Why is nobody talking about Atiku?

by Simon Kolawole
There are endless peculiarities, I must here admit, about the 2023 presidential election, the least not being the outing of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). With the post-election brouhaha and hullaballoo, a cursory observer would be forgiven for thinking the February 25 poll was a two-way contest between Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Mr Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP). Atiku came second with 6,984,520 votes. Therefore, whether it is Tinubu that won, as declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), or Obi, as proclaimed by his supporters, Atiku is still ranked as second best.
I am certainly aware that Atiku also claimed to have won — and that he has filed an election petition to that effect. And this is part of the mystery: why is his claim to victory not gaining as much traction as Obi’s? In Nigerian politics, Atiku is definitely not a small man. This year marks the 30th anniversary of his presidential quest. He first aspired in 1993, along with Bashorun MKO Abiola and Ambassador Babagana Kingibe. In 1999, he was elected vice-president and re-elected in 2003. He was a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2019 and a presidential aspirant in 2011 and 2015. He was elected governor of Adamawa in 1999 but gave it up to become PDP’s vice-presidential candidate.
Atiku’s political résumé is nothing but intimidating. In 2019, Atiku gave President Muhammadu Buhari a good run. He got 11.26 million votes — or 41.2 percent — and won in 17 states, including the entire south-east and south-south, as well as the FCT. For comparison, Buhari got 15.19 million votes and won in 19 states. The cold calculations this time around were that Atiku would sweep northern votes and get just about enough in the south to win the race. Although there were shouts for power rotation by southerners who made a strong claim that it was the turn of the south after eight years of Buhari/north, Atiku clearly did not see the clamour as an overwhelming obstacle.
I must allow myself to speculate herein that there was much confidence in Atiku’s camp ahead of the election. It all looked like the presidency was his for the taking. Some of the optimism could be justified. Afterall, he had the name recognition, a national reach, a political structure with vast experience in the ground game, and, if I may say this again, an intimidating résumé. What’s more: 2023 was an open race, with no incumbent to contend with. He was also clearly the strongest northerner in the race. This was probably his best-ever opening. But things still did not turn out in his favour, contrary to his calculations. There now has to be an inquest as to why he failed yet again.
Before the election, many people sought my prediction. Since some people cannot distinguish between preferences and predictions — because of their emotions — I often struggle to answer such questions. But I made three basic predictions. One, I said Obi’s candidature would hurt Atiku and help Tinubu. In fact, I often said if Tinubu won the election, it would be with an “assist” from Obi. Two, I said the battle up north would be principally between APC and PDP rather than between a northerner (represented by Atiku) and a southerner (Tinubu). That meant Tinubu would get plenty votes there. Three, I said Atiku’s major backers were not strong enough to help him win the race.
While it is true that Obi’s candidature hurt Atiku, I must now regret that I underestimated its impact, particularly in the south-east, south-south and Christian north, plus Lagos. I must also regret that I underestimated the damage Dr Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, the candidate of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP), could do. By the official results, the gap between Tinubu and Atiku was 1.8 million votes. Most of the 1.96 million votes Obi got in the south-east would have gone to Atiku on a good day. Kwankwaso’s 997,000 in Kano looked like PDP’s votes in disguise. Most of Obi’s 582,000 votes in Lagos would have gone to Atiku — given the pattern of voting in recent presidential elections.
As things turned out, the assists Tinubu got were not from Obi alone. Kwankwaso might not be a Kevin de Bruyne, but he was not far from being a Leandro Trossard (pardon me if you don’t follow the English premier league). Every vote for Obi in Lagos was a vote for Tinubu, as it were, because Atiku would most likely have been the beneficiary. Every vote for Kwankwaso in Kano was also a vote for Tinubu because it could have been Atiku’s. Tinubu got 517,000 votes in Kano — more than double the 225,000 home-advantage margin Atiku enjoyed in Adamawa. Although Tinubu lost Lagos, his 572,000 votes there still completely wiped off all of Atiku’s gains in Bauchi, Gombe, Taraba and Yobe.
When Atiku is reviewing his performance (except the results are legally overturned), he has to answer some questions. How could he not keep hold of the south-east, which had been voting PDP since 1999? How did he allow himself to be held hostage by lightweight politicians, mostly from the north, who did not have the leverage to swing things his way? How did he allow choosing a running mate become so messy that it blew up in his face? Why did he refuse to make the necessary concessions to the G5 governors so that he could unite his party and face the APC as a united force in the February 25 poll? Finally, why is he lagging miles behind Obi in the post-election media blitz?
As to why he could not hold down the south-east, I will be satisfied admitting that nobody saw Hurricane Obi coming. It was not until Obi pulled out of the PDP in May 2022 and joined the LP that his electoral value went through the roof. He became a phenomenon. The best Atiku could have offered him was the VP slot and he was not even inclined to do that, from what I heard, because their pairing in 2019 did not really go well. I would, therefore, not blame Atiku for losing the south-east. The loss was inevitable with Hurricane Obi. In Obi, the south-east had a candidate with a realistic chance of being elected president and their support for him was incredibly spectacular.
Atiku could still have done better but for the PDP crisis. His face-off with the five PDP governors, called G5, was a fatal error. With a united front, he could have performed far better in Oyo, Rivers and Benue states governed by three G5 members. I used to rate Atiku as a master strategist but I was amazed that he would prefer to keep Dr Iyorchia Ayu as PDP chairman rather than make peace with the G5, led by Chief Nyesom Wike whom he had defeated in the presidential primary. Atiku was part of the rebellion in the PDP that led to the ouster of President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015. He experienced the role of governors in a presidential election. Yet, he did not quench the G5 fire.
Wike played a major role in demarketing Atiku. It appears his major grouse was the northern gang-up against him at the PDP presidential primary, where Rt Hon Aminu Tambuwal, governor of Sokoto state, withdrew for Atiku. Wike had heavily backed Tambuwal against Atiku in the 2019 presidential primary. He obviously felt betrayed. Also, Ayu was caught on video embracing Tambuwal and describing him as the “hero of the convention” after Atiku won the PDP ticket in May 2022. That was below the belt. And then, Wike claimed that Atiku, on his own, promised to make him running mate only to go ahead to denigrate him after opting for Dr Ifeanyi Okowa, the governor of Delta state.
Why did Atiku not heal those wounds? I propose three possibilities. One, he maybe did his math and believed he could win without the G5. His primary target, I suppose, was northern votes. I further suppose that he believed Obi would be in his corner in the event of a run-off between him and Tinubu. Two, Atiku possibly believed encouraging Ayu to resign was not going to resolve the crisis — maybe it would only open him up to more demands. Three, he probably wanted to yield to the G5 demand but some hardliners in his circle prevailed on him to ignore them. These hardliners were mostly northerners and at some point began to play the regional and religious cards against the G5.
It might as well have been a combination of these three probabilities, but Atiku clearly misjudged the strength of Tinubu in the north. His underground “naka sai naka” campaign, roughly translated as “your own is your own”, might have won him millions of northern votes but they did not eclipse the “two Muslims are better than one” counter-campaign by Tinubu’s supporters — leveraging on the Muslim-Muslim ticket. Unfortunately for Atiku, too, Obi’s candidature deprived him of many northern Christian votes which used to go to the PDP. Obi actually got more votes than Atiku in most Christian-dominated areas. Obi’s battle cry of “Christians, take back your country” looked effective.
Atiku was surrounded by northern politicians such as Mallam Sule Lamido, former governor of Jigawa, Dr Babangida Aliyu, former governor of Niger, Alhaji Adamu Maina Waziri, PDP chieftain in Yobe, Alhaji Adamu Aliero, former governor of Kebbi, Gen Aliyu Gusau, former national security adviser from Zamfara, and Rt Hon Aminu Tambuwal, governor of Sokoto state. These PDP heavyweights could not deliver the north in large numbers. Nonetheless, Atiku deserves some credit for winning nine of the 19 states in the north, despite the PDP controlling only four of them before the general election. Ultimately, Atiku’s slim victory margins in the northern states let him down.
If indeed Atiku was strategising on the north making him president, it was a miscalculation. The PDP heavyweights could not overwhelm Tinubu, despite the harsh effects of the naira recolouring policy which many APC sympathisers insisted were targeted at him. In fact, Tinubu got 5.3 million votes in the north compared to Atiku’s 4.8 million, according to the official data. Except the courts eventually upturn Tinubu’s victory and declare Atiku as president-elect, I am left with no other choice than to conclude that his presidential quest has effectively ended. In moments of introspection, he must necessarily admit that he punched blow his weight this time around, mostly of his own fault.
There has been intense jostling for leadership positions in the next national assembly, which I think is normal. What I find alarming is the notion that some people are considering making a Muslim the next senate president. Will this not be the height of insensitivity? Having Muslims as No 1 and No 2 has already inflamed passions amidst unending claims and speculations about an Islamisation agenda. We may want to continue to deceive ourselves that these things don’t matter and blindly refuse to link certain crises in the land to ethnic and religious sentiments, but I want to believe that reason will prevail in the end. National interest must trump personal ambitions. Commonsensical.
I think most of us have finally agreed that we cannot continue to pump trillions of naira into subsidising the consumption of a single petroleum product, but there is always a problem of strategic communication by the government with the supposed ultimate beneficiaries — the poor. Since I have been hearing about “removal of petrol subsidy” in the days of Gen Ibrahim Babangida, the messaging has always been the same: the poor people would benefit. Only Gen Sani Abacha effectively communicated with the people. He did not say much. He simply transferred the benefits to Nigerians via road construction, provision of drugs and renovation of schools. Effective.
The social media was aflame last week with the reported “detention” and “harassment” of Mr Peter Obi, presidential candidate of the Labour Party, at the Heathrow Airport, London, on Good Friday. The details are still as provided by the media unit of his campaign team. Neither the UK government nor Obi himself has provided us with more information. The politics of it aside, it is not unusual for the UK Border Force to stop visitors who have been flagged on the system. To be able to legally keep them waiting, an official must serve a detention order and ask them to sit in a waiting area. The official then goes to clear with a supervisor. If there is no issue, the visitor is stamped in. Procedural.
Recently, I saw the picture of a sickly Emmanuel Ebiede, former youth international, on social media. He looked old and distressed. It was unbelievable that a footballer who had plied his trade outside the country and probably made a fortune could be in that state. Ebiede, 45, died on Friday night at the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital (RSUTH) from an enlarged liver. Ebiede was in the 1995 set of Flying Eagles managed by Fanny Amun. Some of his teammates, as I recall, were Karibe Ojigwe, Blessing Anyanwu, Olumide Harris and Duke Udi. I used to visit them at their Ibadan camp and one lasting memory was the lively Ebiede always cracking jokes. May God comfort his family. Adieu.

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