2023 presidency: Hubris and complacency are Atiku’s Achilles heel
Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has been trying to become Nigeria’s president for nearly 30 years. Next year’s presidential election would be his sixth attempt since 1993. At 75 years in November, Atiku, former vice-president, will almost certainly not run for president in 2027, then aged 80, if he loses next year’s poll. Put starkly, if Atiku loses next year, he will be remembered as the pre-eminent serial loser in Nigeria’s presidential politics.
Inevitably, that raises the stakes for him. But the stakes are even higher because this time, unlike his previous attempts, Atiku is going against the grain of popular opinion, especially in the South and the Middle Belt, that another Northerner should not succeed President Muhammadu Buhari. But Atiku sees absolutely nothing wrong in him, a Northerner, succeeding Buhari, a Northerner. To actualise his burning ambition, Atiku pulled out all the stops to secure his party’s ticket.
So, then, having ridden roughshod over the logic of rotational presidency, having defied the zeitgeist of the present time, Atiku must win next year if he is to escape a place in history as Nigeria’s most famous egotistical serial loser! I mean, why would he fight tooth and nail to secure his party’s presidential ticket by hook or by crook (remember the “dollar rain” and other shenanigans at the PDP presidential primary) if, in the end, he’s going to lose the election? Surely, to save face and show prescience, Atiku must win. But can he?
So, then, having ridden roughshod over the logic of rotational presidency, having defied the zeitgeist of the present time, Atiku must win next year if he is to escape a place in history as Nigeria’s most famous egotistical serial loser!
Well, Atiku is complacent about the challenges ahead. He assumes that, unlike Bola Tinubu’s deeply corrosive Muslim-Muslim ticket, which will have consequences at the polls, his own Northern candidacy will have no consequences, especially in the South. Yet, the South may prove problematic for Atiku, and he would be utterly misguided to take it for granted.
In appealing to his party to give him its presidential ticket, Atiku exuded confidence, saying: “I already have 11m votes”. He was referring to his total votes in the 2019 presidential election. But over half of those votes came from the South. Of his 11, 262, 978 votes, Atiku won 5,703,393 in the South against 5, 559,585 in the North. The question is: Are Atiku’s 5.7m votes in the South in 2019 bankable for 2023? The answer is: Very unlikely! Why?
First, concerns about another Northerner succeeding President Buhari remain deep and would have some impact. In 2019, Southern socio-cultural groups, such as Afenifere, Ohanaese and Pan-Niger Delta Forum, strongly supported Atiku; now, they strongly oppose him. Their stance won’t be without some consequential effects.
Second, and linked to the above, is the “OBI-dient” phenomenon. In his recent Arise TV interview, Atiku glibly dismissed the growing popularity of former Governor Peter Obi, presidential candidate of Labour Party, as social media sensation, saying: “It is very difficult to expect a miracle to happen simply because Peter Obi is in the Labour Party.” But the rapturous welcome Obi received from over 120,000 congregants of the Abuja-based Dunamis Church recently suggests his popularity is not a fickle social media fad.
But leaving those two factors aside, Atiku faces a third major threat in the South: a divided party, fuelled by the bruised ego of the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, who pulled off a strong second-place showing in the PDP’s presidential primary election. Truth is, Atiku has handled the post-primary crisis with utter complacency bordering on arrogance. All over the world, presidential primaries create varying degrees of bitterness; it’s up to the winner to assuage hurt feelings and unite the party for victory.
In 2008, after a bitter presidential primary, Barack Obama, picked one of his major rivals, Joe Biden, as his running mate; they went on to win the election. In 2020, after another bitter presidential primary, Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris, one of his rivals who called him a racist during the primary campaign, as his running mate; they, too, went on win the election. By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election is widely attributed to her failure to pacify Bernie Sanders, her bitter rival in the primary.
Now, I’m not suggesting Atiku should have picked Wike as his running mate. Far from it, but why rub salt into Wike’s wound? For instance, when he unveiled Governor Ifeanyi Okowa as his running mate, Atiku said: “Sometimes a candidate is chosen who generates a buzz and adds excitement to the campaign,” adding: “But today in Nigeria, we face huge challenges which leaves us little room for drama.”
Everyone knew that Atiku’s “little room for drama” jibe was aimed at Wike. But why? True, Wike is a self-indulgent narcissist, who behaves like a bull in a china shop. But leadership is about managing people, including difficult people. Atiku must read Dale Carnagie’s famous book: How to Win Friends and Influence People. Truth is, unless Atiku stops the ‘Wike problem’ from festering, he would worsen his already complicated Southern problem! He should be making friends, not enemies, in the South. Yet, he’s complacent!
But Atiku is complacent about the North too. Arise TV asked Atiku whether he was troubled by Tinubu’s choice of Kashim Shettima as his running mate given both are from the North-East. Sadly, Atiku played the ethnic card. Hear him: “If you know the composition of the North-East, you have Borno and Yobe, these are essentially two Kanuri states. Then, you have the other (four) states, which are essentially Hausa/Fulani states. Even if people are going to vote on that basis, I have a more favourable (position) from the North-East.”
Basically, Atiku, who won 5,559,584 votes in the North compared to Buhari’s 11,596,707 in 2019, is assuming that because Buhari is not on the ballot in 2023, most of the Hausa/Fulani votes would gravitate to him. But would they? Truth is, the fight for the North’s votes would be fierce, and Atiku would be unwise to underestimate Tinubu’s All Progressives Congress, Rabiu Kwankwaso’s New Nigeria People’s Party and, indeed, Obi’s Labour Party.
But the above political dynamics apart, Atiku’s candidacy is also vulnerable because of widespread perception of corruption. In 2019, Atiku had a better manifesto than Buhari, yet most people, especially the poor, rejected him because they believed he was corrupt. Even educated people who supported Atiku’s privatisation and restructuring agendas didn’t trust him.
For instance, on privatisation, many believed he would sell state assets to his friends. When asked whether he would do that, Atiku said, unwisely, that, if elected, “I will enrich my friends.” For him, if his friends were eligible, why shouldn’t he sell state assets to them. He wasn’t concerned about allegations of cronyism.
Atiku displayed the same insouciant hubris in his Arise TV interview, where he came across utterly relaxed and overconfident. Asked about the source of his wealth, Atiku said he ran flourishing private businesses while a public officer, dismissing questions about the legality of doing so and the perception of conflict of interests. For instance, Atiku said that, as a customs officer at Idi Iroko, he bought five cars to carry passengers from Lagos to Porto-Novo. That jarred in many ears, but he was adamant he did nothing wrong!
Unfortunately, by flippantly dismissing the perception of corruption, instead of tackling it head-on with verifiable facts about the source of his wealth, Atiku allows himself to be lumped together with Tinubu, who is described as the “owner of Lagos” and widely believed to have massively enriched himself through state resources.
Truth is, if Atiku wants to win in 2023, he must shun complacency and hubris. He must woo the South, unite his party, fight for every vote in the North and frontally tackle the perception of corruption. Failing to do these, he risks losing again – and permanently!