Palpable tension enveloped the nation’s political landscape over the weekend ahead of the deadline imposed for party primaries by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. Aspirants across the political spectrum battled each other for precious tickets preparatory for the showdown in 2019. To get delegates on their side, the aspirants had to make do with foreign currency, particularly the US dollar. Bureau De Change operators in one particular state hosting a party convention were nearly cleaned out. The biggest news of the weekend emerged from the result of the contest for the most expensive ticket of all – the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, candidacy.
After a long, and sometimes painful, sojourn through the maze of the Nigerian (two) party system, Atiku Abubakar, former vice-president of Nigeria, finally laid his hands on the coveted party ticket that clears him to contest for the office of president in next year’s general elections. To say that it was a hard fought battle for him would be an understatement, as his fight has lasted many years, with many enemies turned friends and vice versa. His emergence as the PDP candidate now presents an interesting contest in 2019 against President Muhammadu Buhari, the consensus candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC.
There are also numerous fringe candidates in the presidential race for 2019. But majority of voters have come to recognise that the fight is really between the PDP and APC candidates. On a party level, the two top parties have been accused of being identical, and this view has been strengthened by the seamless movement of politicians across the two parties in the last few years. This particular reason is more likely to make the contest more about the individual candidates rather than the parties. On that individual level, apart from their similarity in being Fulani northerners, the two candidates couldn’t be farther apart in personality.
Buhari’s often slow but methodical approach to issues, is a sharp contrast to the fast and sharp personality of Atiku, who has always been quick to switch lanes when things are not going his way. Buhari’s moniker of “Mr integrity” also does not match with the general perception of the former vice president whose alleged involvement in Obasanjo era corruption scandals still follow him around like the tail to a cow.
Atiku may very well be a better and more active politician than Buhari is, but this precisely is one of his problems, as he may have become too much of a politician for the comfort of many. Buhari’s perceived lack of political savvy has done little to dent his massive following in the north over the years, and may have even been an appealing feature in 2015. However, the emergence of Atiku, from the same stock as the president, definitely makes things interesting in 2019.
Like every aspiring president over the years, Atiku has made some lofty promises about his intentions if he becomes president. Specifically, he has ridden hard on restructuring, promising more measures than most other aspirants from the major political parties are comfortable making. What Atiku failed to disclose is that the kind of restructuring that Nigerians seem to want cannot come from a presidential order or declaration, but will involve a largely legislative action, coordinated between federal and state legislators. Perhaps, as someone who is known to throw money at his problems, Atiku may be well suited for the money grubbing legislators after all, who have joined issues with the presidency on many occasions in Buhari’s administration.
They say that it is easier to criticise than it is to act and implement. Atiku and the PDP have had an easy job dogging the Buhari administration on every issue, including the herdsmen and Boko haram issues that have remained foremost on the list of problems that face the country. Still, Buhari’s administration has laid the foundation for many good policies that are now in danger of being scuttled should power change hands in 2019, because the fruits of many of these policies have not yet been seen by ordinary Nigerians. In this sense, there is a good case for continuity, but with a short-tempered electorate and a masterful money-bag politician on the other side, there are no guarantees.
The subject of money also becomes an important factor at this point. Already, financial muscle has proved useful for Atiku in obtaining the PDP presidential ticket, as it is no secret that delegates were financially induced to vote one way or the other. The billionaire businessman is now entering into an electoral contest that looks to be more brazenly money-centric than other elections, if the allegations in Osun and Ekiti are anything to go by. His opponent is supposedly a simple cattle rearer with modest earnings and an ‘integrity complex’.
The solace for the APC camp about Atiku’s money is that he has been spending it chasing his ambition for years and only just got a presidential ticket based on practical matters; as Tambuwal’s offer of the influence of the Sokoto caliphate and Saraki’s claim of youth were not enough to match Atiku’s money and experience. Buhari and APC can also rest easy remembering that the Jonathan PDP administration lost to APC despite the huge sums expended on the 2015 elections. The power of incumbency may yet edge out the opposition in the end, but that power has been diminished since the APC crushed it in 2015.
Another big influence in 2019 may be the Igbo vote. While Buhari and APC rely on the increasingly waning power of Rochas Okorocha and the likes of Orji Uzor Kalu to deliver the southeast, Atiku is expected to field an Igbo running mate, who he was yet to announce as at Monday. Atiku has also promised to serve one term only, after which an Igbo candidate can emerge from the PDP.
We all know that one-term ambition for presidents in Nigeria is a myth. This notwithstanding, an Igbo vice president will be an enticing prospect for the southeast. With the southwest likely to swing Buhari’s way because of APC dominance, the southeast possibly going Atiku’s way will make for a harder contest, especially if Atiku and Tambuwal are able to work together to wrest away some of Buhari’s northern base. Kingsley Moghalu’s candidacy under the Young Progressives Party, YPP, may cause a mild ripple but is unlikely to be a big differential for the Igbo vote, as there are more practical options. This is another issue.
There are about 68 registered political parties in the country, and a good number of those parties plan to contest the office of president in 2019. There is no joy in forecasting that the winner will most likely come from just two of them, but it is the truth. The other parties have failed to learn from APC to pull forces together to mount a credible challenge. If Donald Duke and others like Oby Ezekwesili and Moghalu’s short-lived PACT coalition could have pulled resources and banded together, maybe there could have been a third horse in the race. Nigerian politics is now about money and alliances.
In the midst of money politics and trench digging in strongholds ahead of 2019, the job of INEC has been cut out for it. Despite the financial resources poured into the 2015 elections by former President Goodluck Jonathan, there was a perception of fairness and equity by INEC during that election. The former president still gets kudos for it, and it is important for the Buhari administration to ensure that this perception of INEC neutrality is protected in 2019. That perception of neutrality also extends to the police and other security agencies that will be involved.
There is no gain in losing the legitimacy that the conduct of 2015 elections bestowed on the Buhari administration by over-exploiting the incumbency factor. Like Chief Chekwas Okorie of the United Progressives Party, UPP, has said, 2019 will not be an easy contest between the PDP and APC and the ball now falls on INEC to put the two sides on check. The president’s ambition is second in importance to the neutrality of INEC, and all political parties should respect this neutrality in their dealing with the body. INEC, again, should be the winner in 2019, not Buhari or Atiku.
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‘With the southwest likely to swing Buhari’s way because of APC dominance, the southeast possibly going Atiku’s way will make for a harder contest’