By OBINNA EZUGWU
Former vice president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, on Sunday defeated other contestants in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential primary held at the Adokiye Amasiemaka Stadium, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, thus setting up an epic battle with President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) for the February 16, 2019 presidential election.
Atiku, 72, secured 1532 votes to beat his closest rivals, Sokoto State Governor, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, believed to be the favoured candidate of Nyesom Wike, his Rivers State counterpart who polled 693 votes to come second and Senate President, Abubakar Bukola Saraki who polled 317 votes to place 3rd.
With massive resources and with strong connections across the country, Atiku has set up what promises to be a nail-biting contest between him and President Buhari, who on Saturday, was affirmed as the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the February poll.
It is a contest that even chieftains of the ruling party agree will be tough. And their PDP counterparts are not under any illusions either.
“I think that we are challenged. We are seriously challenged”, says Chief Anselm Njoku, the Akeweje of Lagos and leader of South East APC forum in the state. “The problem we have is insecurity; the killings are monumental. It’s not allowed.”
It would be the first time the former Vice President will be flying the flag of a major political party in a presidential election since he ran alongside his former boss, Olusegun Obasanjo, as vice presidential candidate in 2003, and it would be, one could say, his clearest opportunity to clinch the job he has craved for since his Social Democratic Party (SDP) days in 1992.
It’s a political journey that had seen him move from the SDP to the PDP, to Action Congress (AC), back to PDP, then to the APC and again back to PDP.
At 72, his political career is in twilight. Indeed, as much as one can count the potentially explosive contest against President Buhari in 2019 as his best chance, it is most probably, his last.
The important question really is, ‘against Buhari, who has massive following in the core Northern states, what are his chances?’
“The election is going to be very tough, and too close to call,” says Chief Abia Onyike, a PDP Senatorial aspirant in Ebonyi State. “But I believe that Atiku will have an edge.”
In 2015, a contest between Atiku and the incumbent president could perhaps have been a no contest. Buhari had vast goodwill, promoted pervasively in the media as an anti-corruption czar, a man of untainted integrity and solution to all the country’s problems, Buhari could easily have swept a corruption tainted Atiku away.
But three years is a long time in politics, and in these three years of Buhari’s presidency, many have come to agree that the president was an over marketed poor product.
“The thing about Buhari is that he has no knowledge, whatsoever. He has no education, no capacity, no capability and no ability to run any country, observes Akogun (Chief) Tola Adeniyi, veteran columnist, author and administrator. “Buhari cannot even run a local government.”
In the lead up to the 2015 election, Chief Adeniyi formed the Global Intelligentsia for Buhari, an organisation he used to raise funds from Nigerians in the Diaspora for the president’s campaign. But it’s a move he says he regrets bitterly.
“It’s unfortunate and I admit that I’m guilty to be among those who canvassed for him (Buhari) in 2015. And we will regret to our graves that we ever had a hand in getting Buhari to be president of Nigeria, and in throwing away Jonathan.”
In 2015, corruption under Goodluck Jonathan was promoted to monstrous proportions, such that Nigerians wanted anybody but the Bayelsa born politician.
Ahead of the 2019 poll, the blatant failures of the Buhari government have given rise to a scenario like one that brought him to power in 2015. Many Nigerians who are tired of growing poverty, condoned mass murder in the country’s Middle Belt, and an economy in sixes and sevens, want perhaps, anybody but Buhari.
That anybody, as it currently stands, looks like Atiku with the PDP ticket. As it happened in the lead up to the 2015 elections, with several political heavyweights merging together to form APC to remove Jonathan, same is happening in the lead up to the 2019 poll with parties and top politicians fusing into a PDP alliance to remove Buhari for Atiku. For Chief Adeniyi, it is a doable job.
“I think Atiku is the only one of the contestants in PDP who can defeat Buhari in an election if it is fair, free and credible,” he said.
“It’s only Atiku who has the muscle, the experience and the wherewithal to defeat Buhari. He is acceptable, he is one president that Nigeria will enjoy because he listens and is very accessible, and he is very humble. People don’t know that about him.
“More than that, he has a greater spread than Buhari. He knows people. He can boast of knowing at least one person or some people in every local government in Nigeria.”
Adeniyi, who founded the G9, a group of Southern and Middle Belt intellectuals, expresses confidence that the former vice president can tackle insecurity, unlike Atiku.
“We believe he will be able to tackle the insecurity problem in Nigeria. If Nigerians allow him, he will be next to Gowon and Babangida in terms of assembling the brightest Nigerians to work with him. He will avail himself of the best advice possible to make sure Nigeria corrects all the errors that Buhari committed.”
But Buhari is no Jonathan who was, in every aspect, a political orphan from a minority ethnic group and a region weakened politically by war. With a large core Northern constituency whose support of the president has little to do with his performance in office, Buhari presents a tough package for any challenger.
Yet, for the PDP candidate, a lot will depend on how much other aspirants who lost out in the primary will support his candidacy and work for him.
On his way to victory in 2015, Buhari swept votes across the 19 states of the North, losing only Plateau and Taraba to the then incumbent Jonathan. But today, many, particularly in the Central say the president’s goodwill have eroded significantly mostly because of poor handling of herdsmen menace, and that he can lose to the former vice president, easily.
“From what I know, I can assure you that Atiku will defeat Buhari in the North Central if they allow people to vote,” said Sunday Egwuda, a Kogi State indigene.
“What really has Buhari done? And to add insult to injury, he is practically watching herdsmen killing people everywhere.”
How both candidates stand
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.
As it stands, the North East and the North West will likely be for Buhari’s taking. Atiku, on the other hand, will likely sweep votes across the South East, South and North Central.
“Atiku will beat Buhari clearly in the South East and the South South because he is seen as a liberal Muslim, while Buhari is a fundamentalist,” Chief Onyike said.
The deciding zone in 2019 could still be the South West, which at the moment, appears can go either way.
The recently concluded Osun governorship election which saw Mr. Gboyega Oyetola of the APC emerge governor-elect was a keen contest between him and the PDP candidate, Senator Ademola Adeleke. In fact, it’s an election many assert that the PDP candidate should won, having initially beaten Oyetola by 353 votes, prompting the rerun – alleged to have been characterised by intimidation – that eventually saw him win.
For many, the close fight in Osun is suggested to an extent, the rejection of APC. And especially given that when combined, the total votes of opposition candidates are two times more than that of the APC. And as the presidential election is essentially between Buhari and Atiku, the outcome may be a lot different.
For Chief Adeniyi, the governorship election in the South West cannot be used to measure Buhari’s popularity in the zone because the president will fare badly if the people are allowed to vote.
“Because we have APC governors in the South West, people think that Buhari will leverage on that. APC at governors’ level and at senatorial level may have a showing in the South West, but Buhari is an anathema to an average Yoruba person.
“The Yoruba don’t like anybody supporting those just killing people, who are just grabbing people’s lands; a person who is encouraging extreme nepotism and parochialism.
“The Yoruba, if you look at it, are the most accommodating people in this country. We have every ethnic group in every town in Yoruba land. And that is the way the Yoruba have always been.
“Buhari is extremely arrogant and condescending. These are things Yoruba don’t like. Because he has eroded our values and our virtues, he is going to have very terrible showing in Yoruba land. If they don’t rig, there is no way Buhari can have any showing in the South West.
Adeniyi further said: “The Yoruba have a saying that if someone is beating you and there is somebody standing by who can stop that person from beating you, but the person doesn’t ask the person to stop beating you, it means that person approves of the beating.
“To that extent therefore, the Yoruba believe that Buhari is very much involved in the killings in the Middle Belt. And the Yoruba believe that even if Buhari tags the whole of Nigeria with gold and makes the naira equal to the dollar, the question we ask is, is it dead people that will stay in the country?”
But as much as the Osun election revealed the waning popularity of the APC in a zone it once held sway, and as perhaps, as Chief Adeniyi insists, Buhari is unpopular, it also gave a hint to what the ruling party may be planning in 2019.
“The truth is that in Buhari’s Nigeria, the PVC is worthless, as we have seen in most elections conducted while Buhari is president, the latest being the Osun State governorship election,” said US based professor of Communications, Farooq Kperogi.
Indeed, for many, it would be unrealistic to expect that the Buhari government will allow credible election again, given the way it has been overly intolerant of opposition.
Peaceful protests have been met with police brutality and of course, opposition figures are being haunted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which has become, many suggest, an arm of the ruling party.
But even at that, the president apparently still 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 – a status he recently demonstrated with the way he stopped Governor Akinwunmi Ambode in the state APC governorship primary – Tinubu’s support for Buhari would be key in determining his fate.
Indeed, if public opinion in the South West at the moment is anything to go by, one can conclude that Buhari would have a good showing in the zone, principally because of the Tinubu influence.
Yet, the idea that the PDP may cede Atiku’s running mate to the South East, would give further impetus to the support for Buhari in the zone, since he is running with a South West vice president in Prof. Yemi Osinbajo.
“Personally, I have made up my mind to vote Atiku,” says Ola Lateef, Lagos resident. “But I have spoken to a lot of opinions leaders who insist that they would rather vote Buhari and retain VP slot.”
Atiku’s pro-restructuring stance would however, endear him to a section of 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.
No doubt, Atiku’s pro restructuring stance will endear him to many across party lines. But the question remains with respect to whether he will walk the talk.
“I don’t totally subscribe to the idea of restructuring because I know it is impossibility,” Onyike asserts. “The caliphate will never accept the restructuring of the Nigerian federation because of the advantages they have.
“So, its mere semantics, it doesn’t mean anything. The only people who are mouthing restructuring are southern leaders, but they have not heard anything from the Hausa/Fulani oligarchy. They are not ready to let go the hold they have on the oil resources.”
Atiku’s spokesman, Paul Ibe, however, assured that his boss is serious about restructuring.
“Be rest assured that as far as restructuring is concerned, Atiku Abubakar will walk his talk,” Ibe said. “Worry not about the Waziri Adamawa, it is those who want to maintain the status quo that Nigerians should be wary of.”
One of the greatest obstacles to his previous quests have been the opposition he has faced from the influential military establishment in the country – the class of 1966 – as represented by Obasanjo, who has consistently opposed his presidential bid, as well as the likes of former heads of states: Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar, and former Army Chiefs, T. Y. Danjuma and Aliyu Gusau.
“Some people will argue about his (Atiku’s) sanctity; whether he is a saint or not a saint, but those are marginal issues. The truth is that they (the military establishment) know he is resourced enough, determined enough and brave enough to move the country on a different path. And in the interest of their capture, they will try to stop him,” said Prof. Pat Utomi.
However, there is the speculation that that the ex-generals have made a u-turn in this regard and have now decided to back the former vice president in the interest of removing Buhari to “save Nigeria”.
It was gathered that the generals, including Ibrahim Babangida, Abdulsalami Abubakar and TY Danjuma and Aliyu Gusau have gotten Obasanjo’s nod to support Atiku, and having done so, dispatched Gusau to go and persuade the leaders and delegates of the PDP to vote for Atiku Abubakar in Port Harcourt.
Nonetheless, Obasanjo has come out to insist he would not give support to Atiku, and has indeed, began to campaign against him.
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. But his greatest weapon appears to be the use of security apparatus to intimidate opponents.
“The sad impression that the APC as a ruling party and INEC as the electoral body have both created with the Osun re-run election is that we are back in the trenches of do or die electoral regime, of violence and of denial of the real will of the people,” said human rights lawyer, Ebun-olu Adegboruwa.
Indeed, for some pundits, 2019 is simply a question of whether votes will count.
But for Chief Njoku, there may be a remedy. “My recommendation now is that for Buhari to win the heart of the people, he has to change all the security chiefs and bring equity in his appointments, so that every zone is represented in his kitchen cabinet. That will somehow restore hope,” he says.
“We are very close to the grassroots. Some of us go to the beer parlour and drink, we go to markets to buy things and find out what the people feel. But I know that with hard work, we can still change the situation.”