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Atiku: Sixth time lucky or last rodeo?

The first time Atiku Abubakar ran for president of Nigeria, he was a 47-year-old man making his first major foray into real politics. That was…

The first time Atiku Abubakar ran for president of Nigeria, he was a 47-year-old man making his first major foray into real politics. That was in 1993; four years after he joined partisan politics. He was drawn to the craft, in the professional sense, by the sweet tongue of his political mentor, the retired General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, and soon learnt that heavy-weight politics is a different ball game to the students’ politics he played in his days at the School of Hygiene, Kano, in 1966, when he was voted president of the students’ union.

This one is marked by the betrayal that started with him being passed over as MKO Abiola’s running mate for the 1993 elections which has dogged his career since. At 76 now, this might be Atiku’s last chance to fulfil that long-held dream of his to govern Nigeria as its president.

In three decades of partisan politics, Atiku has aspired to the presidency on five occasions. This one, his sixth, is fraught with many of the same hurdles which at his peak he could not surmount. His introduction to partisan politics came off the back of a handshake with Yar’Adua, who had come to his office to ask for a license to import beans into the country.

Impressed by the customs officer, Yar’Adua had invited Atiku to the political meetings at his Lagos residence. Shortly after, Atiku resigned from the customs, in 1989 at 43, and helped float Yar’Adua Peoples Front of Nigeria, a political movement that collapsed into the Social Democratic Party and later the Peoples Democratic Party in 1998.

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His first run in the Adamawa governorship election in 1991 was truncated when then Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, annulled the party primaries in several states, including Adamawa. Atiku and his adversary, Bala Takaya, were barred from contesting for governorship elections in the state.

In a twist of fate, that opened another door for the ambitious politician and businessman who had his first run at the presidency two short years later. In 1993, after Yar’Adua had been barred from contesting the party’s presidential ticket, Atiku was pushed into the race for the party’s presidential ticket. He however found himself facing the formidable MKO Abiola and Babagana Kingibe.

Atiku came third and in the runoff was asked to support Abiola and be rewarded with the VP slot. He did. Abiola won and offered the VP slot to Kingibe. The betrayal hurt Atiku, as he would recount in his autobiography, My Life.

The things that made Atiku

Like his father before him, Atiku was an only child and grew up lonely. This loneliness was exacerbated when his father died when he was only 11. His father, Garba Atiku Abdulkadir, was a trader and religious teacher, just as his father before him had been and perhaps, as he too had wanted his son to be.

But Atiku’s life would take a different turn, one that would bring him into conflict with his father. The times were changing. It was the ‘50s and Nigeria was marching towards independence. Western education was gaining ascendency and challenging the norms but Garba Atiku Abdulkadir resisted it as much as he could. By 1954, when the time came for his son to be enrolled in school, he resisted vehemently.

Fighting Atiku’s corner was his uncle, Aliyu, who had taken some adult education classes and believed an education would be good for the young Atiku. Uncle Ali would defy his brother and register Atiku in school at the Jada Primary School. For resisting the attempt to enrol his son in school, Malam Garba was arrested and charged to court and fined. He refused to pay the fine and was jailed for a few days until another relative paid the 10 shillings to free him.

Despite this clash, Atiku seems to have fond memories of his father, who alongside his mother, Kande, he said tried to ensure he was raised in an ambience of love and spirituality. In return, Atiku would help his father on the farm and care for the cattle in the field.

“My father saw me as a rare gift, a child of destiny. He always prayed to Allah to protect me, guide me and make me successful in life. I honestly believe that I owe my modest achievements in life to him. There is power in prayer, no doubt about it,” he said in the book.

The relationship was not to last. In 1957, Malam Garba, who was about 40 at the time, was swept away to his death while trying to cross the small Mayo Choncha River on the outskirts of Toungo, a neighbouring town. His corpse was recovered a day later.

At age 11, Atiku found himself even lonelier than he had ever been and his mother, Kande, was left a widow and single mother. Years later, he would build an Islamic school where his father was buried to commemorate the late religious teacher. But at the time of his father’s death, something might have shifted in the psyche of the young Atiku just as he was admitted into the Adamawa Provincial Secondary School, Yola, in 1960.

To overcome the loneliness, he devoted himself to various school activities and got himself into a series of fights that almost got him expelled. One of his school friends, MGS Samaki OON, who would later become Nigeria’s ambassador to Romania, would tell me in an interview that “Atiku Abubakar was a normal, energetic and studious student. He participated in many sporting activities with enthusiasm.

“Those were the days when teachers ensured all students developed mentally and physically to be productive citizens and future leaders. In our school, the students were from all parts of Adamawa province. He made friends across the board and he was a team player. Many of these friendships exist to date.

”Friendships aside, Atiku, like most teenagers and particularly one struggling to cope with his father’s tragic death, got into trouble. One sport he was most keen about was hockey and he often wandered around the school grounds with his hockey stick. When he was bullied or felt bullied, he would strike with his stick.

Somehow, in those grief-laden, rage-filled hormonal years, the quiet, sensitive boy from Kojoli grew into a stick-wielding fighter in Yola. A fighter who needed to be restrained. So, six months into his secondary education, Atiku was warned by the principal, David West, that if he did not desist from fighting, he would be expelled.

Perhaps it was in Yola that Atiku learnt to be the fighter that he has been most of his life; one who has tasted defeat in several attempts at the presidency and risen every time and is now making what many believe will be his last challenge. In 2027, he would be 80 and it is hard to see him in that race.

But who knows? Atiku’s last rodeo?

Since 2022, Atiku has been in a prolonged kerfuffle with some members of his party, the PDP, which he helped to form in 1998 when they collapsed the structures of the People’s Front that his mentor Yar’Adua had set up into the new party.

Since his early days in politics, Atiku had always had one adversary after the other. First, it was Bala Takaya with whom he duelled a couple of times for the governorship of Adamawa State. The only popular election victory Atiku has had so far was his defeat of Bala Takaya in the 1999 gubernatorial election. He won but was never sworn in as governor.

However, unlike in 1993, he was offered the chance to become the running mate of his party’s presidential candidate, General Olusegun Obasanjo. On paper, it looked like a good match. Obasanjo and Yar’Adua had governed successfully from 1977-79 and now with Yar’Adua dead, the man he had singled out and pushed to replace him could team up again with his old boss. It is an irony that Obasanjo and Atiku would be sworn in as president and vice president on May 29, 1999, yet Obasanjo has become Atiku’s sworn political kryptonite and nemesis since.

At every point, Atiku has found Obasanjo on the path of his political aspiration. In 2007, when he should have succeeded Obasanjo as president, the old general pulled the rug from under Atiku’s feet and chose, Yar’Adua’s brother, Umaru, to succeed him. That was after Atiku had helped scuttle Obasanjo’s ambitious third-term agenda.

Forced to quit the party, Atiku joined the Action Congress and secured its ticket to run for president. He battled through court cases having been disqualified by the Independent National Electoral Commission on grounds of fraud charges brought against him. By the time he won the court victory to contest, Atiku knew the elections had been won and lost.

“At that point, I knew if I did not run in that election, all those battles over the years would be lost. People in the future could potentially be banned from contesting elections because petty personal vendettas outweigh legitimate court rulings. I also ran because, win or lose, I would have given a gift of legitimacy to our democracy, even if I was not going to enjoy the results.

“So, the next morning, I went out, voted, went home and waited for my loss as expected. I knew that while I was going to lose a battle, I had won the war – a war to preserve the sanctity of our democratic process,’’ he had told Vanguard in a 2013 interview.

“He scored only 7 per cent of the votes cast, less than half what Muhammadu Buhari scored and nearly six times less than what the eventual winner, Yar’Adua, polled, reportedly.”

The only reprieve Atiku would enjoy from Obasanjo was in 2019 when the former president endorsed him against the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari. However, it amounted to nothing in the end as Atiku lost that election as well. As the nation counts down to the 2023 elections, the beef that was shelved four years before has since resumed with the same intensity.

Obasanjo has been on the offensive again against Atiku, who he brands as corrupt. But this time, Obasanjo is not Atiku’s only problem. He is bearing the flag for the PDP at a time the party is at its lowest ebb since its formation. Out of power for the last eight years, the party is in shambles. In-fighting has pitted Atiku against party financier and governor of River’s State, Nyesom Wike, whom he defeated at the party primaries in May 2022 and then overlooked for the vice-presidential slot.

Wike has been niggling at Atiku’s heels ever since, drawing four other PDP governors to his corner and dishing out theatrical and sometimes puerile tirades against Atiku that have only deepened the fractures in the party.

But beyond that, Atiku’s candidacy, like that of the other candidates running for president, comes with its baggage. Some of these are old, others are freshly minted.

The weight of 53 suitcases and Atiku’s other baggage

In 1984, when Atiku was the Area Comptroller of Customs at the Murtala Muhammed Airport and General Muhammadu Buhari was head of state and had closed the borders amidst a currency changem saga, reports of some 53 suitcases being allowed through customs without check broke.

It was a huge scandal back then and is still being talked about today. In 2017, Atiku, during the launch of an endowment fund for Onukaba Adinoi-Ojo, the journalist who broke the story then, recounted how the scandal almost cost him his job. Buhari too had referred to the scandal in a 2011 interview and Atiku’s wife, Titi Abubakar referred to it in 2018.

The controversy arose when the ADC to the Head of State, Major Mustapha Jokolo, drove a car to the airport tarmac, loaded up some 53 suitcases and drove away, refusing to submit them to custom search. He claimed they belonged to his father and the family of a Nigerian diplomat returning to the country.

Atiku insists his only offence was confirming to the press that the incident happened for which he was almost sacked. Buhari seems irritated by the insinuation that his cronies were violating the embargo he had placed on the rest of Nigerians.

It would not be the last of the clashes between the two men as their political ambitions would lead to several showdowns down the line. Atiku escaped the sack back then but today, his campaign is burdened by the baggage that might weigh as much as those 53 suitcases from that old scandal.

First the source of his wealth, just like Tinubu, has been questioned. But Atiku, who at age 15 bought his mother a mud house while working as a part-time clerk for the Ganye Native Authority, supervised by Adamu Ciroma, insists his money was down to smart investment. He said he took a loan from the civil service in 1974, invested it in real estate and made a killing. He reinvested and grew his wealth, diversifying into oil in the early 80. Not everyone is convinced by this account.

Despite numerous probes, especially by his nemesis, Obasanjo, Atiku has never been indicted for corruption. In the court of law, Atiku might have triumphed but in the court of public opinion, the jury is still out, as it is for most politicians and public figures.

Atiku has been unable to shake off the smear of corruption, real or imagined, on his toga. His critics claim he only wants to be president to gobble down the national cake. They point to his inclination to privatise public assets, like the moribund NITEL.

“Atiku can only make the cake bigger so there will be more for everyone,” his media aide, Paul Ibe, told me in an interview. Whatever may be said of his campaign, Atiku came to this race prepared.

At the time of his declaration for president in March 2022, he had a policy paper ready, a 117-page manifesto, ‘A Covenant with Nigerians’ that hinges on five key areas: the unity of Nigeria, security, economy, education and devolving more resources and powers to the federating units.

Not all candidates can boast of a more comprehensive policy document. “It is obvious to all that government doesn’t have all the money and the debt burden has continued to weigh us down. Therefore, the government has to be creative and engaging the private sector is one way of solving our infrastructure problems sustainably,” Atiku told a gathering of businessmen and editors in Lagos last year.

Analysts seem to be unanimous in their praise of the depth and scope of Atiku’s manifesto. It is a document in which his years of engagement with both the government and private sector come to the fore. Mr Ibe believes that is his candidate’s selling point, insisting that Atiku’s experience as a successful businessman who has fetched dividends for investors and his eight years as vice president make him a good fit for Nigeria at the moment.

However, recent revelations by one Michael Achimugu, who claims to have worked as an aide to Atiku, have been damning. The whistle-blower claims that Atiku used what is called Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) and Shell corporations to channel public funds to avoid “open corruption.”

Achimugu backed his claim with a voice recording that sounded incredibly like Atiku explaining how the scheme works. “The conversation Atiku had with him was very genuine having felt that he was talking to someone who was well-meaning,” Mr Ibe said. “And then for the person to be recording that conversation, what do you do with a character like that?”

Like Dino Melaye, the Director of Public Affairs, PDP Presidential Campaign Management Committee, Mr Ibe denies that Achimugu has ever worked as an aide to Atiku, insisting he was just a hanger-on with a troubled past.

“SPV is adopted worldwide. It is created for the purpose of running political parties without the illegitimacy of taking funds from the government. There is nothing earth-shaking about the claims that were made so nobody should be worried about it,” Ibe said.

As a philanthropist

The former Vice-President has been a model for entrepreneurship and philanthropy over the years going by his numerous activities that have employed thousands of Nigerians and given hope to many people.

Through the establishment of the American University of Nigeria (AUN) and the ABTI Academy for the Secondary and Primary school sessions, he has been able to nurture talents and contribute to capacity development in Nigeria through the provision of quality education. And in these schools, many students are said to be on scholarship fulfilling their dreams of acquiring qualitative education without having millions in savings.

He also has several business enterprises across the country, providing jobs for the teeming unemployed youths.

For those who are close to the Wazirin Adamawa, his generosity is second to none and he gives freely without expecting anything in return.

He founded the Adama Beverages Limited, a beverage manufacturing plant in Yola, an animal feed factory which employs thousands of people in Adamawa State and beyond.

To Zone or Not to Zone?

One of the biggest factors against Atiku in these elections is that he is a northerner. After eight years of Buhari, a fellow northerner, who Atiku helped install as president in 2015, the common logic is that power should shift to the South. The APC chose a candidate from the Southwest, and the Labour Party’s candidate has gained traction because he is from the South East, among other reasons.

It is also one of the reasons Atiku’s emergence as the PDP’s candidate had caused so much furore within the party. It all goes back to President Yar’Adua’s death in 2010 and his replacement with Goodluck Jonathan from the South. This scampered the PDP’s zoning arrangement of shifting power between the regions of the country.

In 2022, after much deliberation and subterfuge, PDP decided to hold an open contest for candidates from all regions. Again, Mr Ibe insists that rescuing Nigeria is not a regional assignment and Atiku is the one person who can unite the country in a time of deep divisions.

“Atiku’s dining table is a mini-Nigeria,” he said about the diversity of people who converge in Atiku’s living room. “He is the one individual who knows at least one person in every ward of this country. He has travelled widely and he is the man who can bring people together.”

Amb. Samaki, Atiku’s friend from secondary school, believes Atiku’s lonely childhood made him a people person. “Atiku Abubakar was brought up by his mother, after the death of his father at a young age. For this reason, he worked hard not to disappoint his mother and became resilient,” Samaki said.

“Being an only child, he always hankered for the company of friends regardless of their tribal or religious persuasions. He was accessible and approachable. As he grew older, he remained unbiased. This is evident in his household, family, office and businesses, where personnel are made up of individuals from different parts of the country. He has an undeniable ability to integrate, which started at a young age. That is the model of leadership in practice.”

Indeed, Atiku, craving a large family to compensate for his lonely childhood, married four wives from different parts of the country and has some 28 children.

Of the candidates in the running, he is probably the one with a network that cuts across all regions of the country, something his camp is relying on to deliver electoral success. Yet, despite the confidence of his campaign team, it is clear Atiku’s popularity has waned in some parts of the country compared to 2019. Then he was quite popular in the South. This time, that popularity has been eroded by three major issues.

The first is the wariness some Nigerians have of Buhari being replaced by another Fulani northerner. The second is the emergence of Peter Obi from the South East region as a popular candidate and the third has to do with a deleted tweet. When a riotous mob in Sokoto lynched a Christian student, Deborah Yakubu, for insulting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) Atiku’s Twitter account posted a condemnation of the act. But this tweet was then deleted. Many Christians felt it was a betrayal.

Mr Ibe insists that he, personally, dropped the ball in that incident. “On the day of the Deborah incident, he was travelling. Unable to reach him, I took the decision to deploy a tweet without his approval. When I did that, I did not have an appreciation of the undercurrent. “When he got to know about it, we looked at it, reviewed it, and a decision was taken to have it pulled down. It was to avert further escalation. Atiku has been protecting me for too long and I need to come out and talk about my role in the whole thing,” Ibe said. “When you are a leader, your responsibility is to put out the fire. And that was what we did.”

But this fire seems to have jumped and caught on the tailcoat of Atiku’s campaign, to add to the many little fires his campaign has to put out. One of these obviously is patching the divide in the PDP before elections. But first, they have to acknowledge how much of a problem it is.

“The party is not divided,” Phrank Shaibu, another Atiku media aide, said when asked about Wike’s antics. “This is one man fighting the PDP and Atiku hasn’t said anything in response to all the vituperations because he is leaving the door open for them to come back.”

Whether Wike and his band of rebels will use this door remains to be seen. It is looking increasingly unlikely but in politics, things change quite quickly. Win or lose, smear or not, Atiku, through numerous court cases, has played a role in defining Nigeria’s democracy. One of his biggest roles and perhaps his biggest victory is scuttling Obasanjo’s third-term ambition. Perhaps it was motivated by his ambition to be president but in that instance, his interest also served the country’s democracy, as did his several court cases. He may argue that is still the case this time.

However, he has a tough job convincing Nigerians that that indeed is the case. “Atiku is not in the race because he wants power. But someone must take the gauntlet and lead the people and that is why he is in the race. It is about the people and they believe Atiku should be the one,” Shaibu said. How true is this? I guess we will find out after February 25.

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