Nigeria: Obasanjo, Buhari and Atiku - the Game Begins

12 October 2018

I am intrigued by the emergence of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as the presidential candidate of PDP. Let me tell you why.Atiku and President Muhammadu Buhari and Obasanjo have had some interesting relationships. Either of them should count on Obasanjo's support to realise his presidential ambition next year. But the word that now defines each man's relationship with the former president is rocky. All three are sworn political enemies. I can see that neither man has paid the traditional homage to Obasanjo to ask for his blessing. An indication, I suppose, that both men believe they don't need the former president in their respective corners.

The emergence of Buhari and Atiku as presidential candidates of their respective political parties without Obasanjo's support or endorsement may possibly redefine the architecture of our political power. This is the first time since 2007 that Obasanjo would be denied the self-assumed right to choose or endorse a presidential candidate with oracular pronouncements. What this portends is that the hands of the general are slipping away from the levers of political power. It is more momentous than you might care to believe.

In politics friends turn into enemies and enemies turn into friends. It is the nature of the game in the game of all games. In 2014, Obasanjo was all for Buhari against the re-election of President Goodluck Jonathan, the presidential candidate of his own party, PDP, on whose platform he ruled the country for eight years and went on to pair up his immediate successor, the late President Umaru Yar'Adua with Jonathan as his vice-president. He later endorsed Jonathan for president in 2011. But by 2014, Jonathan had become his political godson in whom he was not at all pleased. To distance himself from Jonathan and and the PDP, he not only resigned from the party but also made a show of it by publicly tearing his party membership card. Buhari became his man. I thought he could count on Obasanjo again for his re-election bid next year. Not so. Obasanjo has since turned against Buhari. For love of Nigeria, or course.

In January this year, Obasanjo shocked the president when he released a sensational press statement in which he drew public attention to Buhari's alleged glaring failures in all fronts. He wrote: "The lice of performance in government - poverty, insecurity, poor economic management, nepotism, gross dereliction of duty, condonation of misdeed - if not outright encouragement of it, lack of progress and hope for the future, lack of national cohesion and poor management of internal political dynamics and widening inequality - are very much with us today. With such lice of general and specific poor performance and crying poverty with us, our fingers will not be dry of 'blood."

Putting three and three together, Obasanjo came to the conclusion that Buhari must not drag himself into running for a second term in office in 2019. Using a colourful military expression, he told Buhari to "dismount from the horse" and "consider a deserved rest this point in time and age."

He then went on to suggest the formation of a Coalition for Nigeria Movement to" drive Nigeria up and forward." Without Buhari, of course. The coalition has since been transformed into a political party called African Democratic Congress, ADC. I would imagine that a presidential candidate of the party would stroll into the ring where the gladiators are gathering with Obasanjo's considerable political weight behind him to take on Buhari next year. It seems to me that the party has no presidential candidate. Curious.

And that brings us to Obasanjo and Atiku. Both men ruled this country for eight years from May 29, 1999 to May 29, 2007 as president and vice-president respectively. In 1999, Atiku had cast his eyes down on a lesser political office. He won his election as governor of his home state, Adamawa, before Obasanjo picked him as his number two man. Atiku was the political protégé of that astute military politician, the late Major-General Shehu Yar'Adua, Obasanjo's number two in the Murtala/Obasanjo military administration. I would not know if he chose Atiku to honour Yar'Adua and build on his political legacy but it looked to the rest of us like a near perfect political match made on good old earth. Heaven does not make political matches.

By 2003, however, that match had begun to unravel. The centre became wobbly. After the general elections that year in which Obasanjo won his re-election with the active support of Atiku, the bottom fell out. Obasanjo systematically stripped Atiku of his power and privileges as vice-president. He fired all his aides and did and said sundry things to humiliate and embarrass his vice-president. Atiku refused to resign for the simple reason, I suppose, that it is better to be a redundant vice-president than a has-been. His continued presence in government, about which Obasanjo could do nothing, served the immensely satisfying purpose of irritating Obasanjo to no end. Atiku even joined a different party to oil his presidential ambition to succeed Obasanjo in 2007. Obasanjo swore he would succeed him over his dead body.

The heat was on. It has been on. If the media are to be believed, Atiku had made several overtures for peace between them. Still, Obasanjo would not support his presidential ambition. Obasanjo has said that God would not forgive him if he supported Atiku for president.

So, here we are. Buhari has defied Obasanjo to seek re-election. Atiku has defied Obasanjo to clinch the presidential nomination of his party. A win by either man would demystify Obasanjo's hold on power in the country. I would imagine it would be good for them but not so good for the former president. However, I caution you against jumping to a hasty conclusion. Politics is full of surprises. Either man could still win Obasanjo's support and thus ensure his continued relevance in our national politics.

The battle is not just between Buhari and Atiku; it is more critically between APC and PDP, the two biggest political parties in the country. Long-term PDP members who defected from the party in 2014 made the birth and the victory of APC possible in 2015. The baby party put its own papa out to pasture. Now, some of the same men and women who ditched the PDP have returned to it, seeking to wrest power from APC. These should be interesting times, if only because we have more presidential candidates. At the last count, there were 19 formidable men and women in the ring. Eighteen of them are taking on Buhari and the APC.

For the rest of us, this development portends disconcerting possibilities. Political power in the country might become a mere relay race between the two biggest parties. That, in itself, is not bad. It happens in other developed countries too. However, the difference between their system and ours is the natural evolution of their two-party system based on the changing colours of political ideologies. We have witnessed no such evolution here. Instead, we have established defections, driven essentially by naked opportunism, as our political modus operandi. Something is bound to give some day, somehow so that Nigeria can be factored into our politics.

So far, Obasanjo has said nothing about Buhari and Atiku, one of whom would eventually get the numbers to remain as or become president. I wonder if this silence is golden or ominous. My guess is that the former president is probably miffed by the audacity of the two men to ignore him and go ahead in pursuit of their ambitions. The waiting game begins now.

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