Tinubu and Atiku: Birds of a feather [OPINION]

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By Simeon Kolawole

Disappointment was powdered on the faces of many of the young people around me when Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo did not win the presidential ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC). To them, Osinbajo was one candidate they could connect with: articulate, urbane, agile and modern. One who is connected to the ordinary Nigerian — he is there for them when there is a blast, when there is a gruesome murder, when there is an accident or when there is a terror attack. I argued with quite a number of them that party politics is about structure and alliances, that it would be easier for Osinbajo to win a general election than the APC presidential ticket. It sounded like Greek to them.

Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu, on the other hand, comfortably won the race for the APC ticket, sweetened by the amazing depth of support from northern governors and a spate of withdrawals by his rivals. The joke of the day was that while other contestants were busy buying delegates, Tinubu was buying the aspirants. However, restricting Tinubu’s victory to the single narrative of his financial power will not tell the whole story. For decades, Tinubu had been building a national and battle-tested political structure to actualise his life ambition of becoming president of Nigeria. What happened at the Eagle Square was more than what we saw at the Eagle Square.

All efforts had been made to stop Tinubu in the last couple of years. The ouster of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole as the APC national chairman, the prolonged stay of Mai Mala Buni as the caretaker chairman, the last-minute truncation of the election of Senator Tanko Al-Makura as APC chairman, the adoption of Senator Abdullahi Adamu as party chairman, the battle over whether or not there should be direct or indirect primaries, and the last-minute introduction of Senate President Ahmad Lawan into the race, among other things, were all contrived to stop Tinubu. Even the removal of Mallam Ibrahim Magu as EFCC chairman was allegedly because of his closeness to Tinubu.

After the election of the new national working committee (NWC) in March 2022 in which Tinubu could get only one of his nominees on board, obituary writers were already preparing a draft article on the end of his political career. I do not have all the inside details, but the week leading to the June 6-8 presidential convention apparently proved to be probably the most important in Tinubu’s career: he got the northern governors to insist on power shift to the south, thereby stalling a real attempt to foist Lawan on others as the “consensus candidate”. Any politician in an underdeveloped democracy who triumphed in spite of these high-level plots and schemes deserves respect, no matter how tiny.

Before the convention, President Muhammadu Buhari had asked the governors to let him choose his successor to reciprocate his relationship with them. Unlike President Olusegun Obasanjo, Buhari never removed any governor. He did not impose a successor on any. When he asked them to reciprocate his gesture, the impression we got was that he was about to pick someone, present him to them and that would be a done deal. But the rumour that Lawan, another northerner, was the one about to be anointed raised the temperature in the room. Adamu even confidently informed the APC NWC that Lawan was the chosen one. The response was hostile. The idea was brought in dead.

Buhari finally backed down, basically saying he was no longer going to choose his successor. There is a lot to say about the way Buhari handled his succession, but we can forgive him because there is also a lot to say about how he has handled almost every important matter since he came to office in 2015. But it appears his strategists, assuming they can be so called, were only interested in stopping Tinubu. They became stuck when Tinubu refused to budge. It was complicated by the Electoral Act which clearly stipulates how a consensus candidate can be picked: every aspirant must agree to withdraw — and in writing. Tinubu was never going to agree. Never. He always wanted a contest.

The stage is now getting set for a grand battle between Tinubu and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the presidential flagbearer of the leading opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). This is not an attempt to rule out other candidates — I still believe the gap between the primaries and the elections proper is so long a lot can still happen along the way. But if we use current data for our workings, APC and PDP are the top political parties by a million miles. Both of them control over 95 per cent of elective offices across Nigeria. Any party that wants to upset this has to build a nationwide support base between now and the 2023 general election. That is the home truth.

That said, there is virtually nothing to choose between Tinubu and Atiku. They are birds of a feather. Both are products of the botched transition programme of President Ibrahim Babangida that was to birth the Third Republic in 1993. A friend calls them “Class of ’93”. They both belonged to the Peoples Front of Nigeria (PFN), the baby of Maj-Gen Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (rtd). Other notable members were Babagana Kingibe, Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso and Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (Shehu’s younger sibling who would be elected president in 2007). The association was not registered as a party and was forced to dissolve into the government-created Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1989.

Tinubu, meanwhile, was elected as a senator in 1992 while Atiku sought to be governor of the newly created Adamawa state. He won the governorship primary election but was disqualified by the military government which was in the habit of cancelling elections. But Atiku would later enter the presidential race when the older Yar’Adua, his mentor, was disqualified after winning the SDP presidential primary in 1992. The primaries of the two parties — the other being the National Republican Convention (NRC) — had been cancelled and “old breed politicians” banned, so Yar’Adua entered Atiku as his horse in the new race in 1993. Atiku lost. Bashorun MKO Abiola got the ticket.

Tinubu and Atiku remained friends but while the former vice-president participated in the transition programme of Gen Sani Abacha in 1997/98, Tinubu was in exile funding pro-democracy agitations in Nigeria. When Abacha died and a new transition programme was rolled out, Tinubu and Atiku found themselves in different camps — Atiku pitched his tent with the PDP and Tinubu opted for the Alliance for Democracy (AD) which was made up of the forces that opposed Abacha and the annulment of Abiola’s victory. Despite being in different parties, they remained close and Atiku is reputed as helping Tinubu escape the PDP tsunami that swept through the south-west in 2003.

When Atiku fell out with Obasanjo ahead of the 2007 elections, his political career looked over. Obasanjo made sure Atiku would not have any pathway in the PDP to run for president. Tinubu, it was, who offered Atiku a way out — by giving him the ticket of the Action Congress, the party he formed after pulling out of AD in 2006 because of some internal crisis. But Obasanjo was so determined to stop Atiku that he set up an administrative panel to indict him and Prof Maurice Iwu, then-chairman of INEC, quickly dropped Atiku’s name from the ballot. Atiku headed for the courts. Iwu warned us that even if the courts ruled otherwise, it would come too late to reinstate Atiku.

As it later happened, Atiku won his case at the Supreme Court. In fact, Obasanjo declared an emergency public holiday to make sure the court would not be able to sit to deliver judgment, but it all failed. In the end, Iwu organised a sham of a presidential election in 2007, announcing final results while votes were still being counted. In the history of Nigeria, it is only the 2007 presidential election that does not have a state-by-state breakdown. Iwu simply sat down in Abuja and reeled out incredible figures as the final result, even saying only the PDP had a national structure to win a presidential election. He lambasted opposition parties for questioning the conduct and outcome.

Atiku would abandon AC (later renamed Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN) and return to PDP in 2010 to continue his presidential pursuit. It appeared it was at this juncture that Tinubu and Atiku finally parted ways. He felt Atiku should have stayed back to build a strong opposition but was being opportunistic by returning to the PDP because of Yar’Adua’s ill-health and eventual death. But they came back together again in 2013 when the major opposition parties formed the APC. This time, Tinubu was with Buhari and served as a counterforce to Atiku to whittle down his war chest at the presidential primary in 2014. Atiku returned to the PDP years later, after failing to get APC’s ticket.

Atiku and Tinubu are alike on the economic front: they are private sector players who believe in a free market economy, so either would be expected to carry out reforms with significant impact on the economy, including deregulation of the downstream sector and exchange rate. Some will argue that both are of the same age bracket and should have retired from politics for fresher brains and more agile bodies. It is a debate that will not die down any time soon as their supporters market them aggressively. I expect plenty friendly fire in the electioneering. What’s more, both men are perceived to be corrupt, although there have been no convictions since they left office 15 years ago.

Finally, both are Muslims — but Atiku enjoys the luxury of picking a Christian from the south as his running mate. Tinubu is facing what Abiola had to confront in 1993: choosing between a paperweight northern Christian and a heavyweight northern Muslim. Nigerian presidential politics has been pre-programmed thus: if it is a northerner, it must be a Muslim; if it is a southerner, it must be a Christian. Will this be reversed so that it can be a southern Muslim and a northern Christian? Or will religion take the back seat? Tinubu has more thinking and tinkering to do in the coming days. Any direction he faces has implications. But that apart, Tinubu and Atiku are two peas in a pod.

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