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Nigeria 2023: Atiku risks disqualification after five presidential campaigns

By Akin Irede
Posted on Tuesday, 25 May 2021 11:02

Nigeria Election
Opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar waits to cast his vote during the Presidential and National Assembly election in Yola, Nigeria, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Former Nigerian Vice-President Atiku Abubakar has had one ultimate goal for the last 28 years: to be the country’s president. But with a pro-Buhari group trying to cast out his candidacy on citizenship grounds, and an attempt to tie him to the collapse of Bank PHB, there are legal fights ahead for Atiku.

Atiku, a retired customs officer, first contested the presidency in 1993 when the military junta of General Ibrahim Babangida organised the presidential election. Atiku finished third at the primaries of the Social Democratic Party, losing to the eventual winner, MKO Abiola and Babagana Kingibe. But the 46-year-old retired customs officer gained the respect of many when he endorsed MKO and soon stamped his presence in Nigeria’s political scene.

In 1999, he contested as President Olusegun Obasanjo’s running mate; but by 2002, he was already engaged in a feud with his principal, based on rumours that he wanted to succeed him. The feud ended temporarily in 2003 when they both contested for re-election and won. But by 2005, it had become obvious that their relationship had become unsalvageable, amid rumours that Obasanjo wanted to amend the constitution and seek a third term in office.

Atiku would eventually defect from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party to the Action Congress, after Obasanjo refused to support his presidential ambition.

This was the first time in Nigeria’s history that a serving vice-president would defect from a ruling party. Obasanjo sacked him but the court annulled this decision. However, Nigeria’s electoral commission disqualified him from running for president based on allegations of fraud. He was eventually cleared by the court and in 2007, allowed to contest, but lost to Umaru Yar’Adua.

Shows no signs of backing down

In 2010, he returned to the PDP to contest in the presidential primaries but was bested by President Goodluck Jonathan who had succeeded Yar’Adua months earlier.

In 2014, Atiku joined the newly registered mega party, All Progressives Congress, and contested in the primaries but was defeated by General Muhammadu Buhari and then Kano State Governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso. Not daunted, Atiku again returned to the PDP in 2018 where he won the presidential primary.

Should Atiku win even at the supreme court, the federal government still has some cards up its sleeve.

In 2019, he contested in the presidential election where he garnered 11.2 million votes and won 17 states, including the nation’s capital, Abuja. However, this proved not to be enough as Buhari polled 15.1 million votes, a victory margin of 3.9 million.

Atiku has, however, shown no signs of backing down. Last year, his son Adamu revealed that he would be contesting again in 2023. “Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with my father contesting for the presidency. In 2023, my father will be aspiring to the number one office in the land because he has been an astute, strategic, master politician for almost four decades,” he told journalists.

With his seemingly growing popularity in southern Nigeria, stupendous wealth and the support of some northern elements who believe the north should retain power, many believe Atiku could still become president of Africa’s largest nation, since Buhari also accomplished this feat after three failed attempts.

However, there are some who are trying to ensure that Atiku’s ambition is a pipe dream. To this end, a case was instituted in court challenging his citizenship and hence eligibility, shortly after the 2019 elections. They argue that Atiku was born in Jada in 1946 when the town was still part of British Cameroons. However, after the referendum in 1961, the town became part of Nigeria which had just gained independence.

‘Not a natural born citizen of Nigeria’

Following the plebiscite, inhabitants of the town of Jada were conferred with Nigerian citizenship. However, section 131 of the Nigerian constitution states that a person who will be president of Nigeria must be a citizen by birth.

The Egalitarian Mission for Africa – headed by Kayode Ajulo, a prominent lawyer – instituted a case in court challenging Atiku’s citizenship.

“We are just testing the law,” said Ajulo, who is also the secretary of Forward With Buhari (FWB), a pro-President Buhari group.

It appears that the federal government supports the move to prevent Atiku from contesting again. Nigeria’s Attorney-General Abubakar Malami, who is a defendant in the suit, said the federal government was of the opinion that Atiku was not a natural born citizen of Nigeria and thus not qualified to be President.

An affidavit deposed last month on his behalf reads: “The first defendant (Atiku) is not qualified to contest to be president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The first defendant is not a fit and proper person to be a candidate for election to the office of president of the federal republic of Nigeria.

“The first defendant was born on the 25 November 1946 at Jada, at the time in northern Cameroon. By the plebiscite of 1961, the town of Jada was incorporated into Nigeria. The first defendant is a Nigerian by virtue of the 1961 plebiscite, but not a Nigerian by birth. The first defendant’s parents died before the 1961 plebiscite.”

But Atiku in his response via a counter-affidavit in March said the suit would only succeed in wasting the time of the court.

He told the court that aside from serving as vice president from 1999 to 2007, he held many positions in Nigeria. Atiku maintained that both his parents, grandparents and great grandparents were born in Nigeria and they lived, died as Nigerians and were buried in Nigeria.

Atiku argued that he is qualified and eligible to be elected into the office of the president of Nigeria and even questioned the motive of those behind the suit.

The Federal High Court in Abuja set the date of hearing for 4 May 2021. However, the suit could not be heard because Nigerian court workers have been on a nationwide strike since 3 April.

Should Atiku win this case, the matter could still be appealed all the way to the supreme court because it is a constitutional matter.

When asked if the group would appeal the matter at the supreme court should the Federal High Court dismiss the case, Ajulo said: “That will be a decision for our board of trustees. Even though I am the chairman, I don’t take decisions alone.”

Company which had handled huge contracts

But should Atiku win even at the supreme court, the federal government still has some cards up its sleeve.

In 2019, the minister of information, Lai Mohammed, said the federal government is investigating Atiku’s alleged role in the collapse of Bank PHB, a defunct Nigerian financial institution.

According to the minister, the federal government has a “paper trail which shows that he benefited from N156m ($380,487), an allegation which Atiku described as ‘cheap blackmail’. Although there has been no official update on the probe since 2019, it could be a factor ahead of the 2023 election, since criminal cases have no statute of limitation in Nigeria.

In January, Atiku sold his shares in Integrated Logistics Services Limited (Intels), a company which had handled huge contracts with the Nigerian Ports Authority for decades. In 2020, the ports authority had terminated a lucrative contract with Intels, claiming Atiku’s firm had failed to remit $48m in revenue but Intels claimed the ports authority owed it $750m.

The former vice-president said in a statement that he was eventually forced to divest his shares in the company because the Buhari administration has been “preoccupied with destroying” it since 2015. The government, however, denied the allegation.

With the election less than 21 months away, it remains to be seen how Atiku will navigate through the many obstacles in his way.

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