Opinion: For Atiku, It’s Now, Or Never! – By Olusegun Adeniyi

I cannot remember how many times former Vice President Atiku Abubakar has contested to be president of Nigeria. Or the number of party platforms he has crisscrossed over a period of three decades in pursuit of his ambition. But I do remember his first attempt in 1993 when I witnessed the high drama in Jos as a young reporter covering the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) national convention for the African Concord. Now 75, Atiku must be aware that should he lose the 2023 general election, his name is not likely to be on the ballot again in Nigeria.

But with his hard-won victory at the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) national convention last Saturday in Abuja, Atiku’s staying power may finally be paying off. The elements seem to be aligning in his favour this time, given the not-so-subtle hint by President Muhammadu Buhari to the APC governors on Tuesday that the ruling party may deploy the late General Sani Abacha’s rulebook for the “adoption” of its presidential candidate. “If he who holds power can determine what those following are going to want, the situation is of the coercive type,” according to the respected 20th century Harvard Professor, Carl Joachim Friedrich in his popular book, ‘Man and His Government; an Empirical Theory of Politics’. “If the followers determine it for themselves and join the leader in the pursuit of their independently chosen objective, we may speak of a consensual situation.”

While the real meaning and essence of ‘consensus’ may be lost on the APC and their power mongers who have taken our country “from top to bottom” as promised, they will not have the last say on who takes over from Buhari next year.   

I concede the fact that every power holder is likely to be interested in his or her successor. But the brazen and cynical way Buhari and his handlers are going about this business of nominating the APC presidential candidate validates the proposition that they are deploying the same tardiness and arrogance of power with which they run the country. Besides, the same president who on 22 April warned APC leaders against imposition of candidates, asking them “to recognise the place of due process in all our tasks as managers of the party” in his speech at the National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting in Abuja, now wants to impose his preference on the party.

I am, however, not surprised about what is going on in the APC because I saw it coming. Less than a month ago, precisely on 12th May, I wrote on this page: “With Abdullahi Adamu, a former Abacha Minister as APC National Chairman, nothing should be taken at face value, especially with each of the party’s aspirants asked to sign an anticipatory but ‘voluntary letter of withdrawal’ under oath. Once smart gods decide on the ‘consensus candidate’, that piece of paper becomes legal tender.” And in January this year, Buhari indicated that he has someone in mind. Responding to a question on his likely successor, the president said: “No, I will not tell you, because he may be eliminated if I mention his name.”

Since the presidency of Nigeria has been reduced to political BetNaija, it came as no surprise that many in the APC have had to gamble away hundreds of millions of Naira, ostensibly waiting for one man to ‘anoint’ them as successor. At the end, Buhari will only endorse one person and dash the hope of several others. But I do not envy whoever emerges as our president next year. The reality of our pathetic situation was made clear in Monday’s disclosure by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that our total expenditure on fuel subsidy (a single consumption item that is hardly ever available to end users) could hit a record N6 trillion by year-end. According to the IMF Resident Representative for Nigeria, Ari Aisen, a macro-fiscal stress test on our country has also revealed that interest payments could amount to Nigeria using 100 per cent of its revenue to service debts (which by the way continue growing) within the next four years. The headline of a recent article in BusinessDay sums up the situation: “Nigeria, the world’s most inefficient spender, now lives to pay creditors.”

When you add that scary economic projection to the security challenge, the collapse of social sectors including education and health, the growing army of jobless young people etc., you get the picture of a nation in crisis. Sadly, the only preoccupation of our leaders (in the executive, legislature, and judiciary) is how to bequeath to their family (children, spouses, concubines etc.) public offices as future investment. Some send their wives to contest for senate in their states of origin, others divide their sons to pick the tickets of both APC and PDP. But they delude themselves to imagine there will always be a free flow of money in government to share. Whichever way we look at it, the 2023 general election will be defining for Nigeria because it will determine our future, one way or another.
In the coming weeks, before we arrive at the season when office seekers begin to seek validation from religious clerics, renowned marabouts, and all manner of fortune-tellers and touts, I intend to examine them critically. For obvious reasons, Atiku and whoever the APC eventually nominates, will be scrutinized on their temperament, character and what they intend to do should they get elected as president. I will x-ray contenders like Mr Peter Obi, Senator Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, Dr Kingsley Moghalu, Mr Omoyele Sowore, Prof Peter Umeadi and others as well. My objective is to explore the possibility of the emergence of a third force that could counter the dominance of the APC and PDP in the months ahead. I will also be looking at critical issues in the polity, particularly regarding zoning and the place of Ndigbo vis-à-vis the tripodal arrangement that has served our country since independence but appears to have been jettisoned on the altar of expediency. I may also look at the gubernatorial contests in a few states as well as what the identified contenders offer their people.

Meanwhile, whoever President Buhari ultimately anoints for APC members to affirm at their hollow rituals of national convention slated for Monday, there is no doubt that Atiku will be a formidable opponent in the general election next year. The many contradictions in the APC can only be to his advantage. That is not to say that Atiku does not come with his own baggage, even if we discountenance the heavily monetized primaries that gave him the PDP presidential ticket.

Since 1999, I have had the privilege of numerous interactions with the former vice president. And I have written dozens of columns about him, some quite critical. He is perhaps one of the few among the contenders for whom there are available materials with which to examine suitability, including his stewardship as vice president as well as what he has said in the past about specific national and international issues. And these are not things he can dismiss as “unauthorized posts” from a verified personal Twitter handle!

Interestingly, Atiku may have inadvertently set the agenda for the conversation we are likely to have around this election. One, when he ran for the PDP presidential ticket against then incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011, Atiku pledged that if elected, his medium-term (a four-year period) strategy would be to finance recurrent expenditure with non-oil revenue while every kobo earned from oil would be devoted to investment in infrastructure, security, education, and health. “We would also encourage all state governments to set an agenda and timeline within which they would no longer depend on oil revenue for recurrent expenditure” Atiku said in a statement that elicited two columns from me (The Atiku Abubakar Formula -1 and The Atiku Abubakar Formula – 2.) when I returned to the country after the 2011 general election.

Two, like most of us, Atiku has been an advocate for restructuring the country to make it work for the people. He has elaborated on this thesis at different times with a clarity of thought that is uncommon among his colleagues. Now is the time to see whether he can walk his talk. In 2016, for instance, Atiku said that “Nigeria is not working as well as it should and part of the reason is the way we have structured our country and governance, especially since the late 1960s. The federal government is too big, and too powerful relative to the federating states. That situation needs to change and calling for that change is patriotic.” Apparently for the benefit of those who arrogate to themselves the monopoly of patriotism and would question anything that suggests tinkering with the subsisting arrangement, Atiku added, “We must refrain from the habit of assuming that anyone calling for the restructuring of our federation is working for the breakup of the country. An excessively powerful centre does not equate with national unity. If anything, it has made our unity more fragile, our government more unstable and our country more unsafe.”

In expanding on the idea, Atiku called for a renegotiation of our union to make Nigeria stronger. “Greater autonomy, power and resources for states and local authorities will give the federating units greater freedom and flexibility to address local issues, priorities and peculiarities,” said Atiku who argued that the current structure and the practices it has encouraged have been a major impediment to the economic and political development of Nigeria. “It (restructuring) will help to unleash our people’s creative energies and spur more development. It will reduce the premium placed on capturing power at the centre. It will help with improving security. It will promote healthy rivalries among the federating units and local authorities. It will help make us richer and stronger as a nation.”

Drawing from his experience in government to make a point, Atiku said as chairman of the National Council on Privatization from 1999 to 2007, he “saw firsthand the manner of businesses our federal government was involved in. These included not just such capital-intensive industries as steel and petrochemicals but brick-making factories and bakeries as well. These enterprises hardly made any profit. Rather they were being subsidized by the budget.” With the expansion of public sector, the private sector was crowded out and private initiative, innovation and creativity suffered. All these, according to Atiku, “brought with it enormous social consequences such as wealth without labour, briefcase contractors and generations of youth accustomed to aspiring to be employed by others rather than thinking of creating jobs for themselves and others.”

Since the call for restructuring is even more relevant today given the existential challenges confronting us, it will be interesting to see how Atiku handles this issue without resorting to gimmickry. In one of his disquisitions on the flaws in our federation, Atiku also said something that may provide ammunition for fierce critics in the weeks and months ahead: “As we became more dependent on oil revenues, we became lazier, more complacent, and our leaders became ever more unaccountable. Among the most destructive impacts of our dependence on oil is, perhaps, the corruption that it has fostered in the oil industry and society at large.”

I have stated earlier that there will be time to put Atiku on the scale. But I congratulate him on his emergence as the PDP presidential candidate. For now, all eyes are on the ruling party that on Monday and Tuesday turned its screening exercise into a social media circus. One contender even arrived the venue from Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) detention!

So, while we currently have only Atiku to contend with as we wait for the APC to conclude on their magic, our assessment will remain tentative guesses. But an abiding asset of his long hug with power at the apex is that Atiku comes across as a pan Nigerian politician who is cosmopolitan, business friendly and urbane. These qualities place him on a comfortable pedestal against any opponent imposed by the incumbent or one who seeks to fly the flag of region, faith or any of the divisive tendencies currently threatening the survival of our country.

The foregoing maps the trajectory of issues and questions that will define the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria. The days, weeks and months ahead are therefore bound to be very interesting. And I will be watching!

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and onwww.olusegunadeniyi.com

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