The victory of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar at the last presidential primary of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has brought him tantalisingly close to the epicenter of power. This, he sought, as a young man, when he lost the ticket of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), in 1993, to my old boss, Chief Moshood Abiola, publisher of the Concord Group of Newspapers. Since then, Abubakar has demonstrated great staying power and organisational ability.
Beyond the weight and decibel of the dollars, Atiku’s capacity for political intrigues and Byzantine networking had paid off. There is more work ahead.
The victory has also thrown up certain questions about the nature and future of our Republic. There are three pertinent questions among others. Can a Fulani man succeed another Fulani man as the President of a Republic that has more than 250 ethnic nationalities? Can a President from the North succeed another elected President from the North? Can a Muslim succeed another Muslim into the Presidency?
Leaders and delegates of the PDP think the answers to these questions are positive. Yes, they are telling us, a Fulani man can succeed another Fulani; a Northerner can succeed another Northerner and a Muslim can succeed another Muslim. It is now their burdened duty to sell these propositions to majority of Nigerians at the 2023 presidential elections.
We have been trying to bring these questions to test for a long time. Balancing and apparent fairness has been the staying power of Federal politics since the First Republic. During the First Republic, the President, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, was a Christian Southerner while the Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, was a Muslim Northerner.
The military did not respect that balance until the time of General Murtala Muhammed. General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who succeeded Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa as Head of Government, made Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, a fellow southerner and Christian, his deputy. General Yakubu Gowon, who succeeded Ironsi, though a Northerner, also had a fellow Christian, Admiral Akinwale Wey, a Lagosian, as his deputy.
Gowon was in power for nine years before he was toppled in a bloodless coup that brought General Murtala Muhammed to power. Muhammed was a Muslim from Kano State and his deputy, General Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, from Ogun State. Obasanjo became Head of State following the assassination of Muhammed in 1976 and he made Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, a lieutenant colonel from the North, his deputy.
However, since Obasanjo handed over power to elected President Shehu Shagari in October 1979, there has been a perceived greed for national dominance by the Fulani oligarchy of the North. The old National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which brought Shagari to power, had agreed on zoning, federal character and rotational presidency. However, when Shagari was toppled, it was believed that the coup that brought Major-General Muhammadu Buhari to power in 1984 was staged to prevent power shifting to the South by 1987. The North was to keep that power through the regimes of Generals Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha and Abdulsalami Abubakar. There was a brief interregnum under Chief Adekunle Shonekan. When Chief Abiola won the June 12, 1993, presidential election, the hawks, mostly Northern military officers, prevented him from getting to power. Instead he died in military detention in 1998.
Like the old NPN, one of the cardinal rule of the PDP, had been power rotation and power shift. President Olusegun Obasanjo, who came to power on the platform of the party in 1999, kept to that rule by ensuring that he was succeeded by a Northerner, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, the former Governor of Katsina State. When Yar’Adua died in 2010, he was succeeded by his Vice-President, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, thus, aborting the eight years of expected Northern rule. Jonathan completed the remaining part of Yar’Adua’s expected terms having won the presidential election of 2011. Then power shifted to the North in 2015 with the coming of President Buhari in 2015 on the platform of the new All Progressives Congress (APC.)
With the election of Atiku Abubakar as the party’s flagbearer, the leadership of the PDP has voted for power to remain with the North. Despite the bumptious challenge from Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, Abubakar showed his mettle as an experienced politician of national relevance. Even my old governor from Ekiti State, Dr Ayodele Fayose, who was also a presidential contender, could not convince any of the Ekiti State delegate to vote for him.
Bashorun Dele Momodu, the high-profile publisher of Ovation magazine, did not get any vote from either Edo, the state of his father or Osun, the state of his mother. When dollars speak, many Nigerians cannot understand the melody of any other music.
The enormity of Abubakar’s victory is beyond the odorous permutation of dollars.
For almost 30 years, he has pursued ultimate power in the Republic. Now, at 76, this is apparently his last throw of the dice. This is why this chance meant more to him than to Wike who still have the advantage of years before him.
Despite his personal enormous resources, the battle is not going to be easy. By next week we would know the opponent the ruling APC would present to confront Atiku for the ultimate prize. The battle would also be complicated because the old PDP is gone. What we have now is different and may be less efficient in electoral combat. The decision of the party to jettison its old tradition of zoning may also have its implication. The old North, once dominated by the Fulani oligarchy, may also be a thing of the past, thanks to the deep-seated nepotism of the elites, gory activities of Boko Haram terrorist group, the rampaging herdsmen, the freelance kidnappers and sundry bandits and criminals. All these non-state actors now have influence on our politics.
In 1999, Abubakar wanted to be the Governor of his native Adamawa State. Indeed, he had won election for that office on the platform of the PDP. However, the presidential candidate of the party, Chief Obasanjo, asked the vigourous Abubakar to join on the presidential ticket, rejecting to pick from either Professor Jubril Aminu and Alhaji Abubakar Rimi, whom the Northern power-brokers have presented to him. It was a golden historic opportunity for the former officer of the Nigerian Customs and he embraced it with gusto. He was the ideal Vice-President, ready to carry out any assignment given him by his boss. He was everywhere.
I remember one private reception held for him in the Lagos Home of Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi, chairman of Tanus Communications, who, as an accidental journalist, became a Director of The Guardian and later the Managing Director of the Daily Times. When Ogunbiyi was a director of The Guardian, the newspaper had broken a story about how the Nigerian Customs allowed the importation of 53 suitcases without any proper Custom clearance. It was at a time of strict currency control by the military regime of General Buhari and his deputy, General Tunde Idiagbon.
The comptroller of Customs at the Murtala Muhammed Airport at that time was Atiku Abukabar who had obeyed an order from above and allowed the suitcases to go. It was later discovered that those 53 suitcases belonged to the Emir of Gwandu, who was the father of Buhari’s aide-de-camp, Major Jokolo. That scandal eventually led to the hurried exit of Abubakar from the Customs.
By the time we were meeting him at Ogunbiyi’s house in 1999, he had passed through the cruscible. He had won a governorship election. He was now Vice-President. Indeed, he was on top of his game. His grasp of details and vigourous advocacy of the Obasanjo programme justified his reputation as the engine room of the regime. Now history is presenting him another chance. It is for him to prove now that he can recover lost grounds.