Will Atiku’s attempt to define self as the Northern candidate work this time?

This is obviously Atiku Abubakar’s last shot at Nigeria’s presidency. At seventy-seven, the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), would be Nigeria’s oldest elected president if he wins in 2023.

This will also be Mr. Abubakar’s sixth shot at the office of President of Nigeria. He had unsuccessfully contested five times in 1993, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019. In 1993, he contested the Social Democratic Party presidential primaries losing to Moshood Abiola and Baba Gana Kingibe. He was a presidential candidate of the Action Congress in the 2007 presidential election coming in third to Umaru Yar’Adua of the PDP and Muhammadu Buhari of the ANPP. He contested the presidential primaries of the Peoples Democratic Party during the 2011 presidential election losing out to President Goodluck Jonathan. In 2014, he joined the All Progressives Congress ahead of the 2015 presidential election and contested the presidential primaries losing to Muhammadu Buhari. In 2017, he returned to the Peoples Democratic Party and was the party’s presidential candidate during the 2019 presidential election, again losing to incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari.

To win this time, the former vice-president has defined himself as the northern candidate in the 2023 presidential elections. In October, Mr. Abubakar loudly positioned himself as the candidate of the north in the elections when he told an Arewa townhall policy dialogue in Kaduna that Northerners do not need an Igbo or Yoruba as president but “someone from the north”.

“I know the whole of this country,” he had said, “I have built bridges across this country. I think what the average northerner needs is somebody who is from the north, and who also understands the other parts of Nigeria and who has been able to build bridges across the rest of the country.

“This is what the northerner needs. He (northerner) doesn’t need a Yoruba candidate, or an Igbo candidate. This is what the northerner needs.

“I stand before you as a pan-Nigerian of northern origin”.

In November, Atiku Abubakar sought to further burnish his northern ethno-religious credentials when he publicly reproached the Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom. Speaking at Arewa House in Kaduna, Mr. Abubakar said: “I had a big quarrel with Governor Ortom on his accusation of Fulani people. I am a Fulani man, why should you categorise all Fulani; we have to improve ways and manner we look after our livestock. I am angry with Samuel Ortom for profiling Fulani as bandits and terrorists.”

Mr. Ortom has consistently criticised Fulani militias as well as the Fulani partisan advocacy group, Miyetti Allah, of visiting violence and death on Benue indigenes.

The Benue government says thousands have died from attacks by Fulani herdsmen and accuses Mr. Buhari, a Fulani, of refusing to act against killings in the state as the perpetrators are also from the same ethnic stock, an allegation the president denies.

In May, after the gruesome murder of Deborah Samuel at Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto for allegedly posting comments that blasphemed Prophet Mohammed, the former vice-president who had earlier put up a post on his Facebook and Twitter pages, was forced to delete them after coming under a salvo of threats from fanatics of northern origin who asked him to forget his presidential ambition.

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“Every tweet has to get my approval,” the presidential candidate of the PDP said in defence of his action to take down his condemnatory response to the mob killing. “Unfortunately, this tweet, because I was travelling all over the country did not have my approval. So, I said it should be taken down and that every tweet must have my express approval”.

This will not be Atiku Abubakar’s first attempt to outline himself as the ‘northern star’ in Nigerian electoral politics. In November 2010, keen to ensure that a northerner was elected to complete former President Umaru Yar’Adua’s second term, the former vice-president was chosen by a team of so-called “Northern wise-men” led by late Mallam Adamu Ciroma ahead of former Military President, Ibrahim Babangida; former National Security Adviser, Aliyu Gusau and then Governor Bukola Saraki of Kwara State as the consensus candidate of the north.

Mr. Abubakar competed against and lost to former president Goodluck Jonathan for the PDP’s presidential ticket.

Sources close to the former vice-president’s campaign acknowledge that Mr. Abubakar’s most credible route to victory lies in winning resoundingly in the north. His chances of winning states in the south, they recognise, is looking increasingly austere.

An insurgency in Mr. Abubakar’s party led by the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike has further put the party’s presidential candidate in a difficult electoral situation. In October, Mr. Wike declared that he would not campaign for the presidential candidate of his party, because Mr. Abubakar did not consult him before picking members of his campaign council from the state.

In September, Mr. Wike noted that it was impossible for any candidate to emerge the president of Nigeria without winning any of Lagos, Kano and Rivers states.

“In 2015, Buhari won Lagos and Kano states. Also, in 2019, Buhari won Lagos and Kano states, and PDP won Rivers State,” he said.

“Presently, Atiku does not have Lagos and Kano states, and now he said he doesn’t need Rivers State. How can he win?”

“Look, we understand that with Bola Tinubu and Peter Obi, this race has become a three-horse race, not like the two it has always been, and they (Tinubu and Obi) have essentially locked up the votes in the south. Our path to winning the presidency in 2023 does not lie in the south for now. It lies in the north. May be, if there is a second round, we can then engage in alliances to get credible votes in that region. For now, we believe we can grab majority of the votes in the north,” a senior campaign official said.

While the Adamawa-born former vice-president believes his path to power lies in the north, winning majority of the votes in the region would not come easy for the PDP candidate.

He would have to contend not only against his two main opponents, Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and Peter Obi of the Labour Party, he would also have to resist the rising profile of Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso-led New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP).

“If the elections go into a second round, I can tell you that Kwankwaso will support Tinubu. What many do not know is that Tinubu funded the emergence of NNPP when he thought he would not get the APC ticket. The arrangement was that he would move to NNPP and Kwankwaso would be his vice,” a top official close to the NNPP’s presidential candidate said.

Nigeria’s northern region is not a monolithic voting bloc. Since the 1959 general election, the region’s votes have been divided along the varied ethnopolitical and ethnoreligious tendencies that straddle the vast landscape.

In the northcentral part of the north, Atiku’s path to victory looks very slim. While he won Plateau and Benue states as well as the Federal Capital Territory in the 2019 presidential elections in which president Muhammadu Buhari won Kwara, Kogi and Nasarawa states, it will be very difficult this time for the PDP candidate to win any of these states.

The current political zeitgeist precludes a win in any of the states in the region for the former vice-president.

The north central will be a straight fight between Bola Tinubu and Peter Obi. The Labour Party candidate has a huge following in Plateau, Benue and the FCT. Just as the APC won Kogi, Kwara and Nasarawa states in 2019, it is expected that the party’s presidential candidate would likely show strong strength in the three states.

Mr. Abubakar’s political heartland of the northeast remains a highly contestable frontline territory too. Though he is expected to win with a thin majority in Adamawa and Taraba states, Bauchi, Gombe, Borno and Yobe will remain battleground states for Mr. Abubakar. He is expected to face stiff challenges from the APC candidate and his powerful political machinery.

Like most Nigerian voters, voters in the northwest region are in a sour mood over the unpalatable state of the nation; including the debilitating economic situation and devastating security condition in the region. Their vinegary mood is unlikely to translate into a victory for the former vice-president.

Kano, Kaduna, Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara and Jigawa states are all battleground states, each of which could be won by either Mr. Atiku’s PDP or Mr. Tinubu’s APC.

While Mr. Tinubu’s Muslim-Muslim ticket has ensured that he remains a strong candidate in the Muslim north, Mr. Abubakar’s religiously diverse ticket hasn’t earned him the same robust political milestones in Christian-dominated parts of the north. Rather, the Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi is more favourably looked up among northern Christians.