By Justin Amase
Like the Austrian corporal Adolf Hitler who connived with the army to seize power in Germany during the ‘night of the long knives’, Atiku Abubakar shocked his fellow contestants for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential primary for the 2019 elections by seizing the ticket in a virtual landslide via a coup-style victory in connivance with some retired generals.
For PDP, the outcome of the presidential primaries held at its Port Harcourt convention on October 6, 2018 was a civilian equivalent of the ‘night of the long knives’. And all the fallen contestants were only able to sullenly remember that night as the night of Atiku Abubakar’s putsch. For from the backwaters, and out of the blues that night, the celebrated late-comer also seized not only the coveted prize, but the soul of the PDP with it from the hands of its old guards and other unrepentant apparatchiks who held fort while Atiku frolicked back and forth from PDP to other political parties. From that same night, the PDP became Atiku, just as Atiku became the PDP all at once.
Yet apparently unbeknown to his ill-prepared and obviously complacent adversaries, for Atiku, his re-entry into the PDP bowels was not just meant to be a mere homecoming of the prodigal. He deliberately came with one mission – to see and to conquer, by snatching the top prize in one more night out of the many such previous nights of gripe and political high drama in which he had always triumphed in his checkered political ascendency. But with this leopard at the frontlines, why did other military and civilian generals in the PDP such as Senators David Mark and Rabiu Kwankwaso, Governors Aminu Tambuwal and his combustible backers Governors Nyesom Wike and Ayodele Fayose, not presage the outcome of the battle in the Atiku tsunami that was bound to sweep and disarm them out of the race and lair?
In recent Nigerian history, if there is any one Nigerian politician who is battle-hardened without at once being battle-weary, it is Atiku Abubakar, the ever-boisterous, mordant and daring former Nigerian Vice President. To say Atiku loves political battles and high political drama is a gross understatement.
Indeed, never known to shirk from daring competing political lions in their den with matching grit, the man is known more not only for savouring and relishing but also reveling in multiple political combats no matter how controversial, like a skilled and confident gymnast confronting an anxious crowd at a competitive circus.
Given his penchant for remaining unflustered in electoral victory or defeat, in political fortune or adversity, all of which he smooches equally with mordacious disarming aplomb and pizzazz, coupled with his various recent partisan political somersaults, it can be safely said that to the essential Atiku Abubakar, politics is just like any other exciting sport. It is very much like a carnival devoid of the trappings of a profession, but more like an attractive proposal whose procession is marked by so much razzmatazz, with an almost endless destination shorn of apparent mendacity. Taxonomically thus, Atiku could be classed among believers of the Wazirian philosophy of ‘politics without bitterness’.
To some degree therefore, Atiku’s political odyssey and its accompanying political agonists remind one of the late sage and generalissimo of Nigerian politics, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Both are known to at any time to have arcanely attuned the telescope of their political career at the ultimate career prize – wining the Nigerian presidency.
In this single-minded focus, both are known to have made no bones about what the ultimate desired crown for their political career is. And so, in pursuit of this goal, at different times, they both either entered into new alliances, changed political partners or switched political loyalties, all in an attempt to gain a vantage position in some old or rehabilitated political platform that will launch them into throwing the gauntlets in the presidential boxing ring.
Indeed, like Awolowo, Atiku’s reputation as a die-hard veteran of many political battles has been established in recent Nigerian politics beyond doubt. Political observers will never forget in a hurry the magic wand he pulled off to emerge as the Northern Nigeria consensus candidate for the PDP primaries in 2011 at the late Adamu Ciroma’s selection Committee, irreverently flooring the likes of acclaimed ‘evil genius’ and military gadfly, former military President Ibrahim Babangida.
It was with this intimidating reputation that Atiku went into the Port Harcourt PDP presidential primaries backed by a civilian-military coalition against obviously less-prepared opponents, largely neophytes in this cloak-and-dagger game of top political contest. That he trounced his adversaries by winning over 50% of the total votes casts by the delegates was therefore not surprising to keen watchers of the man’s political pedigree. And for a man with the reputation for pulling a rabbit out of an empty political hat, the stage is now set for a titanic battle royale with the spartan and ascetic and sometimes almost dour retired general from Daura, a known veteran of four presidential contests against Atiku’s three previous presidential contests. This battle can best be described as a contest between a civilian general and a military general. And all generals hate to take hostages, both in military and civil combats.
There is no doubt that, perhaps, Atiku will be fighting the most crucial and hardest political battle of his political life in 2019. This is more so because of the its multidimensional complexity and largely issue-based nature as well as the opposition political platform available to him to launch this campaign. Success in the 2019 electoral battle will therefore be determined first and foremost by the candidate’s success in building strong, formidable and winning electoral coalitions – coalitions along partisan political, regional, professional, class and even along religious lines.
The next critical success factor will be the candidate’s rating and emotional perception by Nigerians along the lines of personal integrity and principles. The candidates will also be critically assessed on the extent to which they have a keen understanding and capacity to deliver on Nigeria’s pressing socio-economic challenges – poor infrastructure, rampant corruption, insecurity, youth unemployment, a monoculture and depressed economy in need of urgent production and revenue diversification, and general poverty reduction. And then the candidate’s political will and willingness to successfully tackle and provide workable solutions to Nigeria’s National Question – that of managing and accommodating her structural diversity that has induced the strident, urgent and recurring calls for restructuring, as well as wielding the various nationalities into a strong and united nation with a shared national destiny.
Similarly, compliance with the rule of law will also remain a major elite and civil society campaign issue, just as the capacity to understand and effectively manage the nuances of Nigeria’s international relations and global co-operation will also count. These are the fundamental electoral issues that will decide whether Atiku gets a green or yellow card from the now-enlightened voter communities.
Against the backdrop of the above dynamics therefore, the main question on the lips of many Nigerian voters is that: how does Atiku Abubakar rate and can be judged to deliver on the above core electoral challenges vis-à-vis his principal electoral challenger, incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari? Below is a brief look at these comparative configurations.
To begin with, Atiku swept to victory in the primaries on the back of an amorphous coalition of a segment of angry, snubbed and apparently persecuted political elite (some say corrupt elite), and the endorsement of a band of scorned and angry retired generals whose business interests and presumed historical esprit de corp have been badly demolished by President Buhari.
The PDP itself as an opposition political party is neither substantially reformed or its ranks purged of the wily elements that engineered its unhorsing by the APC in 2015. For on top of the pyramid of its national executive committee (EXCO) sits a Chairman reputed to be too calm, unagitated and cautious, cutting the image of a careful trader balancing many eggs on his head, hands and feet for sale in the marketplace.
He lacks the pugilistic aggression and brutal ruthlessness of an Oshiomhole, and even the behind-the-scene bluster and craftiness for Machiavellian wheeling and dealing of an Odigie Oyegun. Missing in him is also the predatory daring grit and instincts of a major opposition party marshal or Jagaban exemplified by Bola Tinubu.
Given the failure of the romance between PDP and her bride, the 42-member Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) to blossom into a full-blown marriage to date, PDP has remained like a bachelor, more or less a stand-alone entity with neither dependable allies or any known committed coalition partners except the tenuous raft of the sullen retired generals.
Outside the consummation of the marriage with CUPP, Atiku’s choice of a Vice Presidential running mate seems to have downplayed the key impact of voter registration density with North West (18 million), South West (14 million), South South (11 million) North Central (10 million), North East (9 million), and South East (8 million). What then is the capacity of this kind of coalition to deliver the badly needed votes for swift electoral victory along regional and other lines, side-by-side the old APC and Buhari’s coalition which is already climbing towards the peak of its learning curve in the last four years?
With respect to emotional appeal, the vintage Atiku and president Buhari have diametrically opposite personalities. The former is a gregarious extrovert, bridge-builder across regional, religious and generational divides, and an unrepentant liberal democrat; while the latter is introverted, impishly isolationist, a perceived religious zealot, almost ethnocentric and an uncrowned civilian dictator.
However, Atiku’s perceived positive personality traits are nearly eclipsed by his overall perception as an unprincipled political actor lacking in the critical requisite integrity that is sine qua non for entrusting him with high political office and leadership, hence is perceived as corrupt. This is opposed to President Buhari’s obviously Spartan, disciplined and almost antisocial frugality and integrity. These attributes have made president Buhari a cult figure among the lumpen masses of Northern Nigeria, among Islamic faithful and even among the masses of Nigeria’s poor and disposed across every divide, who have borne the brunt of many years of elite corruption and treasury looting.
While Atiku is known to have the reputation of moving swiftly in solving problems and addressing potential and emerging personal and national challenges, President Buhari is perceived as rather too slow to address the burgeoning national emergencies that Nigeria has been immersed in due to long years of poor leadership. Which of these attributes will tilt the scales in favour of either candidate will be a function of the kind of personality traits Nigerian voters expect from its President in 2019.
President Buhari’s performance in the economic arena in the last four years has left many unanswered questions. Sadly, the President himself comes across as having less than a biting grounding in the dynamics of fixing a battered economy such as Nigeria’s. Therefore; in spite of his administration’s claims to delivery of many significant socio-economic milestones in the areas of providing infrastructure, building huge foreign reserves, improving security and the operating economic environment, Nigeria’s economy is still reeling from the impact of a weak Naira, unemployment, mass poverty, insecurity of lives and property, as well as high national indebtedness, with about 69% of annual revenues used for servicing outstanding debt obligations. This is an area that many Nigerians perceive real leadership failure and yearn for a leadership change.
Perhaps Atiku, with his exposure to empirical economic management via his extensive successful private businesses, his Chairmanship of the National Council on Privatisation among many other national economic management responsibilities delegated to him during the Chief Olusegun Obansanjo presidency, is assumed to have acquired a deeper insight in the dynamics of fixing the Nigerian economy compared to the President Buhari.
So far too, in his first four-year presidency, President Buhari’s political will and willingness to successfully tackle and provide workable solutions to Nigeria’s National Question by way of accommodating her structural diversity, has remained suspect, just as his temperament for complying with the rule of law, and his grasp of the nuts and bolts of a clear and coherent foreign policy. This contrasts with Atiku who is known to be favourably disposed towards the restructuring of the Nigerian federation, and is a strong advocate of the superiority of democratic values and the rule of law.
All said, while Atiku will be fighting his toughest political battle to date given the current overall temperament of the Nigerian voters against its past and current corrupt leadership class, 2019 however presages his brightest chance for snatching his most sought-after political career prize. This will be possible, if he can successfully convince the Nigerian voters of his willingness to reform and jettison his perceived corrupt ways and alliance with the corrupt ruling elites in favour of a genuine patriotic commitment to the pursuit of Nigeria’s economic development and the upliftment of the standard of living and welfare of the teaming suffering Nigerian citizens across class, regional, and religious lines.
When you add to this overall gritty, a political brew, the fierce band of war-tested never-say-die Young Turks that Atiku has collared into his presidential campaign team – Saraki, Wike, Fayose, Ortom, Tambuwal – who will never hesitate to hit the APC below the belt, know ye all men that he has upped the ante in the 2019 game of thrones.
Surely, President Buhari, Tinubu, Oshiomhole and the APC will face in Atiku and his team nothing but a political smoking gun! In this no retreat-no-surrender eyeball-to-eyeball encounter, who is likely to blink first and fall last?
In the final analysis, it should be noted that Nigeria’s geopolitical configuration may play a most critical role in determining who emerges winner of the presidential election in 2019.
For now, indications are that these geopolitical dynamics will be more willing to do business with four more years of a Buhari’s presidency to end the North’s presidential run, than a potential eight years of an Atiku presidency. This singular factor, more than anything else, will undoubtedly tip the winning scales in favour of President Buhari in 2019, especially among Southern Nigerian voters. How Atiku tackles this last puzzle will largely decide the outcome of probably his last ‘night of the long knives’.
Amase is former Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Benue State who can be reached via: firstname.lastname@example.org