It is no small achievement to rise to the position of Vice President of one’s country in so uncertain a career as politics. But since history seldom remembers vice presidents, a politician who gets that far would want to go all the way. The problem is getting there, because, depending on any number of foreseen and unforeseen factors, the distance from vice president to the president can be as short as a moment, as was the case for former President Jonathan, or as long as never, as we can say for former Vice President Alex Ekwueme.
So it was already an important question whether former Vice President Atiku Abubakar will finally make it to Aso Rock in 2023, long before last week’s jarring revelation, or lazy distraction — depending on who’s speaking about it — that he may not be a citizen of Nigeria enough to contest for the office after all. But the controversy now being generated about his ‘not being a citizen of Nigeria by birth’, whatever that means, and if it can be called a controversy at all, makes this question even more significant than ever before.
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It is quite a brave argument to claim that a person who has four times previously contested for an office, twice in presidential primaries and twice more as the presidential flag-bearer of a major political party, is suddenly unqualified to stand for the same position because they are now not citizen enough. But one way to approach this legal and political bombshell is to view it as one of many hurdles on the path of the former Vice President and his political party on the road to the next elections. So the original question remains: what are Atiku’s chances of becoming president in 2023?
The most reliable answer is that all things being equal, Nigerians will decide. Things are scarcely equal in politics, however. So, perhaps the former vice president’s biggest problems are, to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, the known unknowns of our presidential elections politics, by which I mean the factors that shaped the wider political environment but which are not exactly under the control of any candidate.
The first of these macro factors is Buhari. Nigeria has a 78-year-old president who, as I write, is in a London hospital. This makes President Buhari’s health a huge factor in any permutations of 2023, but it is a factor that we know we don’t know, to borrow from Rumsfeld once again, because no one knows what might happen. Given our recent history and the sensitivity of the subject itself, more needs not be said on this. No one wishes bad upon anyone and I certainly don’t. But anyone with a thought on the near future in Nigerian presidential politics will do well to reflect on how this known unknown factor can change everything.
The second factor that we know we don’t know is how the politics of ‘zoning’ might play out in 2023. The implication of this for Atiku, or any other candidate from northern Nigeria, is obvious but also quite easily overlooked. Nearly all national politics in this country is simply anti-northern politics in one way or another. The ‘north’ is the ‘Other’ to which the rest of Nigeria defines itself against. Much talk about ‘restructuring’, ‘resource control’, ‘Oduduwa republic’, ‘Biafra’, ‘zoning’, ‘lopsided appointments’, ‘cabal’, ‘marginalisation’, etc, are merely variations of the same age-old sentiment that the ‘north’ and ‘notanas’ have some unfair advantages within the Nigerian setting that must be curbed to give others a sense of belonging.
That this is not always true and not always supported by evidence is not important. What is important is that these ideas have become deeply engrained in Nigeria’s political DNA, and have been embraced by many as the ultimate truths of our politics. Zoning or the so-called idea of the rotational presidency between the north and south, in particular, is a scheme designed to guard against two Nigerians from the same region succeeding each other at the presidential level, regardless of differences in political parties. It is not in our constitution, which is a good thing because it leaves open an opportunity for us to grow out of it someday as a country.
But it is etched in millions of Nigerian hearts and minds and remains a strong political current that can be activated during presidential elections. So, if the APC fields a southern candidate, and especially a Christian one, following Buhari’s two terms, then zoning is likely to feature heavily in the elections because it is powerful rhetoric that can be invoked against any candidate with the same or similar demographics as Atiku. Perhaps, the actual election might throw up a slate of candidates that will make zoning irrelevant, but at the moment, it remains a strong known unknown that any potential candidate might want to think about.
And then, there is this new claim that former Vice President Atiku Abubakar is not Nigerian enough to contest for its highest office because he is not ‘a citizen by birth’. We know the problem, but since the matter is still in court, and may end up at the Supreme Court, we do not yet know what the outcome of the case will be. In this sense, it is another known unknown.
Both the legal and political components of this case are vexatious. While we await further hearing on the case next month, for the analyst, the two components appear fused, which makes the political dimension even more significant. First of all, the case was filed by a so-called civil society organisation, Incorporated Trustees of Egalitarian Mission for Africa (EMA), two years ago as part of the legal challenges and counter-challenges of the 2019 presidential election. But since the Supreme Court has long upheld that election, the re-emergence of this case now can only have significance for a future election.
Second, though it has a mouthful of a name, the website of EMA has been difficult to find on the internet, or any other information about it other than this case. Nor has any of its members been publicly identified. Moreover, news stories last week credited the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami (SAN) of issuing an affidavit in support of EMA’s motion. But the AGF has publicly denied this, so something is missing somewhere. And since there are not many Nigerians born in Jada in the 1940s who wish to be president, it is difficult where the public interest value of the case lies.
In other words, the whole case is a crude echo of the ‘birtherism’ movement with which right-wing politicians and commentators sought to discredit Obama’s candidacy in 2008 and 2012. So it may not stop even if the courts find for Atiku, an outcome that is itself not exactly under his control. Perhaps the former vice president might do well to have a political answer ready, even if the courts find for him. But if all the above are ‘macro’ problems for which the potential candidate may not have much control, what about those issues that he can control? All things being equal, these may prove even more important.