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Atiku in limbo?

When former Vice President Atiku Abubakar clinched the presidential ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), most commentaries across media and political divides in the…

When former Vice President Atiku Abubakar clinched the presidential ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), most commentaries across media and political divides in the country about his emergence as the leading opposition party’s flagbearer were focused on two things. First, most pundits and commentators thought he was the best pick of the pack in the party because he represents the best chance of the PDP to recapture federal power from the All Progressives Congress (APC), and possibly retake a few more states than the 14 or so they now hold. Secondly, many thought his win at the primaries in May also represents both his best and last chance at becoming president, a position he has been pursuing literally all his political career.  

Just a few weeks down the line, however, his chances would appear to be dwindling fast. I say “appear” because we are still a long way from the polling booths in February next year. Still, if the elections were to be conducted today—a conditional statement that many professional political consultants and pollsters use to gauge the performance of their campaign strategies and activities over time on behalf of candidates and parties—the former Vice President will be facing an uphill task, quite a shift from the upbeat that greeted his emergence at the primaries in May.

From where I am sitting, or rather standing, Atiku’s candidacy and campaign now faces threats from four main quarters that he and his party would need to pay attention to immediately, after all elections are often won or lost long before votes are cast. Some of these threats are new and probably fleeting; others are new but will probably have enduring significance through the entire election period, while yet others are old and enduring at the same time.

The first of these is the pall of distraction and demarketing that a political force no less than Atiku’s own erstwhile boss, former President Obasanjo is bent on casting on the PDP’s campaign. At his Ota farm a little over a week ago, the former president told a group of school children that he regretted selecting Atiku as his running mate in 1999, a clear missile that simply means he thinks the PDP ticket holder is not fit for the office he aspires. But not done, Obasanjo followed this up with a visit to leader of the Norther Elders Forum, Professor Ango Abdullahi, who subsequently said of his meeting with Obasanjo that both Atiku and Chief Asiwaju Tinubu, presidential candidates of the PDP and APC respectively, were unsuitable for the job. I am sure that Professor Abdullahi has more than enough experience of Nigerian politics to realise that it is a significant point that Obasanjo himself did not with his own mouth say that of Tinubu, at least has so far not. But this is a matter for another day.

Now, Obasanjo represents a unique political quantity in Nigerian politics today. He cannot win anyone any significant number of votes now, certainly not enough to make any candidate win a presidential election in today’s Nigeria. But he can lose you enough votes to ensure defeat by influencing the entire political narrative around you in a way that will ultimately do a lot of damage. He did it against Yar’Adua in 2010 and against former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015. Never mind that both were singularly handpicked by Obasanjo himself.

My guess is that now that Obasanjo’s position on Atiku’s candidacy is  clear, he would not stop and would probably double down on his demarketing campaign as the election circle proceeds. Atiku and his party would need to prepare for this and respond beyond the rather weak statements offered by his campaign last week. The Vice President and his team will need to have or find a political salvo of equal weight to keep Obasanjo quiet or busy in a way that will not affect the electoral atmosphere.

Second, there is the threat posed by the Governor of Rivers State, Mr Nyeson Wike, the runner-up in PDP’s presidential primaries. Now, to the extent that an outsider like me can see, Wike is aggrieved for the high-water politics that edged him out in the contest and especially for being overlooked for the running mate slot. In my view, anyone in his place would be aggrieved. His contributions to the party over the past seven years cannot easily be ignored. Just as his contributions, however, his drawbacks are equally serious and weighty, which would make it difficult for any party serious at challenging for office to select him at the head of its ticket or have him as the junior partner to it.

But while Wike is now showing off his influence among governors and former governors of the party, the threats he represents to Atiku and the party is probably of a fleeting kind. All the man wants is respect and recognition directly from Atiku and some assurance of what the future might hold for him within the party and beyond, again directly from the presidential candidate himself. Any presidential candidate should know and be able to practice the art of stooping to conquer. To sustain the momentum achieved from the primaries, Atiku would need to play this game with Wike—and fast too—if for nothing else, to reduce the negative energies within the party and a public image of a party and candidacy in disarray.

And then, there is the threat posed by Peter Obi, the candidate of the Labour Party. His rise to political stardom in the past four months or so  also is almost without parallel in Nigerian politics. His rise has been in three stages: he started off as a possible running mate within the PDP, but his move to the Labour Party increased his value and marked him off as serious contender in his own right. The elimination of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo from the APC primaries also significantly enhanced his value beyond only voters who nurse the realisation of an Igbo presidency in 2023. He is now widely popular among voters in the “Middle Belt” and among voters who wanted to follow Osinbajo to the moon. And because he is the only Christian among the candidates of the four major parties, his appeal can only grow more infectious if sustained over the coming months.

If the election were held today, he would do a lot of damage to the PDP. I don’t think the APC and its candidate are losing any sleep from Peter Obi because his fever-pitch appeal would not infect APC’s voters in the South West and the North. This leads to the final and oldest threat Atiku’s campaign faces. The former Vice President likes to think of himself as a nationalist, as the man for all Nigerian people. This is fine to a point. But the reality is that the only true Nigerian nationalist is a dead Nigerian. As the late Malam Aminu Kano reportedly said, when the sun sets on the Nigerian village square, everybody knows the way to their father’s house.

Atiku’s neglect of this truism when the chips are down in Nigerian politics is perhaps the most serious threat to his ambition. Any presidential candidate in Nigeria who does not make his house the fulcrum of his campaign would probably find themselves in political limbo, and a warning is also an advice.