Atiku Abubakar: “I was the only northern politician in Nigeria who stood up against Sharia in 1999”

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Monday, 28 November 2022 11:27

Nigerian presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar in Paris October 2022
Nigerian presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar in Paris October 2022 (Photo by François Grivelet for The Africa Report)

Atiku Abubakar is running for the presidency in Nigeria for the sixth time, on the People's Democratic Party (PDP) ticket. The period Atiku spent as vice president during the Olusegun Obasanjo years is considered the high point for Nigerian growth levels and governance in the last half century.

In this exclusive interview with The Africa Report, Atiku talks about his relationship with his mentor Shehu Yar’Adua, a northern Islam; splits in the PDP; and the reasons why he fell out with Bola Ahmed Tinubu, his former business partner turned presidential candidate for the ruling APC.

With your previous job at the customs service in government, and then as vice president, you have built up relationships across the whole of the country. Are there enough Nigerian leaders with a similar pan-Nigerian view?

The younger generation of politicians who are going to succeed us are losing that pan-Nigerian appeal and philosophy. This is simply because they were born, grew up and educated in a particular location of the country. Be it the north, south, northeast, northwest, southeast or south-south, they were born there, grew up there, went to school there, and they never got exposed to other parts of the country.

[…] you should expect their immediate environment to have an influence on their thinking.

This is unlike our own generation of politicians – I was born and grew up in the north, went to school in the north, but joined the federal service, and my journey in the federal service enabled me to walk in all parts of the country; and in fact, mostly in the south. [It is] because of [this] that I was able to build bridges, friends and so on. I never knew that I was going to join politics. I was aiming to help my department.

[However], just before the mid-1980s, the late Shehu Yar’Adua discovered the potential in me and said ‘why […] not join me in fighting for the restoration of democracy in this country?’

How can the kidnapping and banditry that is making life so difficult in the north of the country be rooted out. Would you call for investigations into Nigerian politicians complicit in financing militancy? 

First of all, my first priority is to stop the attacks; and then secondly, look at the causes of the militancy and kidnapping.

We all assume that we know that it is because of lack of jobs, the rate of unemployment and so on and so forth. We know on the surface, but then there may be deeper roots, deeper causes that we do not know. […] we [need to] investigate and find out […] were there people behind it? Was it a money making venture or did it have any political motives?. Th[is] requires a more comprehensive investigation.

You were elected vice president in 1999. Your investiture was in May and then 6 months later, the governors in the north started the push to introduce Sharia. How has that gone? It seemed to have precipitated various other groups starting to demand their own rights – Yorubas called for a sovereign national conference, Igbos started talking of greater independence. Was that call for Sharia the moment when Nigeria started once more to be dragged apart into its constituent blocs? 

It is quite likely, but you should also remember that I was the only northern politician who stood up against Sharia at that time. I stood up and I said I did not agree with political Sharia.

I was mobbed in the north, anywhere I went. Stones were being thrown at me. Eventually I was proved right, because it fizzled out, and we knew that it was just [being used] to win elections, and those who brought it won their elections and they left with it.

Is there room for more moderate Islam to be taught in the north, to what extent is the government meant to be responsible for that? In Morocco, they put a lot of money into funding the expansion of moderate clerics. Should the government be doing that in Nigeria? 

If they believe it is going to help to bring about more religious tolerance, I think it is the responsibility of state governments. I would encourage them, and support them to introduce such measures, yes.

You mentioned the late Shehu Yar’Adua. You funded his 1992 presidential bid, he was a mentor for you – what would, in another universe, a Nigeria run by Shehu Yar’Adua have been like?  

He was one of those Nigerians who had a proper understanding of the country. Born, grew up, educated in the north, went to Sandhurst, the elite military school [in the UK], served the military with distinction, but he came from an extremely political family. His father was one of the first post-Independence ministers, and his uncles were also in local politics, in local government councils in Katsina, so he came from an extremely prominent political family.

That definitely influenced his thinking towards democracy, even though he was a military man, and he fought the civil war and served in the military regimes… but then his democratic credentials were impeccable. He recruited me, encouraged me on the journey, to fight for the return of democracy. There was nothing I was looking forward to more than a Shehu Yar’Adua presidency.

Do you speak about Shehu Yar’Adua a lot?

Every time I speak about my experience in politics and Nigeria. I […] believed […] that he could turn around Nigeria, but unfortunately […] so I felt I should step into his shoes and see what I can do. [Shehu Yar’Adua was arrested by General Sani Abacha in 1995 alongside Olushegun Obasanjo, and eventually condemned to death after calling for a return to democracy. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but he died in jail in 1997]

In the chaos of the 1990s, you retreated to the UK like many Nigerians involved in politics, while the Abacha death squads prowled the streets. Do you find it strange to hear references from the APC Vice President candidate Shettima, praising Abacha today?

Well, I think it out of sheer ethnic solidarity. Abacha tried to kill me in my own house simply because I insisted on a specific period to be set aside for handing over to democracy. He sent the military to kill me and the forces killed eight people. I escaped, I ran to the United States and I was there for 9 months until he died.

I simply feel that Shettima was praising Abacha out of ethnic sentiments, not out of nationalistic… I mean he had not fought Abacha, you know, and if god had not taken him [Abacha] he wouldn’t have even become a governor, [let alone the] vice president.

Some of your party members have accused you of focusing perhaps a little bit too much on the north at the expense of Southern Nigeria; your campaign manager is the governor of Sokoto, and while you were a big supporter of zoning [rotation of power between northern and southern political zones] in 2011 and 2015, now you’re seeking to succeed a Fulani Muslim like yourself. Do you think that’s a problem in unifying the country?

I don’t think so because you know the philosophy of the current president and my philosophy are completely different. They are almost opposite each other, so I don’t think there will be any problem, certainly not, I think that Nigerians should actually rate us on our individual beliefs, on the future of the country rather than our ethnicity or even religion.

Was zoning useful at one point, and is it still relevant now?

Zoning is still relevant: we brought it. We [the People’s Democratic Party] are the oldest political party in Nigeria, we introduced zoning in our constitution, it is still there, it’s still relevant and we’ll continue to uphold it, until we believe that the country is sufficiently integrated and united; and then we will do away with it.

One of your opponents, Bola Tinubu, says he stepped down for you in 2007 when you were a candidate of the Action Congress, and in the spirit of gratitude you should step down for him. Would you step aside for your former business partner?

I don’t know why. One of the reasons that we parted [ways] in 2007 was that he wanted to be my vice president. I told him I was not prepared to have a Muslim Muslim ticket. That was how we parted. He went on his way, I went on mine; so for him [to] step[…] down… he was never in the race. He didn’t contest. For him to say that he stepped down for me… absolutely not.

In 2019 you ran alongside Peter Obi, it was a very successful campaign, you had grassroots politicians like Rabiu Kwankwaso and the support of all the governors in your party. Who knows, given the vote rigging, perhaps you won that – history may say so. Today, four governors led by Nyesom Wike, have refused to join your campaign, while Obi and Kwankwaso are now contesting on their own. From the outside, it looks like the PDP is a house divided; very difficult to campaign when your house is divided. Is that a fair characterisation?

No, I don’t think this is a fair characterisation. There is no party that does not have its own internal crisis. Look at the APC today; first of all they have been unable even to constitute their campaign council. They have been unable even to inaugurate it. They have been unable to flag off their campaign, and unable to campaign. Look at the progress the PDP has made. Challenges within political families or parties, is normal. Are these disagreements so fundamental as to affect the popularity of the party at the voting level – certainly not.

* to read the rest of the interview don’t miss our next print edition of The Africa Report

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