Nigeria: The PDP presidential fightback

By Patrick Smith and Eromo Egbejule in Abuja
Posted on Monday, 29 October 2018 15:12

Gaudy full-colour posters line the streets of Abuja, the federal capital. The smiling face of President Muhammadu Buhari beams down with the message that he is for Nigeria 100%. One of his opposition rivals, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar is pictured with a simple message: “Deservation!” – African-American slang for he deserves it.

Heavyweight politicians such as Senate president Bukola Saraki and governor of Sokoto State Aminu Tambuwal are criss-crossing the country addressing town hall meetings and glad-handing local dignitaries. And just as the Harmattan season showers sand from the Sahara Desert across Nigeria, the election season unleashes a deluge of political manifestos as eager candidates flood communities with promises and wads of naira. National election spending can add more than a percentage point to Nigeria’s gross domestic product.

Buhari’s government has few big-­ticket achievements to point to, and suddenly elections next February look like a close contest. The opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is emerging from the doldrums of its last big defeat. At least 10 of its top officials are vying for the party’s presidential nomination in primary elections on 5-6 October.

Tougher this time

Atiku and Saraki lead the field, followed by governor Tambuwal and Rabiu Kwankwaso, a former defence minister and governor of Kano State. Although they have all defected from the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) to the opposition PDP, they all want to campaign against the government’s record on the economy – rising joblessness and lacklustre growth – to win back the presidency next year.

Rotimi Amaechi, director of Buhari’s re-election campaign, says there is no room for complacency: “We know this is going to be a tougher election for us than in 2015,” he tells The Africa Report in Abuja. “Many of our economic projects will yield benefits in the medium term, but people want to see more money in their pocket now.”

Yet Amaechi insists that the alliance that won it for Buhari last time – between the northern states and the south-west – is still strong. “The President’s support in the north-west and north-east is still running high. Whoever the opposition puts up against us, we don’t care,” the campaign director says.

Turnout is the big challenge for the newly-energised PDP, says David Williams, a US political consultant working for Atiku. “The PDP was founded as a national party, held power for 16 years and that gives a powerful network […] if it gets the vote out.”

Williams’ polling research across all 36 states in the country holds mixed news for the parties. Although President Buhari’s approval ratings have risen in the past year, about 60% of respondents said that he had not done well enough to deserve another term.

Float the naira

Asked in August, some 67% of respondents said Nigeria is going in the wrong direction, compared with 69% a year earlier. Joblessness and poverty were the top voter concerns, says Williams, followed by drugs, crime and corruption.

At Atiku’s campaign headquarters, in a 10-storey block in central Abuja, the mood is buzzing. Acolytes have been preparing for this campaign over the past 18 months, working on their policy ideas, message and national reach. They cannot take anything for granted despite Atiku’s fame and money.

Atiku sticks to the issues when he agrees to meet The Africa Report and diagnose Nigeria’s economic woes. He starts by telling us he would abandon the government’s multiple-exchange-rate regime: “I would prefer to float the naira because it will bring in foreign exchange to back a more stable exchange rate, one that is more predictable for foreign investors.”

Avowedly pro-business, Atiku says that his record in running companies in manufacturing, agriculture and healthcare as well as establishing a university shows that he knows how to create jobs. Yet the jewel in his corporate empire, the Intels oil and gas logistics company, appears to be a target for government investigations, perhaps with a political twist.

Does that worry Atiku? “I have been involved in the fight for democracy since the 1980s. We have lived with that,” he says. “The only thing that worries me is that the last three years have been the worst in the history of Intels. […] Our turnover dropped by 70%.”

Privatisation plans

After running a privatisation programme in President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government, Atiku wants to go much further and sell down most of the state’s equity in its joint ventures with international oil companies. The state should retain only a minor stake, he adds.

“Nigeria is in dire need of funds to develop its infrastructure, so I would want to go ahead.” What about the risks of corruption or selling the assets too cheap? “I want you to judge me by my record. When I privatised, it was transparently done and I think we had a fair process.”

In line with his campaign message – ‘Make Nigeria work again’ – Atiku says job creation has to be the top priority of the new government. And for him that means a much more pro-market government that would woo foreign investors by limiting and clarifying business regulations.

“He’s a bit of a Thatcherite,” says one of his campaign team, comparing his political attitudes to Britain’s conservative prime minister in the 1980s, who sold billions of dollars of state assets and took on the trade unions.

Atiku also insists that he is a long-standing proponent of a radical restructuring of the federation, a position that has made him popular in the Niger Delta and the south-east. When asked to name a figure for how much revenue the oil-producing states should be allowed to retain, he says the exact figure would be a matter for negotiations.

But his instincts are in favour of substantial change: “I don’t mind giving even 100% if it was left to me, but I will tax you to maintain the government.” Atiku also backs the right of state governments to run their own police forces, perhaps involving two or three states to form a regional force alongside the federal police that are controlled from Abuja.

Atiku’s main rival in the primary race is Senate president Saraki. They share a pro-business view of Nigeria’s economy. For Saraki, alongside economic reforms, there is a pressing need to bring the country together: “Different parts of the country – if you talk to them – say they are not sure whether they belong […]. That’s the way that people are beginning to question how the country works.”

Let there be clarity

A sense of unity sends important signals to investors, argues Saraki. “A government must be able to engage its people, show empathy. People must be able to say: ‘You represent all of us.'”

Having spent much of the past four years pushing reform of the oil and gas sector, Saraki is frustrated that the latest version of the reform bill remains blocked between the national assembly and the presidency. “Anywhere else, this bill would have been driven by the executive, even the president himself, in view of the importance of it.”

Fixing the sector and bringing in billions of investment into oil and gas production is a Saraki priority. He also wants a change of political style: “We need a new type of leadership, a government that is really pro-business and thinks about the growth of this country.”

He says he is appalled by the Buhari government’s spat with South Africa’s MTN over some $8bn of claimed back tax: “These kind of signals are so wrong and they can’t create any confidence […]. You don’t run government like that, especially not with companies that have created so many jobs. Let there be clarity about what the rules are.”

One of the highest-profile APC defectors, Saraki appears comfortable in his new political home in the PDP. In fact, it is a political homecoming to the party he quit in 2015 to join a new national alliance. Is he frustrated by the emphasis on personalities rather than policies?

“It’s clear that our political parties are still weak. There’s still a lot of politics driven by personalities,” says Saraki. “As our democracy strengthens, manifestos and political positions will strengthen.”

At the same time, Saraki argues the PDP has been able to carve out an identity for itself: “It’s a party that clearly speaks for a more united Nigeria, more justice and equity, and a greater representation – truly a Nigerian party. A PDP government would definitely have a more inclusive way of bringing all Nigerians to the table.”

It would also depoliticise the fight against corruption, he says. Over the past two years, Saraki has been fending off probes by those he accuses of having political motives: “It’s clear, three years down the line, that it’s not a fight against corruption systematically but it’s more a fight against perceived political opponents,” he says.

With heavy-hitters such as Atiku, Saraki, Tambuwal and Kwankwaso competing for the PDP ticket, the party will raise its profile. For now, its bigge

For now, its biggest problem will be keeping all those top politicians inside the tent ahead of the elections next year. If the PDP primaries upset them, they could trigger yet another round of defections.

This article first appeared in the October 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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