With the emergence in Port Harcourt, Rivers State last Sunday of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Abuja affirmation of incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari as the standard bearer of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) same day, it is clear that next year's presidential contest would be a two-horse race.
Atiku, a veteran politician who has been throwing his hat into the rings of presidential contest since 1992 and who has built a formidable political, business and personal structure across the country, surprised many bookmakers who had hedged their bet on either Senate President Bukola Saraki or Sokoto State governor, Aminu Tambuwal, to win, by almost a landslide, the presidential ticket of the major opposition party.
Like it was done for former President Goodluck Jonathan but with added innovations, the APC process was skewed in favour of Buhari, who garnered an unprecedented 14.8 million votes as endorsements in the novel direct primary election initiated, in the words of the party's
National Chairman, Adams Oshiomhole, "to ensure participation of all party members in the emergence of our presidential candidate."
While many known names in Nigeria's political circle like former Ondo and Cross Rivers States governors, Olusegun Mimiko and Donald Duke, former Education Minister, Oby Ezekwesili, as well as, former Chief Security Officer (CSO) to the late goggled General Sani Abacha, Hamza Al-Mustapha, have joined younger elements like Kingsley Moghalu, Fela Durotoye, Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim and Omoyele Sowore as presidential candidates of their various political parties, it is obvious that they could only play on the sidelines of what promises to be an epic contest between Buhari and Atiku.
Unlike the typical pretensions in the camps of political contestants, those familiar with Nigeria's electoral contests and are aware of the political configurations that may likely be thrown up in the coming race believe that the tussle next year would be a real one between two tested gladiators, who have all it takes to seek, obtain and retain presidential powers.
In his assessment of the situation, Pastor Tunde Bakare of the Latter Rain Assembly, an insider who should know, because he had been Buhari's running mate in an unsuccessful presidential contest in 2011, said the issues that would determine the winner of 2019 election have gotten "more robust" with the emergence of Atiku.
Giving an insight into the scenario that will unfold next year, Bakare said: "It is not going to be an eaglet versus an eagle, but an eagle versus eagle: an old eagle versus new eagle and probably both of them old eagles.
"Buhari has the power of incumbency and he will do his best to win the election, but Atiku is not going to take 'No' for an answer, when the two forces collide in the election (field). Atiku, just like Buhari, has the experience, the exposure and the acceptance expected of the country's president.
Although with a massive government machinery that could be deployed by a desperate incumbent to twist the narrative and an opportunity of showcasing a list of achievements as promises kept in his first term, Buhari also carry the burden of having an army of critics, who have weighed his capacity against the expectations of Nigerians.
Because of this factor of having been on the searchlight during which his weaknesses and strengths have been thoroughly scrutinized and integrity put to test, the incumbency factor, as is wont to happen in such cases, has become a make-or-mar instrument that has the ability to bring as much successes as failures to the second term ambition of a sitting executive.
This could also be said of Atiku, who had occupied the number two position with which he exhibited an array of executive powers between 1999 and 2003, when he enjoyed a good relationship with his principal, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, as he too had the burden of having been put through an integrity test of presidential authority although it could be explained that the bucks did not stop on his table.
This has further put the two gladiators on the spot for personal characters as they are perceived by many Nigerians to be on the far sides of two opposing divides of corruption perception, physical well-being, personal business acumen, social interactions and exposures to the required knowledge to drive modern government, but their supporters have either turned whatever the opponent labeled as a vice to a virtue or simply dismiss them.
A quick look at the scenario by an undiscerning observer will show that unlike the 2015 exercise that had the North against the South in the race for political power, 2019 will be an intra-regional contest, which, for the first time in the nation's history, will pitch the Northwest against the Northeast and that the Southern and Middle Belt regions will provide the winning tilt. But as it is all over the globe, Nigeria inclusive, politics is not a mathematical calculation, where the answer is sacrosanct.
With the emerging circumstances and the array of politicians that have cast their lots with the opposition, the coming contest could be determined mainly by the personalities involved, as well as promises and antecedents of the two gladiators, who in the coming weeks will surely strengthen their positions with alliances and negotiations with power blocs.
Already, it is being speculated that as many as 39 of the 93 political platforms are talking with the PDP with the aim of fusing their structures with the main opposition, which appears to be capable of making a good outing next year. Of course, some aspirants who lost out in the contest for the PDP's presidential ticket may find their way to Buhari's camp, either to work clandestinely for the incumbent or declare public support for him.
Among those who may likely be lukewarm to the Atiku campaign in the PDP are those who are old members, who stuck to the party despite the 2015 gale of defections, but who are not contesting for any position in 2019. Their loyalty could however be secured if they are effectively engaged in the coming campaigns.
A source within the camp of former Jigawa State governor, Sule Lamido, who had altercations with the former Vice-President in the preparations for the primary election, confided in The Guardian that his principal may not have anything to do with the PDP again if any of the "returnee politicians", referring to Saraki, Atiku and Tambuwal and former Kano governor, Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, picked the ticket.
However as Saraki and Kwankwanso have been reported to secure their names on the list of senatorial candidates of the PDP, it is expected that they will work for the party although a stronger commitment could be gotten from them if they are promised bigger roles in the coming administration.
Aside from the intrigues of individual politicians and aspirants, which again would manifest in the way the two leading parties manage the post-primary election crises that are reverberating throughout the polity, the coming election would probably be like none before it, because of the way the candidates handle issues revolving around the nation's existence.
For instance, the vexed issue of restructuring the Nigerian federation has become a recurring decimal in national discourse in the last two years. Already, various regional political groupings have been saying that its acceptance will decide where their votes would go on Election Day.
While Buhari's unyielding opposition to restructuring is being softened by the position of his Southwest allies, especially Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and APC's national leader, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who support the idea and were behind its inclusion in the party's manifesto, Atiku has been singing the restructuring song and he has already met with the leadership of Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and Middle Belt Forum, who are leading the agitation with a pledge that he would do the needful within six months of his inauguration as Nigeria's President.
Many within the APC are of the opinion that if restructuring became too much of a campaign issue that could cost Buhari his ambition for reelection, the incumbent may be forced into taking some positive steps to address it to pacify the agitators even before the election is conducted provided the pledge would not be taken with a pinch of salt by Nigerians.
Katsina State governor, Alhaji Aminu Bello Masari, lend credence to this when in an interview with The Guardian, he disclosed that neither the APC nor the Northern power bloc is opposed to restructuring, which he said would help the region achieve its full potentials as an agricultural entity.
Another factor that may affect the fortunes of the PDP in the coming election is how the party handles the issue of Atiku's running mate as that will not only secure bloc votes for it, but also show Nigerians a glimpse of a possible succession plan.
While many believe that the PDP candidate should pick his running mate from either the Southeast or South-South geo-political zones, which are traditional strongholds of the party, some said a choice from the Southwest could create a fresh inroad for the opposition in a zone where the ruling party is holding sway.
As it is, the strengths of the two gladiators appeared even across the country, but more in favour of the incumbent in the Northwest and Southwest, the two zones that have the largest concentration of voters as well as in larger section of the Northeast, where incidentally Atiku comes from due to the influence of some powerful Buhari allies in the zone. On the other hand, the opposition candidate is stronger in the traditional PDP zones of Southeast and South-South, while the twin issue of recent political reconfiguration and insecurity may have secured a hold of the Middle Belt for him.
There could however be some exceptions that may prove bookmakers wrong like Atiku having an inroad into the Northwest through Tambuwal in Sokoto and Kwankwaso in Kano and the Southwest, because of the sophistication of the electorate in the zone, which manifested in the last Osun election while Buhari, with his recent deft political moves in Delta and Akwa-Ibom that brought former governors, Emmanuel Uduaghan and Senator Godswill Akpabio, into the APC, may spring some surprises in the South-South.
Expectedly, many commentators have been talking about the strengths and weaknesses of the two gladiators, concluding that either of the two, in a free and fair contest, is capable of winning the election.A former APC chieftain who has crossed to the opposition platform, Phrank Shuaibu, described Atiku as the best revelation for Nigeria in 2019 if the country would get its acts together and develop, not only its democracy, but also its economy.
According to him, "Atiku Abubakar's blueprint for Nigeria is by far his strongest weapon. The rich manifesto addresses all the challenges currently confronting the country. From defence and security, through job creation, education and infrastructure to poverty alleviation and power, no document from any presidential candidate in the history of Nigeria come close to Atiku's manifesto in terms of concept, content and creativity.
"To convince Nigerians he has the vision and the preparation to change the nearly hopeless situation and offer a better deal, Atiku has articulated an ambitious manifesto, arguably one of the most elaborate in Nigeria's political history. The same edge is seen on the social media, where the Wazirin Adamawa is a household name. The import of this is that VP Atiku is by far more popular and more acceptable to the people than any politician seeking to be president in 2019."
A pro-Buhari group, the Yoruba Ronu Leadership Forum was however elated about the prospect of a Buhari second term, describing him as the best for the country in the present circumstances.In a release signed by its Secretary General, Akin Malaolu, the group commended the processes that produced both Buhari and Atiku as candidates of their political parties and hoped that the peaceful conduct would continue till after next year's election.
The statement added: "We are glad that the events of the two dominant parties in the past few days in democratic contest had been concluded in faithfulness to their party constitutions. We applaud the non-violent conduct that heralded their successes, but clear distinctions has been made by them regarding who obeyed and followed the norms better in a democracy."
The group however decried the alleged use of money in the PDP primary process saying, "Money was the pivot that turned the wheel of success for Atiku to emerge at the PDP poll."From the two events therefore, it can be concluded that in the verdict that shall come from the 2019 poll, the APC and President Buhari would secure a walk over on PDP and its presidential candidate."Nigerians must remember that PDP made an apology to them for their various crimes both heinous and grievous while in power and they must take that in their minds to the coming polls in 2019, because nothing about them as changed."