Atiku Abubakar, the former vice president, made his sixth attempt to become Nigeria’s president last year, 30 years after his first foray into presidential politics in 1993. He failed. However, with God sparing his life, Atiku intends to make his seventh attempt in 2027, aged 80. Leaving aside the age for the moment, what does Atiku think will change in Nigeria’s political landscape in 2027 to make his putative seventh attempt different from his previous six attempts? Simply put, nothing! We are students of our own experience after the event. But Atiku seems to have learned nothing from his past failed presidential bids.
Of course, Atiku will say the 2023 presidential election was anything but free, fair, and transparent. I won’t disagree. Perhaps more than any other commentator, I have been utterly vociferous in saying that last year’s presidential poll failed the credibility and integrity tests. I share Professor Attahiru Jega’s recent assertion that some politicians “may have infiltrated and truncated” the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal during the presidential election, and I endorse his call for an investigation “to get to the root of what happened with the IReV.” The election was deeply flawed.
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Yet, that said, no serious contestant facing a ruthless, take-no-prisoners candidate of the ruling party of an incumbent government should be starry-eyed. More importantly, no serious opposition presidential candidate can afford to have a chink in their armour; none can afford to haemorrhage votes; every vote matters. But, truth be told, Atiku was the weakest of the three leading candidates in last year’s presidential poll. Well, here’s why.
First, Atiku went into the election with a deeply divided party, even though history tells us that divided parties rarely win elections. He and the self-conceited Iyorchia Ayu, PDP’s then national chairman, deluded themselves into thinking that the five renegade PDP governors, led by the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, and their allied “Integrity Group,” would have little impact on the party’s electoral chances. They ignored the lesson of history. In 2015, a divided PDP, with five renegade governors and several dissident party leaders, including Atiku himself, contributed hugely to President Jonathan’s defeat. History lesson 101: Divided parties rarely win elections!
Second, Atiku ignored the zeitgeist of the time. He went against the grain of public opinion, especially in the South, that another Northerner should not succeed President Buhari. Yet, Atiku was so confident in his winnability that he rode roughshod over the logic of a rotational presidency. In 2022, he told his party, “I already have 11 million votes.” He was referring to the 11,262,978 votes he got in the 2019 presidential election. But 5,707,393 of those votes, a clear majority, came from the South. Those 5.7 million southern votes were certainly not bankable for Atiku in 2023, given the rebellion in the PDP’s southern axis, his own unpopular northern candidature, and the emergence of Peter Obi as a powerful third force.
Yet, Atiku was complacent. For instance, when asked about Obi’s defection from the PDP and the “OBI-dients” phenomenon, Atiku was dismissive: “It is very difficult to expect a miracle to happen simply because Peter Obi is in the Labour Party.” He was utterly wrong. Going by INEC’s final results, Obi secured 6,101,533 (25.4%) of the vote against Atiku’s 6,984,520 (29%)! Atiku only beat Obi by 883,087 votes, or 3.6%! So, why was Atiku as cool as a cucumber about his chances in the presidential election? Why was he so confident?
But, truth be told, Atiku was the weakest of the three leading candidates in last year’s presidential poll
Well, that brings us to the third factor. He erroneously calculated that with Buhari not running in 2023, the Hausa/Fulani votes would gravitate to him, despite lacking Buhari’s personality cult in the North. For instance, Atiku was asked if he was concerned that Bola Tinubu picked Kashim Shettima as his running mate, given that both he and Shettima are from the North-East. He replied, “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.”
Essentially, Atiku was playing the ethnic card. He must have thought that the Hausa/Fulani would also prefer him to a Yoruba presidential candidate. Indeed, during an interactive session with the Arewa Joint Committee, Atiku said that “the North needs to vote for” him, being a Northerner and not “a Yoruba candidate or an Igbo candidate.” But the conventional wisdom is that the Hausa/Fulani put religion above ethnicity, while the Yoruba put ethnicity above religion. So, instead of supporting Atiku, the Supreme Council of Sharia in Nigeria, SCSN, mobilised the Muslim-North behind Tinubu’s Muslim-Muslim ticket. In that respect, while playing a religious card is utterly perverse and unpatriotic, Tinubu outsmarted Atiku with his Muslim-Muslim ticket. As Nasir El-Rufai, the former Kaduna State governor, famously said, Tinubu stood absolutely no chance of winning the election without a Muslim-Muslim ticket! Atiku, apparently, couldn’t counter that “strategy”!
But in addition to the above, Atiku did not command the unalloyed loyalty of his party’s leaders and members, even in the North, given his own track record of flaky and fluid party loyalty. He is as much a serial defector as he’s a serial presidential-election aspirant or candidate. From the PDP, where he was vice president for eight years, he defected to the then Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, in 2006; returned to the PDP in 2007, only to defect to the APC in 2014; and then returned to the PDP in 2017. All in search of a platform for his presidential ambition, which is also why he seeks a coalition built around him to actualize that ambition.
In 2018, BusinessDay published a front-page story entitled “Battle for 2019 set as PDP merges with 39 parties.” According to the story, the “new party,” known as the “Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP),” would present one presidential candidate to dislodge Buhari from Aso Rock. Atiku was the arrowhead of the plan. But no megaparty emerged. Now, there are talks of another “mega party.” Professor Pat Utomi, who leads the National Consultative Front, recently said that Atiku, Obi, and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP, have agreed to form a merger party. Then, Atiku said, “I am ready to lead the coalition against Tinubu in 2027.” But why him?
To be clear, Atiku’s grasp of policy and commitment to economic and political reforms, especially political restructuring, are impressive. His 2019 and 2023 manifestos showed great analysis and thoughtfulness. What’s more, Atiku has contributed to Nigeria’s democratic development. As he put it in a press conference after the Supreme Court verdict on his presidential election petition, “I instituted several cases in the courts, which led to seven landmark decisions that helped to deepen our democracy and rule of law.” Few can deny him the accolade for those achievements.
Yet, the odds are against him in 2027, when he will be 80. Of course, he will dismiss concerns about his age, pointing to President Biden, who’s running for re-election at 80. But those concerns won’t be ignored. Furthermore, none of the factors that militate against his presidential bid in 2023 will go away in 2027. The PDP’s future is bleak. Some of its current governors will defect to the APC. Wike’s old G-5 and “Integrity Group” will continue to work against him. The South won’t warm to his seventh attempt, and unless the Muslim-North deserts Tinubu in 2027, Atiku can’t guarantee their support either. The noblest cause for Atiku is to support a credible presidential candidate in 2027 and abandon his purported seventh attempt. It would be politically naïve to do otherwise!