As the Titanic battle for South-east, South-south and North Central gathers momentum, the political permutations and gameplay of the top players reveal some sense of anxiety and mix feelings nationwide, writes SONDE ABBAH
Ahead of the Presidential Primary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) two months ago, it was an open secret that there was a particular contestant which the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and Aso Rock would rather not want to emerge victorious: Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. The reason is obvious: a serial contestant for the Presidential prize, Atiku’s never-say-die attitude, combined with his nibble-footedness and ability to gainer support from across the broad spectrum – not to mention his deep pocket – are factors which neither APC nor its presidential candidate would be very glad to contend with.
As it happened, not only did the former Vice President clinch the PDP ticket at a canter, his victory was without any rancor as his fellow contestants, including Senate President Bukola Saraki and a number of both incumbent and erstwhile state governors, all graciously conceded defeat. Still basking in the euphoria of his hard-earned triumph, the Adamawa-born politician made two significant moves in quick succession. First, he famously consummated a seemingly impossible reconciliation with his former boss, ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo. Next, Atiku picked the immediate past Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, as his running mate.
Aside from the speed and sure-footedness with which Atiku made these moves, their significance as political master-strokes are grudgingly acknowledged even by his political foes.
Given that all the contestants who were endorsed by Obasanjo in the past three presidential elections had emerged victorious (Yar’adu in 2007, Jonathan in 2011 and Buhari in 2015), coupled with his formidable international connections, an endorsement by him means much. As if this isn’t weighty enough, the foremost Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, who normally don’t see eye-to-eye with Obasanjo, have teamed up with him in support of Atiku on account of his restructuring mantra.
And with agitations for restructuring resonating in the south-east and Middle Belt like never before, it came as little or no surprise that by picking Obi as his running mate, Atiku has wormed his was into the heart of a Zone that never gave President Buhari much vote in his first four contests. As if to leave no one in doubt regarding who they would stand by during the 2019 presidential poll, a battalion of who’s-who in Igboland gathered in Enugu penultimate week and unreservedly embraced the Atiku/Obi ticket.
To supporters of Buhari, the foregoing is a veritable confirmation of their forbodering that Atiku would be quite a handful for the incumbent occupant of Aso Rock. This much was hammered home by none other than Buhari’s running mate in 2007, Pastor Tunde Bakare, who publicly declared that Atiku was like an eagle who has all it takes to battle Buhari to a stand-still. To make the match-up even more electrifying, unlike in 2015 when he ran against a Christian from the South, Buhari is now pitted against a fellow Muslim from the same region (the north) thereby making it difficult for him to milk the religious/ethnic cow to his advantage.
Indeed, the course of a serious of interactions with various APC chieftains on the one hand, and sources close to the presidential villa on the other, DESERT HERALD gleaned that while Buhari’s camp is generally optimistic that he would clinch victory next February “even if by a narrow margin” an Atikumania of a sort pervaded them.
“We are confident that with the power of incumbency and Mr. President’s popularity, victory is sure come 2019”, one of them, who asked not to be named, told our correspondent in Abuja over the weekend. Responding to a question on the threat posed by Buhari’s main challenger, Atiku, he added: “you sure have a point there; he (Atiku) is not going to be a push-over but, like I said earlier, our man (Buhari) will eventually win the election”.
Beyond the veneer of optimism, however, palpable concerns vis-à-vis Atiku’s formidable challenge pervade the president’s camp. “Our main worry is the direction of Mr. President’s re-election campaign”, another source who spoke to DH in confidence disclosed. “For instance, on the issue of the campaign’s slogan ‘Next level’, some of us had pointed out a while back that it won’t resonate with the electorate, but we were over-ruled and now see what’s happening. The Atiku camp are using it to have a good time at our expense”.
Truly so, barely had the Buhari Campaign Organisation unveiled its ‘Next Level’ manifesto than the opposite camp pounced with gusto “next level to what?” one of Atiku’s campaign directors retorted. “Next level to unprecedented unemployment and inflation, or next level to daily bloodletting, hunger, starvation and insecurity” PDP, notably its spokesman, Kola Ologbandiyan, and the National Chairman, Secondus, seized the initiative, heaping scorn on what they described as the ruling party’s plan to moon-walk Nigeria and Nigerians to the next level of “failed promises, failed leadership and gross mis-governance”
Slogan aside, the President’s manifesto astonished not a few members of his inner circle by completely spurning the hottest issue of the moment: restructuring. This medium gathered that the least they expected was that despite Buhari’s well-documented opposition to the issue “a compromise of sorts would be found, for example by assuring the electorate of a more inclusive state of affairs in the spirit of a true federation” surprisingly however, not even a token concession was made in the Buhari manifesto unveiled penultimate weekend. The implication is that a party which waved the banner of restructuring so high in 2015 as part of their campaign promises, has made a U-turn on the issue despite now pledging to take Nigerians to “Next Level”.
By contrast, Atiku’s ‘people policy’ manifesto not only reserves a pride of place for restructuring but articulated its step-by-step implementation plan. It points out, for instance, that certain steps which would make our federation more equitable could be taken within the first six month of an Atiku presidency even without recourse to constitutional changes. The implication is crystal clear: Atiku, unlike Buhari, makes himself a darling of the proponents of restructuring even as he makes it clear to these averse to it that they have nothing to fear regarding his manner of restructuring.
For a president whose reputation as a rigid and analog person out of tandem with the demands of the 21st world has been deployed to devastating effect by his opponents before, it goes without saying that his implacable position on restructuring does little credit to his re-election effort. Added to that is the infamous tag of nepotism and clannishness which has stuck to Buhari like a second skin in the past three and half years – as exemplified by the appointment of 16 of his 17 security chiefs from one section of the country. And only on Sunday 18th November, 2018 one of the President’s counsins, Alhaji Daura lamented in on a lengthy interview with a national daily (SUN) that Buhari though a good man, is surrounded by too many bad aides.
Atiku, it must be said has his own army of critics too. For one thing, he is alledged to have been entangled I the Halliburton scandal on account of which he was reportedly barred from entering the USA. His old boss, Obasanjo also called him unprincipled and corrupt in one of his recent books. As a counter-attack, his aides have been hammering on the litany of corruption and certificate scandals involving some lieutenants of Buhari, including the immediate past SGF and the just-resigned Finance minister, Kemi Adeosun. The serious of humongous corruption involving top officials of the NNPC (including those unearthed by the incumbent Minister of State for Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu), the Abudul Maina saga involving many of Buhari’s appointees, including the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Alhaji Malami, are among the mud being used by the Atiku camp to dent Buhari’s self-acclaimed integrity.
In other words, the battle for the presidency has revved up seriously. Buhari traiditionally enjoys massive support in the north-east and north-west regions but as evident in his tango with then Governor of Kastina State Umaru Yar’adu in 2007, a match-up with follow northerner/muslim (as is Atiku) would inevitably witle down his support. This electoral fortune is not enhanced by the fact that Buhari’s performance in the past three and half years (particularly in terms of security and herdsmen’s killing spree) has alienated him from many in the North Central, notably Niger, Kogi, Benue, Plateau and Nasarawa States. Ominously, he has never won in Nasarawa state – not even when his own party, CCP, won that state’s governorship poll seven years ago.
Against this backdrop, the Atiku campaign is vigorously wooing the south-south and south-east (areas which Buhari famously declared had given him only “5% versus 97%” votes. With APC in disarray in Imo State (the only state it controls in the south-east) on account of Governor Rochas Okorocha’s divisive scheming, Buhari’s cause is hardly helped by the fact that he criminalizes restructuring. Even in the southwest where Buhari’s ally, Bola Tinubu, used to reign like a tin god, APC no longer holds sway as before. With the Yorubas having voted for APC in 2015 largely on account of the party’s promise to restructure the country, Buhari’s anti-resturucture stance will win him few votes here despite Tinubu’s efforts.
Conversely, Atiku keeps endearing himself to the region in particular and southerners in general with his restructuring rhyme. In the view of many political pundits even with his incumbency advantage, PMB must go the extra mile or else he may be upstaged by Atiku come February 2019 as happened in 2015 when Buhari himself upstaged then President Jonathan to the surprise of everybody.