The emergence of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as the flag-bearer of the People’s Democratic Party in the 2023 presidential election has, expectedly, set the APC into panic mode, and the aggressive marketing skills demonstrated by the foot-soldiers of the ruling party’s leading presidential aspirants and their supporters are a response to that threat. Even President Muhammadu Buhari who seemed to have detached himself from the processes in place to elect the party’s match for Atiku in what’s likely a two-horse race has suddenly shown he’s not unaware of the difficult choices before the party. His interest in paving the way for his successor after meeting with the party’s governors, though, seemed like the spark of a problem.
The controversial speech of the former Lagos State Governor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, in Abeokuta last Thursday, where he met with party delegates to lobby for votes and market himself, hit the nation differently. It was, at best, a polarizing pitch. He was profiled as both a man asking for the party to honour his sacrifice for them and one who overestimated his role. The interpretations of the speech, which was in Yoruba, got to a point that he had to release a statement to announce that his statements were taken out of context, and that “(t)hose who do not understand the nuances of this richly layered and subtly language may have inadvertently yet erroneously missed the true meaning of what I said while attempting to translate my statement (sic).”
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But, beyond the linguistics of Tinubu’s rage, his hint about a ploy to have him schemed out of the presidential equation was easy to discern in the speech and the reactions so far have been intriguing. However, no matter where one belongs in this history, without the Tinubu-led Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) bloc in the coalition that became the All Progressives Congress (APC), Buhari would’ve remained a political pariah in the South and Goodluck Jonathan would’ve had his way back to Aso Rock. Whether it’s the Yoruba turn to fly the APC flag as Tinubu was quoted to have said in Abeokuta is left for the party to decide, but the party owes its biggest ally democracy in its true form; a level-playing ground to run for the nation’s highest office.
So many analysts have underlined the roles other allies played to deliver the presidency to Buhari in 2019, which are significant, but none is as critical as the political facelift Candidate Muhammadu Buhari had in the South West ahead of the elections. The region controls most of the nation’s media, and this was deployed to rebrand Buhari and market him beyond the shores of the country. The hiring of US-based international political consultants, AKPD Message and Media, the same firm that managed US President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, to promote Buhari and package his brand for sale and the polls, was attributed to Tinubu’s largesse.
The public relations stunts designed to launder Buhari’s image in the South and abroad weren’t only difficult, but extremely cringeworthy. Some notable characters in the South West were even hired to write in influential international newspapers that, although Buhari jailed their parents or did something worse to them or their families and friends in his days as a military dictator, he was what Nigeria needed. These intellectual mouthpieces of the South shamefully glamorized the very human rights violations that once made them the harshest critics of the man—all in the name of branding. The procured sycophancy in the service of the APC was financed by the ACN bloc.
This expensive perception management from the South’s PR machinery, which is being played down to undermine Tinubu’s critical role in the making of President Buhari, eased the task of selling the Buhari brand to southern voters who, infected by aggressive media representation of the man, had had an unflattering image of him as a provincial demagogue with sensationalized disdain for them. Before the APC alliance, Buhari was cruelly caricatured in the media and portrayed as a bigot and religious extremist based, largely, on misrepresentation of his words.
Tinubu’s ACN, like Buhari’s Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), was a provincial party, no doubt. None had the structural capability to win a presidential election before the merger. But they stood out because they were the two parties in the coalition in charge of electoral geographies. For instance, even without Kwankwaso, Buhari would’ve taken Kano. Kwankwaso couldn’t deliver the state for Atiku when the latter ran against Buhari under the PDP platform in 2019. Kwankwaso and his N-PDP soldiers, though, played a role other than delivering political geography in the 2015 elections—they weakened the then ruling party.
The growing temptation to play down Tinubu’s investment in the Buhari project as a result of his factual outbursts that he made Buhari president should be done without this historical revisionism. Agreed, his contribution shouldn’t make the party hand the presidential ticket to him, but ganging up against a key ally in such a fashion makes the work easier for the opposition party to take over next year. There are a thousand benign ways to tame a tiger.
If Tinubu’s political marketers had not been frontline Northern politicians, this claim of an agenda to stop him would’ve erupted into a regional or ethnic fight between the Yoruba South and the “Hausa-Fulani” North. But Senator Kashim Shettima has been eloquent in making a case for Tinubu’s suitability and, even on Friday on Channels TV’s Politics Today, he was brilliant in pitching how Tinubu towers over other aspirants. The biggest threats to Tinubu’s bid are fellow southerners, one of whom is his political mentee, and so there’s no binary for any anarchist to justifiably exploit in projecting the entire Northern political establishment as wired to reject a Southerner’s presidential bid in 2023.
The chaos creeping into the ruling party, which may likely instigate factions and defections if the stakeholders fail to live up to their responsibility, is the last thing the ruling party seeks in its campaign to hold on to power beyond 2023. The PDP, which the self-styled progressives are quick to cite as the worst example of a democratic group, has conducted one of the most thrilling and closely-contested elections of our time without going apart, and if this isn’t enough sign of a problem for the APC, then it’s safe to ask Atiku to begin writing his inaugural speech.