Nigeria 2023: Tinubu gets major boost as PDP rebel governors dump Atiku

By Eniola Akinkuotu, in Abuja
Posted on Monday, 2 January 2023 07:35, updated on Friday, 6 January 2023 13:30

Nigerian election candidates Atiku Abubakar (L) and Bola Tinubu
Nigerian election candidates Atiku Abubakar (L) and Bola Tinubu (photo: rights reserved)

With seven weeks left until Nigeria's Presidential election, five governors of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led by Nyesom Wike have all but dumped PDP Presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar. Frontrunner Tinubu can only benefit.

It’s official. Five out of the 14 governors of the PDP will work against the candidacy of former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar in the forthcoming Presidential election.

This clique led by Governor Wike of the oil-rich Rivers State, also has Seyi Makinde (Oyo), Okezie Ikpeazu (Abia), Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi (Abia) and Samuel Ortom (Benue) in its fold.

Governor Ortom let the cat out of the bag in November when he said, “To hell with Atiku and any other Fulani man. Any man supporting Atiku here is an enemy.”

“I want this to be known… If you want to be a slave to a Fulani man, you can be a slave. I can never be a slave. It is better I die than be a slave to any Fulani man.”

Although Ortom later apologised after receiving backlash from key northern figures for denigrating the Fulani tribe, it had become obvious that Atiku had become a persona non grata to these five governors who call themselves the G5.

Atiku, a northern Fulani Muslim, is seeking to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari, a fellow northern Fulani Muslim who will complete his eight-year tenure in May. This is against a long-established tradition in Nigeria where power rotates between the north and the south in the deeply divided country.

Ayu must go

Before the PDP Presidential primary in May, all southern governors drawn from all the political parties met in Asaba, Delta State, where it was decided that the south must produce the next President. However, this was a mere formality that had no force of law.

I want this to be known… If you want to be a slave to a Fulani man, you can be a slave. I can never be a slave. It is better I die than be a slave to any Fulani man.

Wike, the most powerful PDP governor, was in pole position to win the party’s ticket after gaining the support of many of his colleagues and outspending other candidates.

Months before the primary, he had orchestrated the removal of erstwhile party chairman, Uche Secondus, and ensured the emergence of Ortom’s kinsman, Iyorchia Ayu, as the new chairman.

Things did not go as planned for the Rivers governor as he was bested by Atiku. The fact that Ayu publicly celebrated Atiku’s victory also confirmed suspicions that he had been working against Wike all along.

After losing the primary, Wike also failed to emerge as the Vice-Presidential candidate of the PDP as Atiku picked Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State.

Removal of Ayu

Having failed two battles, the Rivers governor and his clique then went on a retreat in Spain where it was decided that they would push for the removal of Ayu as the party’s chairman.

They argued that since Atiku – a northerner – had emerged as the party’s Presidential standard bearer, it would be wrong of Ayu, a northerner, to continue as chairman as this would portray the party as a northern political association.

However, there was a challenge. The PDP constitution says in the event that a chairman resigns, he must be succeeded by the deputy chairman who is also from his region. This implied that if Ayu resigned, he would be succeeded by a fellow northerner.

The only alternative would be for the party to hold an extraordinary convention and select new party officers, a move which Atiku and other senior party members believed would be too risky and cumbersome ahead of elections.

Ayu, who himself had promised to step aside if a northerner emerged as the party’s candidate, also made a U-turn, insisting that he would only step aside after the party wins the main election. This complicated issues even further.

Governors go on offensive

The rebel governors, who named themselves the G5 or Integrity Group, began attacking Atiku directly.

Wike sacked all Rivers State officials who were supporting Atiku and also revoked their land approval. A former governor, Celestine Omehia, who was supporting Atiku had his pension and other privileges revoked.

Not done, Wike signed an executive order which mandates political parties to get the permission of the Rivers State Government at least two weeks before any political rally.

The executive order also mandates political parties to pay a non-refundable application fee of N5m ($11, 363) ahead of such rallies. This was widely rejected and is now being challenged in court.

Wike also went ahead to seal Atiku’s campaign office in the state and barred the posting of posters. A man who was seen putting up Atiku posters was attacked with a machete by thugs.

Political dilemma

Now, all the governors have travelled to London to take a final decision on who to support in February. They are torn between the other two front runners – Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peter Obi of the Labour Party.

Tinubu is not without controversies himself. A Muslim southerner, Tinubu also broke with a long-established tradition by picking a fellow Muslim, Kashim Shettima from the northeast as his running mate, a move which has been widely condemned by Christian conservatives in the south and the northern Middle Belt region.

Obi on the other hand is running on a balanced ticket but in a party that is very weak and lacks a national appeal. But there’s more.

Expulsion threats

The PDP has threatened to expel these five governors if they publicly endorse another party.

Apart from Wike, the four other governors are contesting elections on the PDP platform. Ortom, Ugwuanyi and Ikpeazu are running for the Senate election which will take place on the same day as the Presidential election.

Openly campaigning against the PDP could therefore affect their chances negatively.

At the governorship election which will come two weeks after the Presidential poll, Governor Makinde will also be seeking re-election. His chances of victory will also appear slimmer if the APC wins the Presidential election.

“The five governors cannot agree on one candidate because of the peculiarity of politics in their respective states. Peter Obi is popular in the southeast. If Ugwuanyi and Ikpeazu support him openly in Abia and Enugu, then the Labour Party could also win senatorial elections on that day and this could lead to their defeat,” a PDP chieftain told The Africa Report on condition of anonymity.

He further explained that since Tinubu was running on a Muslim/Muslim ticket, it would be difficult for Ortom to sell his candidacy in Benue State which is a majority-Christian state.

Tinubu’s gain

For now, the governors are still meeting. Sources tell The Africa Report that the governors may not publicly endorse anyone but could form a secret strategic partnership with Tinubu or Obi depending on the peculiarity of politics in their respective states.

The Africa Report understands that Wike will be supporting Tinubu barring any last-minute changes.

“Wike has nothing to lose. He is not contesting elections. And he will be supporting Tinubu who has a higher chance of winning the election than Obi,” a top PDP chieftain said.

An aide to Ortom who wished to remain anonymous because he wasn’t permitted to speak with the press, told The Africa Report that his principal would have loved to support Obi but it is too risky.

“As a politician, you don’t take decisions based on emotions but on the ability to win. I might be an Aston Villa fan but if they are to play against Real Madrid, I definitely will not be betting in favour of Aston Villa. I will bet on who has a higher chance of winning. That’s the challenge with Peter Obi. For now, Ortom has not yet made up his mind,” he said.

The aide added that although they had decided not to work for Atiku, anything could still happen because Nigerian politics is very fluid.

Analysts, however, tell The Africa Report that whichever way the pendulum swings, Tinubu will be the biggest beneficiary because of the political setup of the country.

The PDP has been winning Rivers, Enugu and Abia states in all Presidential and governorship elections since 1999. The APC is weak in these states which have a Christian majority and was not expected to get substantial votes in the states hence Tinubu’s decision to run on a same-faith ticket.

But with Obi and Atiku now splitting the votes in these states, this favours Tinubu, says public commentator, Deji Adeyanju.

“In Nigeria, a divided opposition can never defeat a ruling party. The only way out for Atiku now is for the north to support him at this point. This is a major boost for Tinubu and that is the painful reality,” he says.

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