Presidential race 2019: Atiku mimicked Trump but lacked his populist touch


Recently, Atiku Abubakar, a leading presidential candidate and runner-up in this year’s presidential election, tweeted a message congratulating the US President, Donald Trump, on the conclusion of the Mueller investigations that he did not collude with Russia to influence the 2016 US presidential race. In the tweet, Atiku said: “I congratulate @realDonaldTrump on his vindication by the Robert Mueller report. It is my hope that the lifting of this cloud will give room for further successes by the 45th President of the United States”.

This was a curious intervention. Why would Atiku interfere in such a sensitive internal US domestic affair, which the US Congress could still reopen? Was he trying to ingratiate himself with President Trump? Was he enamoured of him? But,then,it occurred to me that Trump was actually Atiku’s role model. He would very much have liked to be the Donald Trump of Nigerian politics: a very controversial billionaire businessman cum politician, who defied all odds and survived damaging allegations of impropriety to become president. Few presidential candidates could be more beleaguered than Trump. He faced strong allegations of scandals and misjudgement, yet they simply bounced off. Trump was Teflon, bulletproof, undamaged by the barrage of attacks – and won!

To be sure, Trump is different things to different people. I once wrote that“Buhari is the Donald Trump of Nigerian Politics” (BusinessDay, 27 August 2018). But here I am also saying that Atiku would have been the Donald Trump of Nigeria. How could Buhari and Atiku both be like Trump? Well, here, briefly, is the comparison I made between Buhari and Trump. Both were different in wealth, lifestyle and taste, I said, but similar in politics and rhetoric. Buhari and Trump are populists and demagogues, who claimed to be fighting for ordinary people against the powerful elite, and they command messianic followers. Both are protectionist, nationalistic and anti-globalisation. They both pandered to their electoral bases, keeping them excited with what Americans call “red meat rhetoric”. When it comes to populism and demagoguery, Trump and Buhari are birds of the same feather!

But it is precisely the similarities between Buhari and Trump that divide Atiku and Trump. Put simply, both Buhari and Atiku are like Trump for different reasons. Like Trump, Atiku is a controversial and colourful character. Both are brash and amoral wealthy businessmen. The word “amoral”, of course, does not mean being immoral; it simply means being indifferent to moral issues;provided a behaviour is not illegal the amoral person is not moralistic about it.

For instance, in his book, The Art of the Deal, Trump sees deal-making not as a moral issue but a zero-sum game: if you are not losing, he is not winning! Thus, providing no illegality is involved, his attitude to business transactions and tax-payment may be lax. To date, Trump is still resisting pressure to release his tax returns. Similarly, there are controversies about how Atiku acquired his business interests and made his wealth. When he said during the election that he paid N10m in taxes over three years, not a few people were alarmed that he paid such a relatively small tax despite being, as widely believed, a multi-billionaire. But did he break any law? Apparently not! As I write, there is the raging controversy about whether Atiku paid an American firm $30,000 to “unseat” President Buhari, whose re-election he described as a “sham” and is challenging in court.

Truth is, Atiku shares much of Trump’s controversial and colourful character. And going into this year’s presidential election, he was almost as beleaguered as Trump was in 2016 and needed to overcome sustained attacks on his character and integrity. But he did not survive the savagery. Yet, as stated above, Trump showed that a presidential candidate facing damaging allegations could still win. Indeed, we saw another example last week when, despite facing corruption charges, the Israelis prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu won a fifth term in office. Before the election, the country’s attorney-general, Avichai Mandelbit, announced that he would charge Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate corruption investigations. Yet, he still won the election, just like Americans elected Donald Trump, despite allegations about his business practices and criticisms of his alleged racism and misogyny, including tawdry comments about groping women.

So, why, despite vicious attacks on their character and integrity, did Trump and Netanyahu win, and Atiku, in similar circumstances, did not? Well, the answer, to some extent, lies in populism. Atiku was not a populist. He mimicked Trump in many things. For instance, his campaign slogan was “Make Nigeria Work Again”, a variation or an adaptation of Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. Atiku had election promises, such as on taxation, privatisation and investment, that would benefit the rich, well, some said, mainly his cronies. He himself said “I would enrich my friends”. Trump, of course, also made election promises on tax and regulations that would benefit his fellow members of the billionaire club. In fact, his cabinet was full of billionaires. But that’s where the similarities ended: Atiku did not copy Trump’s populism; he didn’t play on the fears of his ethnic group or exploit the anxieties of the poor.

Every analysis of the US presidential election shows that Trump won largely by tapping into the anger of the non-college-educated white voters, as well as the evangelicals. To the white working-class men, whose concerns were declining standards of living, plummeting wages and job losses, Trump’s rage against globalisation, free trade and immigration was red meat; and for the evangelicals, his pro-Israel and anti-abortion positions were all they needed to throw their weight behind him. In the end, the states that gave Trump victory were those economically depressed rust belt states, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, as well as those where the evangelicals hold sway. In the Israelis election, Netanyahu also played on the security fears of the Israelis, particularly their loathing of the Arabs. For instance, he floated the idea of annexing to Israel the Jewish settlements on the Palestinian West Bank. As the Financial Times put it, “Instead of shying away from the scandal (Netanyahu) met the probe head on, transforming it into a rallying cry for his base”.

By contrast, Atiku did not pander to what could have been his base. Surely, he couldn’t become president without performing well in the North. Yet, he did little to woo the North. All his signature promises, such as political restructuring and privatisation, appealed to the South but were unpopular with the North. The North resisted the privatisation programme of the Babangida regime because they believed it would mainly benefit the affluent South. Similarly, they see restructuring as a Southern agenda. Yet, these were Atiku’s flagship campaign promises. He made no attempt to pander to the fears of the North, to play the populist card. But Buhari did! He fed his Hausa/Fulani base with, as it were, red meat. He gave the herdsmen tacit support in their struggle with farmers. He rejected political restructuring and would not embrace globalisation and free trade. He railed against the rich elite and presented himself as the saviour of the poor. It was straight from Trump’s populist rule book!

Surely, Atiku would have liked to be the Donald Trump of Nigeria, a controversial businessman who becomes president. But it’s Buhari who is Nigeria’s real Donald Trump, a populist anti-globalisation, anti-free trade, anti-elite demagogue, who rode on the back of the poor to power! Atiku lacked the winning side of Trump.


Olu Fasan

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