7 December 2017

Nigeria: There Atiku Goes - Nigeria's Most Ambitious Nomad Moves Home Again

analysis

The controversial former vice-president has now switched parties for the fourth time. Could this defection be the decisive one?

Following months of speculation, Nigeria's former vice-president Atiku Abubakar has finally left the ruling party and defected to the opposition. Again. Earlier this week, the 71-year-old political stalwart who has never been shy about his presidential ambitions switched parties for the fourth time in his career.

Atiku had resigned from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in November. In his parting letter, he wrote of a "draconian clampdown on all forms of democracy within the party". He criticised the government for failing to meet its 2015 campaign promises of building infrastructure and creating jobs.

Previous to that, however, Atiku had also complained about the APC from a more personal perspective. Also a wealthy businessman, he made significant contributions to the electoral victory of Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. But this September, he lamented that "soon after the formation of government, I was sidelined".

Either way, the nomadic heavyweight has now rejoined the People's Democratic Party (PDP), which he originally co-founded in 1998. The loss of the Atiku will come as no surprise to the APC, though it could sow further discord amongst its ranks. For the PDP meanwhile, the return of its prodigal father could rejuvenate its fortunes following a tough couple of years in the cold.

Who is Atiku?

Born in Adamawa state in the northeast, Atiku has wanted to be Nigeria's president for over 25 years. A successful businessman, he first entered the national political scene in 1992 when he ran to be the Social Democratic Party's presidential nominee, losing to MKO Abiola.

In 1997, his political godfather Shehu Yar'Adua died whilst being held captive by the military dictator Sani Abacha. Atiku inherited his networks. Following Abacha's death in 1998 and the restoration of multi-party democracy, the increasingly influential politician co-founded the broad-based PDP with Olsegun Obasanjo.

The two partners ran on a joint ticket in the 1999 elections. They swept to power with 63% of the vote. Obasanjo became president, with Atiku as his deputy. In office, one of the new vice-president's tasks was to take charge of privatising unproductive government assets. Atiku still takes credit for liberalising the telecoms sector, which has gone on to flourish.

However, his tenure is also remembered for its scandals. Atiku has never been charged, but allegations of corruption swirl around him. In particular, Atiku's name was mentioned frequently in the 2007 case against US Congressman William Jefferson. The Louisiana politician was sentenced to 13 years in the US for bribing high-level Nigerian officials.

Away, and back again

Towards the end of Obasanjo's second term, the two old allies fell out in dramatic fashion. Atiku claims that they disagreed over the president's plan to change the constitution to run for a third term. Heated accusations and attacks abounded, and Atiku left the PDP.

He joined the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and ran as their standard-bearer in the 2007 elections. In a process marred by allegations of fraud and irregularities, Atiku officially managed a paltry 7% of the vote, coming in third behind the PDP's Umaru Yar'Adua and the ANPP's Buhari.

As the next set of elections approached, Atiku returned to the PDP fold in 2009. In the 2011 party primaries, he challenged then president Goodluck Jonathan, who had taken office after Yar'Adua's untimely death. Atiku fell short again.

In 2013, the ever more itinerant politician spotted yet another opportunity to get ahead. The newly-created opposition APC was growing in popularity and it was given a further boost as Atiku, alongside five PDP governors and other prominent party members, crossed the aisle.

Atiku stood to be the new party's presidential candidate, but was defeated by Buhari. The former vice-president nevertheless vowed to get behind the APC's choice in order to unseat President Jonathan and end the PDP's 16-year rule. He harnessed his considerable political influence and spending power to help Buhari to a famous victory.

Since that high point though, Atiku's relationship with Buhari and the APC has soured. There has been a growing mistrust, and in October, the government cancelled a multibillion dollar contract with Intels Nigeria Ltd, the former VP's most lucrative business asset.

If it wasn't already clear, this may have been the final sign to Atiku that he would be unable to realise his long-held ambitions with Buhari looming large over the party. And so, he turned once again to a familiar strategy.

"Atiku has a track record of running whenever he senses he is being marginalised," says Sola Tayo of Chatham House. "This gives an idea of how high his ambitions are".

Back home for good?

After losing power in 2015, the once all-conquering PDP became embroiled in infighting and legal challenges, which hampered its ability to function as an effective opposition. But it has resolved some of those issues now and it remains a potent force. The PDP still boasts 11 out of Nigeria's 36 state governors and 49 of the 109 seats in the senate.

The return of Atiku could further revive the party. "Atiku is a political heavyweight and the PDP will surely gain significant momentum with his return as he is an old hand in this game," says political analyst Tade Ipedeola.

Following Atiku's defection back to the party, chair of the PDP's National Caretaker Committee Ahmed Makarfi asserted that no one should expect to be the automatic pick for the presidential nominee. But Ipedola suggests that "there is really no one in the PDP that can currently match [Atiku]".

As for the APC, the ruling party has downplayed the importance of the former VP's move. "His departure will not affect the fortunes of the party at any level," said APC chieftan Buba Marwa. Meanwhile, Nasir El-Rufai, a Buhari ally and governor of Kaduna State, called the defection "a big mistake". He said Atiku would be no threat to the president if he ran in 2019.

Regardless of its projected confidence, however, the APC will be aware that while Atiku is the first major political player to leave its ranks, he may not be the last. Atiku has vast networks of money and connections around Nigeria, and his defection could embolden others in the ruling party who also feel marginalised or who think their ambitions could be better-served from outside the party.

In Nigerian politics, the notion of party ideology or loyalty to the party holds little sway. This has been exemplified once again as Atiku has changed the badge on his lapel for the fourth time. Next year, politicking will shift up a gear as 2019 draws closer. Only then will it become apparent if Atiku's latest defection is a turning point in Nigerian politics or just another ambitious misadventure.

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