Saturday, 10th June 2023

2023 Presidency: Assessing godfather-Generals’ power play

By Leo Sobechi, Deputy Politics Editor, Abuja
09 October 2022   |   4:21 am
The behind-the-scene efforts of Nigeria’s former military leaders was the salient feature of the last presidential primary of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).


The behind-the-scene efforts of Nigeria’s former military leaders was the salient feature of the last presidential primary of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Why the retired generals decided to wield their soft influence was not immediately known. But, giving the internal combustions in the first time the generals struck in a such a forceful way was at the country’s return of democracy in 1999.

If they come off as the owners of Nigeria, it could be on account of their unimpeachable patriotism. Yet, that their designs continue to guide Nigeria’s journey to democratic governance follows their regimental discipline and observance of spirit de corps.

Whoever did not see the hand of Nigeria’s military generals in the emergence of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as Nigeria’s civilian President in 1999 was not following the country’s politics closely. Even the template, which predicated the contest between two Olus – Olusegun Obasanjo and Oluyemisi Falae – in an all-Southwest presidential contender, was the making of Nigeria’s political godfather-generals.

Of the three major political parties, namely the Alliance for Democracy (AD), All Peoples Party (APP) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the former military leaders ensured that the contending presidential standard bearers came from the Southwest. However, as the nomination process took off, it was obvious that PDP was the preferred platform that the generals selected to showcase their dominant political influence.

As keen power players, the former military officers combined with their colleagues still in service to ensure that the PDP special national convention and presidential primary holding in Jos, Plateau State went according to their battle plans.

On paper, the leader of the G34, which metamorphosed into PDP, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, was primed to pick the party’s presidential ticket. But, there was no mistaking the fact that the retired generals had resolved that the next president should come from the Southwest geopolitical zone of the country. Even at that, it became apparent that the retired military officers had zeroed their mind on a former military head of state, in the person of Chief Obasanjo to take over from the outgoing General Abdulsalami Abubakar.

Determined to prosecute the transition to civil rule programme, especially after previous failed attempts and the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential poll in which Chief Moshood Abiola was perceived to be winning, the brass hats ensured the zoning of the 1999 presidency to the Southwest.

And, being a product of effective survey of the national mood, the decision to elect a civilian president from Southwest was welcomed by Nigerians. It was popularly held that the Southwest should throw up Abubakar’s successor to propitiate for the annulled poll, particularly Abiola’s subsequent death in detention.

If the military high command acted to safeguard the transition from the excesses of the civilian politicians, what happened during the May 28/29, 2022 presidential primary of PDP left many people wondering. Of the five ex military officers, only Chief Obasanjo and General Aliyu Gusau ever involved themselves in partisan electoral contest.

Former Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida

For the former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida and General Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, their power play within the democratic era was limited to prosecuting the transition to civil rule programme and ministerial appointment respectively.

Military President Babangida lead the crew in head hunting Obasanjo to take over from General Abdulsalami Abubakar. With Obasanjo returning to power as civilian president, the former military head of state decided to bring in Genera T. Y. Danjuma into his first term. T. Y was appointed the Minister for Defence. He was later to be enlisted by former President Goodluck Jonathan into the Presidential Advisory Council in 2010.

But, for General Aliyu Gusau, a former spy master, who was active in politics, while remaining in service as the National Security Advisor, he helped to stabilize the military under President Obasanjo alongside General T. Y. Danjuma, who was on retirement and serving as Minister.

It was perhaps based on long term stint in the circle of power politics within PDP, General Gusau aspired to become President. He contested the party’s 2006 presidential primary, only to trail the late Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Rochas Okorocha, the first runner-up.

Four years later, General Gusau was returned as NSA by acting President Jonathan. That opportunity raised the former military officer’s profile as a valuable player in PDP and Nigeria’s politics. And, having up-scaled his understanding of the politics of PDP, General Aliyu Gusau turned out as the playmaker during the 2018 presidential primary in Port Harcourt.

The former NSA was all over the place in a bold effort to botch Governor Nyesom Wike’s efforts to gift his Sokoto State counterpart, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal with the PDP ticket. Some of those who saw Gusau making frantic calls and darting about the Garden City on the eve of the PDP presidential primary concluded that he was the emissary of powerful political figures.

On the early hours of Sunday, September 7, 2018, when the ballots were sorted, collated and counted, the former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, was returned as winner to the relief of General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau.

Although it was an all northern affair, General Gusau’s restless efforts left the impression that the north did not want a Southerner to be the kingmaker for the zone. Sources however disclosed that General Gusau’s intervention on behalf of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar was a covert exercise to requite the former Vice President for roles he played to ensure his (Atiku’s) emergence as northern consensus candidate for the 2010 PDP presidential primary.

In the lead up to the 2011 poll, the Northern Political Leaders Forum led by Adamu Ciroma had embarked on consultations to whittle down the number of presidential aspirants lining up to contest against President Goodluck Jonathan for the PDP ticket.

At the end of the consultations, secretary of the Consensus Committee of the forum, Sabo Abudukadir Ibrahim, disclosed that out of the four presidential aspirants from the North, Atiku was selected.

Ibrahim explained that the former Vice President was favoured over the other three, namely, former military President Ibrahim Babangida, former NSA, Aliyu Mohammed Gusau and the then outgoing Kwara State governor, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki.

According to the NPLF, the recourse to consensus was to maintain the PDP zoning formula, especially given President Jonathan’s decision to contest the 2011 presidential ballot in breach of the zoning arrangement.

Watchers of PDP politics offered that Atiku deployed financial resources to trounce his competitors as well as the use of the media to de-market the former military president, whose announcement in 1993 that he was stepping aside from office suggested a plan to return to Aso Villa.

T.Y Danjuma

However, while Atiku relished his triumph over the former military generals – Babangida and Gusau – both men camouflaged their loss with a bold face in the guise of northern solidarity.

The outcome of the 2018 PDP presidential primary in Port Harcourt did not show any threat to northern political interest since virtually all aspirants were from that region.

Apart from the fact of the insistence on stopping Wike from becoming a national godfather, it was speculated in some quarters that the godfather generals did not want an upturning of the General Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency.

That possibility seemed plausible, because the vote tally from the presidential primary balloting did not show that Atiku’s nomination was under any serious threat. For instance, out of the 3, 221 accredited delegates, 1, 532 voted for the former Vice President, while the closest challenger, Governor Tambuwal scored 693.

Further, a look at the tally of the other strong contenders – Saraki (317); Dankwambo (111); Lamido (96); Makarfi (74); Saminu Turaki (65) – showed that even if an unlikely scenario played out, the combined votes of Saraki, Dankwambo, Lamido, Makarfi and Turaki, would not have defeated Atiku.

It was therefore either that Wike’s mind did not stray towards the strategy of propelling withdrawals or that Gusau’s presence in Port Harcourt was merely to prevent such a possibility. It was also possible that the godfather generals did not deem Tambuwal mature enough yet to “mount the high horse.”

Forward To 2022 Primary
UNLIKE the 2018 exercise, the 2022 PDP presidential primary presented oddities and contrasts. In the first place, the zoning arrangement, which served as the basis of the NPLF’s intervention, was suspended under curious political circumstances.

The general refrain among PDP leaders was that you do not zone what you do not have, just as the argument was later varied to convey the impression that until a northern PDP candidate wins and occupies the Presidency for equal number of years as the cumulative years spent by former Presidents Obasanjo and Jonathan, the rotation remains in the North.

Similarly, the former Vice President, Atiku, rebuffed the consensus arrangement brokered by Northern Elders, which threw up Governor Bala Mohammed and former Senate President, Saraki.

Abdulsalami Abubakar

It was gathered that the former Vice President had deployed some tactical schemes to contain the strenuous challenge posed by the Rivers State governor, Wike, alongside his colleague state governors.

Atiku had succeeded in penetrating the fold of Southern governors by winning the confidence of Governors Ifeanyi Okowa and Udom Emmanuel. It was thought expedient that the Akwa Ibom State governor should obtain the PDP presidential nomination forms to shore up his national visibility as well as take the state’s delegates away from Wike’s reach. On the other hand, Okowa was pencilled to deputise Atiku, while donating Delta State delegate votes and financial support.

But, inspite of those elaborate steps, Wike was still optimistic of victory, particularly given that there were more number of serious contenders from the North than the South.

Armed with N78billion recent repayment of withheld Rivers State funds by the Federal Government, Governor Wike had the war chest to frighten Atiku.

The vote tally after the balloting at the primary showed that he provided a present danger to the former Vice President’s aspiration, because out of the 767 accredited voters, the Rivers State governor garnered 237 to Atiku’s 371, a shortfall of 134.

It was obvious that 134 votes not only put the PDP president ticket beyond the hard fighting Wike, but also justified the careering shuttles by General Aliyu Gusau around the Transcorp Hilton, Fraser Suits and the Sokoto State Liaison.


The way the former NSA worked his phones showed that he was engaged in a very delicate operation. Those who saw General Gusau on the day of PDP presidential primary could not believe that he was not among the contestants.  At a point, he was joined by the former Sokoto State governor, Dr. Attahiru Dalhatu Bafarawa. Their mission was to get the incumbent governor, Tambuwal, to step down from the primary.

When the former Vice President sauntered into the Velodrome of Moshood Abiola National Stadium that evening, he was crestfallen, perhaps out of realisation that the political arithmetic was not adding up in his favour.

It was that demeanour that gave analysts the impression that Atiku’s retreat from arena signalled dejection and withdrawal. But, those in the know discovered that it was at that point that the deal was sealed to have Tambuwal announce his withdrawal from the race.

That the former military president, Babangida, added his voice to the political suasion on the Sokoto State governor to surrender showed the amount of influence the godfather generals play in the leadership recruitment process, particularly within the PDP.

But for Tambuwal’s eleventh hour withdrawal, his slice of the 193 delegates from Northwest states of Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Kebbi, Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara would have denied Atiku the 134 votes that separated him and Wike.

Having succeeded in stopping Wike and enthroning Atiku as the PDP presidential standard bearer, one puzzle that remains is whether the five political godfather-generals are working for an Atiku presidency or merely orchaestrated his emergence to ensure alternate zoning similar to what they delivered in 1999?

Further, the question on the lips of political watchers is, to what extent is President Buhari involved in the emerging power play? That suspense was heightened by the President’s remarks while receiving the letters of credence of six countries.

The President told the diplomats that through the 2023 general elections, Nigeria would produce new crop of leaders. Yet, against the backdrop of allegations by Wike that the Presidency is supporting an unnamed Presidential candidate and calls for equity and fairness; the question remains, who are the godfather generals working for?