Nigeria: Will a sixth attempt at the presidency be the charm for Atiku?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Friday, 25 March 2022 14:59

Former Vice-President and People's Democratic Party candidate in upcoming presidential election Atiku Abubakar smiles as he listens to President of Senate Bukola Sariki during the party's emergency meeting in Abuja
Former Vice-President and People's Democratic Party candidate in upcoming presidential election Atiku Abubakar smiles as he listens to President of Senate Bukola Sariki during the party's emergency meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

For former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, five previous attempts at the presidency have all ended in disappointment. Will the sixth time be the charm for this perennial presidential hopeful?

It was a dream that began in February 1993 when the 46-year-old Atiku, a retired customs officer and protégé of the influential ex-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, contested in the presidential primary of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as one of the youngest aspirants in the country.

Today, however, at 75, he will be contesting as the oldest aspirant in his party after five unsuccessful presidential campaigns spanning almost 30 years. For Nigerian youths – who constitute the largest voting demographic – it seems as if Atiku has been contesting the presidency all their lives.

Despite this, Atiku, who holds the record as the longest unsuccessful perennial presidential aspirant in West Africa, is hoping to turn this failure into a success story similar to that of Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia, who lost in 2006, 2008, 2011, 2015 and 2016, before eventually winning the 2021 presidential election at the age of 59.

President Muhammadu Buhari also contested unsuccessfully in 2003, 2007, 2011 before striking gold in 2015 at the age of 72. Atiku wants a similar story for himself. Will he get there?

A history of defeats

Atiku first tasted defeat in February 1993 when he went up against billionaire businessman MKO Abiola and retired ambassador Babagana Kingibe at the SDP presidential primary in Jos. Atiku finished third, but became renowned nationally after that primary.

In 1999, after the return to democratic rule, Atiku joined the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), but could not contest the presidency because there was an agreement across parties that the southwest should produce the next president as a form of compensation for the annulment of the 12 June 1993 election won by MKO, who was from the southwest. Atiku contested the governorship of Adamawa State and won, but before he could be inaugurated, General Olusegun Obasanjo nominated him as a running mate and he went on to become vice-president.

After a rocky relationship with Obasanjo, caused mainly by his ambition to succeed him, Atiku left the PDP, joining Bola Tinubu’s newly registered Action Congress to contest the presidency. Atiku came third behind Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and General Muhammadu Buhari. In 2010, he returned to the PDP and was chosen as the consensus candidate of the north, who would vie against then serving President Goodluck Jonathan. Atiku, however, lost to Jonathan.

After leaving the PDP a second time, the former vice-president joined the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2013 and contested the presidential primary in Lagos in December 2014, coming third behind Major General Muhammadu Buhari and Rabiu Kwankwaso. Eager to fulfil his dream, Atiku returned to the PDP in December 2017 and contested in the party’s presidential primary the following year. This time around, he defeated about 10 aspirants, clinching the party’s ticket. However, this would not be enough as he was defeated by President Buhari, only managing to garner 41% of the votes.

‘Why I want to be president’

Addressing the fully packed International Conference Centre in Abuja, Atiku said: “I have never been this optimistic, and with your support and God’s grace, we will get to the Promised Land.”

He said he wants to unite Nigeria, which is facing enormous threats of secession. “My fellow Nigerians, I am the unifier that is coming to bond the broken union. We will open doors for dialogue to hear the grieving voices of all Nigerians. Under my presidency, there will be a new Nigeria, where everybody has an equal voice and is heard.”

Atiku further stated that he plans to run Nigeria like a “profitable business”. He told the forum that “when the APC took power, unemployment was at 9%. Now it is more than 33%”. He said he wants to operate a liberal economy and reduce taxes for low income earners.

“I know how to create jobs. I built several successful businesses and companies within Nigeria, and as a result, […] thousands of people are gainfully employed. If I can manage my businesses well, I can manage the Nigerian economy well,” he said.

He also pledged to tackle insecurity and champion structural reforms of Nigeria’s polity by ensuring strict fiscal federalism.

The zoning challenge

One major obstacle is the issue of zoning, a common practice in Nigerian politics where a sitting president is expected to be succeeded by someone who is not from his region. With President Buhari, a Muslim northerner, rounding off his eight-year tenure soon, there are agitations that the next president should be from the south. Already, Lagos godfather Bola Tinubu, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, former Senate President Pius Anyim, Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State and several others from the south are lining up to succeed Buhari.

Atiku, a Muslim from the northeast, however argues that the Nigerian constitution allows all qualified people to contest and he will not be deterred. Other northern hopefuls like former Senate President Bukola Saraki, Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State and his Bauchi State counterpart, Governor Bala Mohammed, have also put this argument forward, insisting that the PDP – as an opposition party – should not use zoning to prevent those who can win elections from contesting. They argue that an opposition party does not have the luxury of imposing conditions, rather, the ultimate goal should be to win elections. They claim that out of the 16 years that the PDP spent in power, the south held on to the presidency for 13 years, while the north had just three.

Even so, there are some who think differently. A chieftain of the PDP in Lagos State, Bode George, tells The Africa Report that it would be unfair for the north to retain the presidency for more than eight consecutive years regardless of the fact that Buhari is a member of the APC.

“Buhari is from the north and he has served for almost eight years. We cannot pretend as if this does not affect us just because we are in the PDP. There must be fairness. Zoning is based on turn by turn. It is also practised in Switzerland where the diverse sections of the country take turns in office. This is how to maintain the unity of Nigeria and any diverse country,” George says.

In a bid to calm frayed nerves, the PDP is setting up a committee to look into zoning, but party insiders tell The Africa Report that the committee is a mere formality.

Prominent socio-political and socio-cultural groups like Afenifere and Ohanaeze have also threatened to work against any party that fields a northerner in the next presidential election.

Tough primaries ahead

Apart from the zoning challenge, Atiku will still have more challenges ahead, one of which is his advanced age. He also has powerful governors in the PDP to contend with, even though he is financially capable of funding his campaign. He received a pledge of N200m ($480,769) from business associates and is expected to raise a whole lot more in the coming weeks.

Two northern governors and a former Senate president have also declared their interest in the presidency. They are hoping to present one northern consensus candidate in order to strengthen and unite their bloc. Sources within the PDP also tell The Africa Report that the 13 PDP governors, who control the party’s structure, are determined to ensure that at least one amongst them emerges as the party’s standard bearer.

Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, the most powerful governor in the party, has vowed to ensure that Atiku does not win the party ticket.

“Atiku has a fair chance of [winning] the presidential ticket because he has an existing structure. He was the immediate past candidate of the party and has the financial muscle to implement the campaign. The inability of the party to insist on zoning may work in his advantage, but it will be tough for him because it is obvious that most of the governors are not backing him and these governors are the ones calling the shots,” Ariyo-Dare Atoye, the Co-convener, Centre for Liberty, tells The Africa Report.

Will Nigerians vote for Atiku?

Atiku has a wide network across Nigeria and is well respected within political circles having mentored many who ended up becoming governors and ministers. However, he has been accused of corruption, which marred his last presidential campaign.

He previously had troubles with the US government during the FBI probe of federal lawmaker William Jefferson. Jefferson, who was later convicted of corruption, was heard on tape saying $500,000 would be given to Atiku to facilitate a contract in Nigeria. Atiku was subsequently unable to visit the US for over 10 years. The APC has used the incident to discredit him and it may be used again.

His former principal, President Olusegun Obasanjo, also described him as corrupt. Obasanjo has since doubled down on these comments.

“We don’t need Atiku at this point in our history. As a leader in the opposition, what role has he played in nation building? He has been contesting elections for the last 30 years. He should leave the stage for the next generation. He will fail,” says Kassim Afegbua, a former spokesman for Atiku’s campaign office.

The PDP has always won in the southeast and the south-south, while the northeast and the northwest have only been voting for Northern Muslim candidates since 2003. Atiku’s supporters believe that this could boost his chances at the poll, but it will also depend on who the APC picks as its presidential candidate.

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