Nigeria: The PDP’s long road back to power
Starting with an apology for past misdeeds, it quickly morphed into a row with rivals over responsibility for grand corruption. In sum, it was not an auspicious start to the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) campaign to win back the presidency in next year’s national elections. Once claiming to be the biggest political party in Africa, the PDP is fighting for its future.
Its problems go far deeper than the late-March apology fiasco, but that episode points to the PDP’s weakness as a national political organisation and its lousy image. The apology tour started with the PDP’s Prince Uche Secondus’s admission: “I hereby, as the national chairman, do admit that the PDP made a lot of mistakes.” Developing his argument, ahead of a partisan attack, Secondus continued: “We have passed through all our challenges. We were sanctioned by Nigerians at the polls in 2015 […]. We have learnt from our mistakes, unlike the All Progressives Congress (APC) that will make mistakes and lie to cover it.” By avoiding the detail of its misdeeds and making no reference to the grand corruption under the PDP’s time in power, Secondus’s grand confession misfired.
It triggered rapid rebukes from the governing APC, whose Lagos godfather, Bola Tinubu, took time off from his 66th birthday celebrations to hit back, dismissing the apologia as a crude tactic to elicit electoral advantage. Joining in, President Muhammadu Buhari’s office advised Nigerians to ignore the apology and demand that the PDP should return all the “stolen funds” in its possession.
Quickly, the ground shifted into a debate about how corrupt the PDP government was under former president Goodluck Jonathan. Worse still, the APC published a list of politicians – including Secondus, the PDP’s former publicity secretary Olisa Metuh, media tycoon Raymond Dokpesi and former presidential adviser Dudafa Waripamo-Owei – who it accused of diverting state funds. Secondus promised to sue his opponents for defamation, but the political moment was gone. APC, one; PDP, nil.
Waiting for APC mistakes
That does not augur well for the PDP. It is relying unduly on the rule that governing parties lose elections rather than opposition parties win them. For now, the PDP lacks a clear strategy to wrest power at the centre from its bitter rival. Overwhelmingly, its members argue that the APC will make enough mistakes to prompt an implosion. That will, say PDP strategists, send disgruntled governors, senators, assembly members and activist members scurrying back to their political roots in the former ruling party.
None of that looks inevitable, even if there are likely to be several political defections in the next few months as the campaign heats up. So far, there has been no open rebellion of senior politicians in the APC in response to Buhari’s announcement that he wants to run for a second term next year.
Few expect a serious challenge to Buhari’s nomination at the APC’s party congress towards the end of the year. In contrast, the PDP is yet to coalesce around a frontrunner. Yet one of the PDP’s top strategists, Demola Rewaju, tells The Africa Report: “I think the PDP stands a huge chance of winning in 2019, having addressed several internal issues, renounced the previous culture of imposition and apologised to Nigerians who have realised the APC has failed.”
And the PDP has an impressive field of politicians from which to choose its presidential candidate, insists Rewaju: “Everyone vying to be the PDP’s presidential candidate at present is more qualified for the office than the incumbent.”
His optimism is shared by Nyesom Wike, governor of Rivers State and de facto leader of the PDP. Wike, who installed his protégé Secondus as chairman, has been crisscrossing the country and extending handshakes across the fabled River Niger. In the past six months, Wike met with Sa’adu Abubakar, the Sultan of Sokoto and the country’s most influential Muslim and traditional ruler. Wike also had intense discussions with Aminu Tambuwal, the Sokoto State governor who defected to the APC from the PDP five years ago.
A seasoned and widely liked operator, Tambuwal knows how to win friends and influence people. At one stage, he was the consensus choice to run as presidential candidate for the APC should Buhari throw in the towel. Now Tambuwal is biding his time, making few public statements about his intentions.
Wike has the charisma and proclivity for deal-making of his predecessor and arch-rival, Rotimi Amaechi. Already, Wike is seen as the chief campaign manager for the PDP’s yet-to-be-decided northern candidate for the presidency. When The Africa Report met him on a recent swing through London, he exuded confidence about the party’s prospects in 2019. It would again, he said, sweep the Niger Delta states and the south-east, as well as making deep inroads into the APC’s support base.
Wike recalled how Amaechi’s defection, along with four other state governors including Kwara’s Bukola Saraki – the current president of the Senate – helped defeat Jonathan ahead of the 2015 polls. Now Wike wants to seduce Saraki, who has presidential ambitions, and Tambuwal back to the PDP fold.
Those targeted for the PDP’s seduction campaign have to make some unsentimental judgements about which way the political wind is blowing. Despite the widespread criticism thrown at the government for the sluggish economy and petrol shortages, the continuing conflict in the north-east and the eruption of deadly herder-farmer clashes in the Middle Belt and beyond, President Buhari is the most popular politician in northern Nigeria since the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello. With the power of incumbency – and unless another bout of ill-health intervenes – Buhari is the clear favourite to win next year.
Those realities have dissuaded most aspiring northern politicians in the APC from throwing their hats in the ring. The one exception is senator Rabiu Kwankwaso, leader of the over-two-million-strong Kwankwasiyya movement spanning Kano, Jigawa and a few other states in the north-west. As the outgoing governor of Kano State, Kwankwaso delivered 1.9 million votes from the state’s registered 2.1 million electorate for Buhari in the 2015 elections.
Since then, Kwankwaso has fallen out with his successor and former deputy, Umar Ganduje, who is now an ultra-loyalist to Buhari. Although Kwankwaso has been sidelined in the state party machinery, he remains influential in the north. This is why the APC worries about Kwankwaso’s mysterious presidential campaign. It is clearly under way, but Kwankwaso is yet to disclose on what party platform he will be running.
Although Kwankwaso, over a decade younger and with a strong record as governor, is one of the few who could mount a credible challenge to Buhari for the APC nomination, the PDP is also courting him assiduously. Kwakwaso was second only to Buhari in the APC’s primaries in 2014.
Another key factor for the PDP is the return of James Ibori, one of the most influential politicians in the Niger Delta. Jail time in Britain has not much diminished Ibori’s political standing, and repentant sinners seem to be a theme in the 2019 elections. And Ibori, whom Wike has already visited, has deep connections with the northern elite. Even from his jail cell, Ibori was able to orchestrate the coming to power of a new governor in Delta State – Dr Ifeanyi Okowa – to replace the maternal cousin he installed in the governor’s mansion. With Ibori and Wike at the helm of the party, the PDP’s grip on the Niger Delta states will be hard to break.
Atiku springs into action
Yet the star in the PDP’s national firmament and its frontrunner for the presidential nomination is former vice-president Atiku Abubakar. Announcing his ambition to run in 2019, Atiku has embarked on an international campaign to reposition himself as an economic reformer and technocrat. Fixing up a string of speaking engagements in London in mid-April, which coincided with Buhari’s visit to the Commonwealth summit, Atiku has the resources and a certain political flair. However, he also has some heavyweight political foes, such as former president Olusegun Obasanjo.
The PDP’s Rewaju says that ultimately it will come down to a two-horse race: “Whoever will win the PDP presidential nomination is already in the PDP at this time, and I believe it will be between Alhaji Sule Lamido and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. I am partial to Sule Lamido because of his ideology, his antecedents as a governor and former foreign affairs minister, as well as his abiding loyalty to the PDP.”
In one of its rare flashes of political imagination, the PDP has launched its ‘Generation Next’ campaign targeted at youthful voters. An early supporter of that plan is 28-year-old Ndi Kato, who is running on the party’s ticket for a seat in the Kaduna State house assembly: “The PDP is trying to push young people who have a lot to offer […]. It’s given me a platform to express myself and connect with other politicians, encouraging me to run for office,” she says.
Kato says the party’s established leadership is ageing and many middle-aged Nigerians were reluctant to go into politics, uncertain about the durability of the civilian political era. She adds: “So there is that gap and the need to fill it with young leaders who will rise through the ranks.”
Accordingly, Kato is confident of victory next year: “I think the present government is very woeful […] taking Nigeria back 20 years […] the level of migration at this point is terrible. I’m in politics because I want to see things get better. We’re looking at a lack of capital projects, a tanking economy.”
Cheta Nwanze, head of research at SBM Intelligence, concurs with many of Kato’s points about the state of the country, but he differs in his conclusions: “There is a lot that someone aiming to upturn the status quo can campaign with. To put it bluntly, Nigeria is not working.” But the opposition, whether the much talked-of ‘third force’ backed by Obasanjo and other retired generals, or the PDP, appear to have left it too late to derail the Buhari bandwagon: “From where I’m sitting, the ‘third force’ does not have a chance to upturn Buhari, as it is a good idea that started too late,” says Nwanze.
Says Nwanze: “The APC was locked and loaded two full years before the 2015 general elections, while the ‘third force’, with less than a year to the 2019 general elections, does not even know what party it will work with. The PDP, on the other hand, has a small window, if it can get over its own internal issues. However, that window is closing, and fast.”
This article first appeared in the May 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine