in that light that Tinubu may be advised to take a second look at his pronouncements, especially regarding his unalloyed support for Buhari who has proven beyond doubt that he is the master of nepotism.”

Atiku’s pro-restructuring stance would endear him to voters across the South and the Middle Belt where calls for it have gathered momentum. In fact, some argue that 2019 would be a referendum on restructuring, and Atiku has won praises for standing for it.

“I can at least point to his publicly touted progressive stance on the restructuring debate, even going as far as shaming his party, the North, and other political elites for either being hypocritical or cowardly in their approach to it,” said Alhaji Inaolaji Bakare, a PDP chieftain in Lagos State.

“Atiku is too smart, even for himself. He does noting by accident. All his actions are well thought-out. While most people look out for only their tomorrow, Atiku plans several years ahead. That is why he remains relevant. I won’t say he will one day succeed in his quest to be the president, but I know he will continue to be relevant.”

However, among a populace that have largely lost fate in its political class, and who now see any stance or promise made by them as deception, the former vice president would have to deal with the issue of trust with respect to his position on restructuring.

Yet, some have pointed to his perceived corrupt personality in arguing against his presidential credentials and this would be a factor. However, looking at what has happened under Buhari with respect to allegations of corruption, it is difficult to see a Buhari campaign that can sustain an argument of corruption against Atiku or even anyone for that matter.

“I don’t trust Atiku,” says Charles Ezeugwu, political scientists based in Enugu. “He is also corrupt and I don’t believe he is serious about restructuring.” But Ezeugwu admits that the former vice president can easily beat Buhari by a landslide in the South East.

The former VP’s spokesman, Paul Ibe, however assures that his boss will “walk his talk” as it concerns restructuring.

“Be rest assured that as far as restructuring is concerned, Atiku Abubakar will walk his talk,” Ibe told BH. ‘Worry not about the Waziri Adamawa, it is those who want to maintain the status quo that Nigerians should be wary of.”

For Utomi nonetheless, Atiku’s greatest challenge remains the class of 66 who according to him, may not want him as president.

“I can’t say to you that this man will do this or that man will do that, it is not wisdom to make that kind of statement in our history. But I suspect that I know the motives of the actors, and I know why they would try and stop someone like him.

“Some people will argue about his sanctity; whether he is a saint or not a saint, but those are marginal issues. The truth is that they know he is resourced enough, determined enough and brave enough to move the country to a different path. And in the interest of their capture, they will try to stop him.”

Utomi’s concerns may not be unfounded. Despite pulling away from Buhari on account of his failures, and having taken up the challenge of stopping his reelection, Obasanjo has persisted in his rejection of Atiku. The prospect of an Atiku candidature in PDP, some have suggested, may have compelled the former president to pull out his new political party, the ADC out of the PDP led CUPP alliance.

Instructively too, initial attempts the former vice president made to woo IBB’s support achieved little. Atiku was said to have left the Minna home of the former military president upset when he visited him few months ago.

But Atiku’s close associates are nonetheless, very confident.

“You only dismiss Atiku at your own peril,” noted his close associate in Lagos, Chief Dapo Sarumi. “Ex-President Obasanjo would privately testify, even if he would openly deny being rattled by his VP for at least five of the eight years both of them shared in Aso Rock. He is still one of Nigeria’s foremost architects of political strategy.”

Buhari is the incumbent, he has state apparatus at his disposal and still commands following in the North, especially in the North West and to a reasonable extent, the North East. On the other hand, Atiku will do well in both the South East and South South, and perhaps the North Central. It is a nearly even contest. A good showing in the South West, and the former VP could finally have his breakthrough.

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