Atiku’s first expedition into presidential election contest was in 1993 during the transition to civil rule programme of the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida junta. He sought for the plum job on the platform of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) but came third after MKO Abiola and Babagana Kingibe in the primaries of the party. In 1998, he contested and won the governorship of Adamawa State on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). But while still waiting to be sworn into office, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, the presidential candidate of the PDP, picked him as his running mate. They went into the election and won in 1999 and were sworn into office on May 29, the same year.
The duo, however, reportedly quarreled in the build up to the 2003 general election and Atiku, who had the overwhelming support of the PDP governors, almost scuttled Obasanjo’s second term bid. It was alleged that Obasanjo went on his knees to beg Atiku to put aside the issues between them so he could clinch the PDP re-run ticket in 2003. Atiku was said to have accepted his appeals and they went into the election on a joint ticket still on the PDP platform.
But the evidence of a broken relationship began to emerge soon after they were sworn in for a second term in office. Their hitherto harmonious relationship went so sour that Atiku openly opposed Obasanjo’s infamous quest for a third term in office in 2006. In return, Obasanjo declined to support Atiku as his successor in office. In fact, Atiku’s case was further compounded when his name appeared in the list of 135 politicians indicted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for alleged corrupt practices.
Following the EFCC report, Obasanjo had to set up a five-man panel tagged “Administrative Panel of Inquiry on Alleged Corrupt Practices by Certain Public Officers and Other Persons to produce a white paper on the report. The panel then recommended that Atiku should not be allowed to stand for the April 2007 polls and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) acted on the recommendation. It took the judgment of the Supreme Court to allow Atiku, who had then defected to the Action Congress (AC) and picked the party’s presidential ticket, to contest the election. He expectedly lost the poll, coming third after the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Muhammadu Buhari of the then All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP).
Atiku later re-joined the PDP and in August 2010 declared his interest to contest the 2011 presidential election on the platform of the party. He lost the ticket to former president Goodluck Jonathan. He remained in the PDP until February 2014 when he left the party to join the APC. Again, he contested for the position on the platform of the party but came third on the score sheet, with Buhari and former Kano State governor, Rabiu Kwankwanso taking the first and second positions, respectively.
Barely a year and five months to the next presidential election, which according to INEC’s timetable will hold on February 16, 2019, developments within Atiku’s political camp suggest that he would be throwing his heart into the ring again. But how far can he go? Can he break the jinx this time around or would it amount to another exercise in futility? For him to make a difference in 2019, he would have to overcome some forces. These include:
The Obasanjo factor
Atiku’s frosty relationship with Obasanjo has continued to resonate in political circles many years after the duo left office. Even though Atiku has sought to reconcile with his former boss, including visiting him in his Abeokuta country home sometime in 2009, many political observers believe that the issues between the duo are far from being over. As Ekiti State Governor, Ayo Fayose, revealed in a recent interview, Obasanjo is out to kill Atiku politically in retaliation for standing on his way. Fayose said: “Obasanjo told me that when you capture a General and you don’t kill him, he will come back and kill you; that since Atiku tried to stop him and failed, he must pay for it. And he (Atiku) is still paying for it.”
But sometime in 2014, the former president told the Northern Youth Leaders Forum who had a two-day meeting with him in Abeokuta that he had forgiven Atiku and other persons perceived to have offended him. “On the request that you made yesterday, I do not have any grudge against anybody. And if there is any, I have forgiven all as a father,” Obasanjo was reported to have said.
The truth is that Obasanjo is still very influential in the political scene even though he has announced his retirement from active politics. His support is critical to anybody contesting for the presidency under Nigeria’s present political configuration and it is not known whether both men have actually resolved their differences.
Mallam Nasir El-rufai
Atiku was reportedly instrumental in bringing the Kaduna State Gonvernor, Nasir El-rufai, into the Obasanjo administration and making him the Director General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) and eventually a minister. But they have since fallen apart. Both men even had a public spat in November 2016 when Atiku accused the governor and former EFCC Chairman, Nuhu Ribadu, of betrayal, saying that Obasanjo used them to cook up the indictment that was eventually quashed by the court.
But El-rufai quickly responded thus: “Alhaji Atiku is already running for 2019, and he thinks that he can make people like us collateral damage in his attempt to rejuvenate his image. This obsession for power inclined him to support the rebellion against the party that manifested in the National Assembly, and is continuing with obvious disrespect for the incumbent president. Everyone knows that I support and will continue to work for the success of President Muhammadu Buhari as he leads our country through tough times.”
The Governor had the opportunity to prove that he is for Buhari when one of Atiku’s loyalists, who is the serving Minister of Women Affairs, Aisha Jummai Al-Hassan, declared that she would be supporting Atiku in 2019 and not President Buhari, who appointed her into his cabinet, if both men choose to contest the presidential election. El-rufai was the first sitting governor to make a public statement on the issue, declaring that the majority of APC state governors and ministers were backing Buhari for re-election. And he did so while speaking with State House correspondents after visiting Buhari in Aso Rock two days after the Alhassan declaration. He is practically one of those who would stick with Buhari to the very end.
The former vice president is yet to shake off the corruption tag foisted on him during his squabbles with Obasanjo. And Nigerians keep dusting up the issue each time his name is associated with presidential contest. Just after the recent Alhassan declaration, ordinary Nigerians took to the social media to question his integrity and claims to being prepared to rule Nigeria. In fact, some of them even tackled him on his Twitter handle @atiku on the issue and he had to respond by either debunking their claims or clearing their doubts.
Nevertheless, the former vice president recently lashed out at those portraying him as corrupt in the mainstream media, describing them as self-righteous political enemies. Abubakar, who spoke at a facility tour of the new ultra-modern Yaliam Press Limited in Jabi area of Abuja, urged his critics to either prove his alleged corrupt activities or keep quiet and mind the skeletons in their own closets.
“It is sickening to continue to regurgitate allegations of corruption against me by people who have failed to come forward with a single shred of evidence of my misconduct while in office,” he said.
As early as May this year, the National Chairman of the APC, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, declared that President Buhari would be given the right of first refusal for the party’s presidential ticket in the 2019 election. The implication is that if Buhari chooses to seek re-election, Atiku is very unlikely to get the ticket of the APC. It is a well-known fact that since the restoration of democracy in the country in 1999, no Nigerian president had lost the presidential primary election of his party.
So, on which platform would Atiku contest if Buhari should declare to contest? If he chooses to contest on the platform of the APC, his chances of winning the primary would be very slim not to talk of the main election. It had happened to him when he squared up against ex-president Goodluck Jonathan in the PDP in 2011 and he knows the likely outcome if he pitches with the APC.
But there are unconfirmed reports that he is one of those being wooed by the PDP to return to the party and fly the party’s presidential flag in 2019. Should he accept the offer if true, he would have further established himself as a political prostitute who is desperate for power, a snag that can undo him at the polls. But his supporters would take none of that.
“The question I ask people who say that is this: what is the desperation about somebody following his dream? When you are so passionate about something, what is the desperation there? If you can say Atiku is desperate, you would also tell me that President Buhari was desperate. After the 2011 election, President Buhari told the world that he was not going to run again. The rest is history but today, he is the president. For me, it is not out of desperation but patriotic zeal and dedication towards one’s fatherland,” said Atiku’s former campaign director and the National President, All Atiku Support Groups, Oladimeji Fabiyi in a recent interview.
Buhari’s acceptance in the North
But with a Buhari candidacy, it is unlikely that the North would queue behind Atiku. Even when Buhari was contesting as an opposition candidate, he serially won 14 states in the North due to his large following in the region.
A founding member of the APC, Bayelsa State and a member of the party’s presidential campaign council in 2015, Preye Aganaba, stated this much recently when he noted: “I don’t think for now that the APC has any other choice than to re-elect President Buhari, though people are free to contest; nobody is stopping them. This is APC where we usually have free and fair primaries. The last presidential primaries in Lagos, President Buhari won more than half of the votes. During the last APC presidential primaries, the campaign slogan for Buhari was ‘12 million assured votes’ and I don’t think one single vote has left that 12 million assured votes. In fact, more has even been added.”
More so, Atiku has been at the vanguard of the agitation for restructuring the country, a proposal which a good fraction of the northern political elite is said to be opposed to. So, when the chips are down, they are likely to use the restructuring issue against his political interest within the region and Buhari would simply hold sway there.
Power rotation arrangement
There is also an unwritten power-sharing agreement, which ensures that the presidency alternates between the North and the South every eight years. It was consolidated in 2007 when former president Obasanjo, a southerner, handed over power to the late president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua after eight years (1999 -2007). The mechanism was devised to keep the peace in the country.
However, following Yar’Adua’s illness and eventual death after barely two years in office, power returned to the South in 2010 with Jonathan, Yar’Adua’s erstwhile deputy, in charge. The North was obviously not comfortable with that development and did not want Jonathan to rule the country beyond 2015. Many political observers in the country believe that the decision of the PDP to field Jonathan cost the party the March 28, 2015 presidential election, which was won by President Buhari of the APC.
With power back to the North, the expectation is that the South will take over in 2023. Even the South-east, where there is agitation for a sovereign state of Biafra, the political gladiators in the zone have been positioning for the presidency come 2023. So, Atiku would be faced with the challenge of convincing the power brokers in the South that he would serve for a single term in office and quit in 2023.
And even if he gives them his assurance, they are likely to take it with a pinch of salt, because history has proven that every sitting president the world over, except in rare cases, always seek a second term in office. So, even though most of the ruling elites in the South are on the same page with Atiku on the issue of restructuring, they may not queue behind him in 2019 if Buhari is running. The fear that an Atiku presidency might stretch till 2027 would be a factor to reckon with in the South come 2019.
In spite of these perceived odds, Atiku’s supporters, however, believe that 2019 provides the best opportunity for his presidential ambition. And that revelation again came from Fabiyi. “Ever since he has been contesting elections in this country, there has never been any time that he does not have the best chances but the reason why he could not scale through was because the so-called elite are so uncomfortable and do not believe that he would protect them,” he said.