DON'T MISS : Talking Africa Podcast – Mozambique's insurgency: After Palma, what comes next?

Nigeria 2023: Northern hopes rise as Atiku’s ex-campaign manager emerges PDP chair

By Akin Irede
Posted on Monday, 18 October 2021 13:49

Former Vice-President and People's Democratic Party candidate in upcoming presidential election Atiku Abubakar attends the party's emergency meeting in Abuja
Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar attends the PDP's emergency meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The decision of Nigeria’s main opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), to keep its presidential ticket open means former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar and other northern presidential hopefuls can emerge as the party’s candidate next year. But will southern elements allow this to happen?

Iyorchia Ayu, a former Senate President, was nominated last week as the consensus candidate of the North as Chairman of the PDP. Ayu is expected to be affirmed at the PDP’s national convention at the end of the month, a mere formality.

Although he has stayed away from the public for some time, the incoming PDP chairman is not new to Nigerian politics.

  • He served as Senate President between 1992 and 1993 during the short-lived Third Republic.
  • When General Sani Abacha seized power in November 1993, Ayu was made minister of education.
  • After Nigeria’s return to democratic rule, Ayu served as minister of internal affairs under President Olusegun Obasanjo and later became the minister of environment before he was removed by Obasanjo in 2005.

Relationship with Atiku

One permanent feature in Ayu’s political career is former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. Their relationship has spanned at least 29 years. Ayu noted in an interview some years ago that when he was Senate President in 1993, there were three frontline presidential candidates in his party, the Social Democratic Party.

They were: MKO Abiola, Babagana Kingibe and Atiku. When the primaries were conducted, there was no clear winner. Atiku decided to step down and throw his weight behind MKO Abiola and asked Ayu to do the same of which he obliged.

“There were three major contestants: Abiola, Kingibe, and Atiku.  Abiola came first, Kingibe second and Atiku third; it gave room for a runoff. Atiku had to subsume his interest because whoever Atiku supported would win and it is on record that after consultations between Atiku and some of us from the North, we decided to swing for Abiola, against a fellow northerner, Kingibe,” Ayu recalled. This was clear evidence of the sort of influence Atiku had on Ayu but this is just one of many instances.

In 2005, when Atiku was involved in a highly publicised feud with his boss President Obasanjo, over the 2007 Presidential election, Ayu took sides with Atiku and this led to his sacking from Obasanjo’s cabinet. When Atiku defected to the Action Congress (AC) from the PDP, Ayu gladly followed him to the party and even became Atiku’s campaign manager in the 2007 Presidential election which Atiku lost.

By 2010, when Atiku fell out with the leader of the AC, Bola Tinubu, he returned to the PDP. Again Ayu accompanied Atiku back to the PDP and supported Atiku against President Goodluck Jonathan at the PDP primaries in 2011.

However, when Atiku left the PDP to contest at the APC’s Presidential primary in 2014, Ayu stayed put in the PDP and has remained there ever since. And upon Atiku’s return to the PDP in 2017, he reunited with Ayu who would support him during the Presidential election in 2019.

Ayu’s compromise

The emergence of Ayu, a northerner, as the chairman of the PDP ought to spell doom for the Presidential ambition of any northerner since it has been the tradition of the PDP since 1999 for the national chairman of the party and its Presidential ticket to be from opposite parts of the country. With Ayu becoming the national chairman, a southerner ought to be the Presidential candidate of the PDP next year but this will not be so this time around.

According to several politicians who were part of the process leading up to Ayu’s emergence, an agreement was reached so Ayu’s status as national chairman would not prevent a northerner from becoming the party’s Presidential flag bearer.

So we as an opposition party don’t have the luxury of being rigid. For us whoever that can be our rallying point and win the presidency for us should be the one.

A former acting Chairman of the PDP, Kawu Baraje, who is an ally of former Senate President Bukola Saraki, claims this agreement was clearly written and signed by interested parties.

“It was written in black and white,” he told local media.

Baraje further stated: “The proviso, which we are grieving for has been given to us; not only the North-Central but the entire country, that no matter where the national chairman of the PDP emerges, it does not preclude anybody from that particular zone and, indeed, the entire members of contesting for the presidential ticket when the time comes. That is the decision of the party and we are comfortable. The fear of everybody has been allayed.”

A former Governor, Boni Haruna, also stated that the PDP would not be zoning its Presidential ticket but leave it open to anyone who wants to contest. Haruna, who is from Adamawa State like Atiku, believes the PDP as an opposition party should not be too rigid with its Presidential ticket because the ultimate goal should be how to defeat the ruling APC in 2023.

Haruna stated: “As an opposition party, I’m one of those that believe that we don’t have the luxury of being rigid on the zoning of the presidency because the goal of a party is to win power, if you take power out of politics then it is no longer politics.

“So we as an opposition party don’t have the luxury of being rigid. For us whoever that can be our rallying point and win the presidency for us should be the one. There is no need for specification, by the decision of the national executive committee. It is obvious it (Presidential ticket) is open to everybody.”

Sources tell The Africa Report that in the event that the PDP picks a northerner as its presidential candidate next year, Ayu would have to resign so a southerner can become the chairperson of the party in the spirit of fairness. This will, however, require a constitutional amendment of the party.

A top politician who wished to remain anonymous, said, “One of the reasons Ayu was picked is because he is cool headed and he honours agreements. It is very likely that with Ayu as chairman of the party, Atiku would easily emerge as the Presidential candidate because they are very close having both been tutored by the late General Shehu Yar’Adua in the late 1980s.

“The South-West will be producing the deputy national chairman of the party. So, if for instance Atiku emerges as the PDP Presidential candidate next year, Ayu will step down while the deputy chairman will be made national chairman. This will require a constitutional amendment but it is likely this will happen.”

The Southern challenge

While the North seems to be happy with this arrangement, some southern elements within the PDP are not too eager for another northern presidency after President Muhammadu Buhari. They insist that for the sake of Nigeria’s unity, it is better for the South to produce the next President.

A former Deputy National Chairman of the PDP (South), Chief Bode George, tells The Africa Report that it would be unfair for a northerner to emerge as the PDP candidate next year.

George says the argument that a northern candidate would boost the PDP’s chances of victory in 2023 is unfounded.

“In 1999, founding fathers came up with the idea of zoning in order to promote equity and fairness. It was decided that the six biggest political positions would be held by three northerners and three southerners. Such an arrangement also exists in some countries like Switzerland where the Italians, the French and the Germans rotate power. I call such an arrangement turn ‘Turn-by-Turn Nigeria Limited’. Today, they are arguing against zoning because they want to retain power. That is not fair at all. Are they saying Nigeria has risen above ethnic and tribal politics?” asks George.

With southern elements insisting that the South must produce the party’s next President, and northerners demanding that the ticket be left open, the PDP may just be in for a major crisis in the coming weeks.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options