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Atiku Abubakar: The ‘customer’ from Jada

By Leo Sobechi, Deputy Politics Editor, Abuja
19 June 2022   |   4:16 am
Alhaji Atiku Abubakar was 37 years old when Nigeria’s music legend and anti-apartheid crusader, Sonny Okosun released the song, Which Way Nigeria.


Alhaji Atiku Abubakar was 37 years old when Nigeria’s music legend and anti-apartheid crusader, Sonny Okosun released the song, Which Way Nigeria. Three years later, when the Ozziddi King came out with Africa, Now Or Never, the Jada, Adamawa state-born Customs officer was getting ready to quit the Department of Customs and Excise, where he attained the position of Deputy Director.

Shortly after retiring from Customs in April 1989, Atiku joined partisan politics. In 1990, he contested the governorship of his state, Adamawa. Being his first try in competitive politics, he was humbled. Despite the disastrous outcome, Atiku presented himself again to his party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), in search of its Presidential ticket. He came so close, yet situation and circumstances in the presidential primary made it impossible for him to clinch the ticket.

Feeling betrayed that his decision to step down for Chief Moshood Abiola after the first ballot at the Jos convention of SDP did not win him the running mate position, Atiku went back to his business, which included estate development and produce merchandise.

Five years later, when Sani Abacha conducted a transition programme, Atiku was back on the ballot for the gubernatorial poll and achieved the same result as at his first trial.

It was only in 1998, at the threshold of Nigeria’s return to multi-party presidential democracy that luck smiled on him: Atiku won the Adamawa State governorship on the platform of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

However, as if he was not destined to govern the Land of Beauty, Atiku could not stay to enjoy the fruit of his electoral triumph after two previous failed attempts. He jumped at the opportunity provided by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who secured the presidential ticket of PDP, to serve as his running mate.

Ever since Atiku abandoned his mandate to govern Adamawa State for the position of Vice President, his politics continued to witness incomplete metamorphosis: He has remained constantly on the go.

Having joined Obasanjo on the PDP presidential ticket, Atiku enjoyed a wonderful honey with the former military head of state for the greater part of their first term in office. But, months to the end of that four-year term, unimaginable frictions developed between the President and his deputy: They came short of fisticuffs.

Not prepared to lose a second term in office, ostensibly to salvage his image and governance record, Obasanjo reluctantly accepted to have Atiku on the ticket as his running mate. But, as Vice President, Atiku must have cursed the day he opted to become Obasanjo’s second in command instead of serving the people of Adamawa as their governor.

Before his very eyes, the position of Vice President, which he saw as a short cut to the Presidency he desired in 1992 kept vanishing as an impossible prospect. At the end of the day, Obasanjo succeeded in pushing the former Customs officer out of PDP into the fold of social-welfarist Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN).

Yet, believing that the vision that he would be President was for an appointed time, Atiku picked the presidential ticket of ACN to contest the 2007 poll against the younger brother of his political godfather, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.

But, because Obasanjo was involved, who had sworn that not on his watch would an Atiku Presidency happen, Yar’Adua dusted him and ACN. Suffering defeat once again, Atiku thought about his glorious days in PDP and, like a privileged prodigal son that was sobered by adversity, he retraced his steps to the party, believing that his adversary, Obasanjo had become of little consequence.

The death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua midway into his first term also inspired Atiku, the Turakin Adamawa, with the hope that his time to be President had come, as well as believing that PDP offers a prodigious platform to actualise that dream. Coming back to PDP was like a home coming.

And, being back to a familiar turf, it was easy for Atiku to orchestrate a consensus plan in a bid to ensure that northern presidential aspirants did not split northern delegates and pave the way for President Goodluck Jonathan, who stepped into Yar’Adua’s shoes, to pick the ticket.

As it were, the Adamu Ciroma committee returned a verdict that presented the Turakin Adamawa as the consensus choice of northern leaders for the position of President. According to the committee’s report, Atiku beat other Presidential aspirants including former military President Ibrahim Babangida, Bukola Saraki and General Aliyu Gusau (retd).

But, coming to the PDP’s presidential straw poll, Atiku lost the ticket to rookie Jonathan, who went on to win the 2011 general election with his offer to inject fresh air of transformation into the Nigeria project.

Two years after Jonathan mounted the saddle as Nigeria’s President, the 2015 general election cycle was drawing near and Atiku felt that since the President was merely serving out the remaining term of his former principal, it would be another golden opportunity to claim the right of first refusal for the PDP ticket.

However, to his shock and greatest consternation, Jonathan craved a second term and mobilised forces available to an incumbent President and party leader. As a veteran and knowing how things go in political parties, Atiku dusted his shoes and ran to the newly minted All Progressives Congress (APC).

In APC, the former Vice President, who wanted badly to be President, joined forces with other opposition progressives to ensure that presidential power rightfully returns to the north.

Not that alone, Atiku was encouraged with the quiet confidence that he could win the APC presidential ticket in the usual Nigerian way or at most, even if General Muhammadu Buhari wins, he could only serve for just one term. But, two years later, the former Vice President was disappointed again.

Despite his health challenges, President Buhari aspired to seek a second term in office. Stung by that unpleasant piece of news, and encouraged by the perceived low performance indicators of the Buhari administration, Atiku hit the road again. Destination? Back to PDP!

At the 2018 PDP special convention in Port Harcourt, the Vice President survived the stalwart hurdles placed on his path by Rivers State governor, Ezenwo Nyesom Wike, who had constituted himself into a strong man of the party. The new kid on the block was backing a younger presidential aspirant and incumbent governor of Sokoto state, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal for the ticket.

However, believing in his deep pocket and chequered history in presidential combats, PDP delegates handed Atiku the party’s ticket to confront the incumbent President Buhari and APC in the 2019 poll. He was handed another defeat.

Stung by that unexpected loss to the former military officer-turned politician, Atiku retreated, not to another political party, but to the United Arab Emirates to retool himself, believing that he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.

That auspicious day came a fortnight ago, when PDP delegates chose him ahead of his 2018 nemesis, Nyesom Wike. It could be recalled that sensing that the consensus arrangement similar to the 2010 experience by Adamu Ciroma would not favour him, Atiku had preferred to face the delegates at the special convention instead of wasting energy and resources in a closet straw poll.

But, having won the party’s presidential ticket once again, Atiku, who had become a perennial customer to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), faced old challenges.

First, it was obvious to him that he was swimming against the stream of the party’s constitution and the power rotation convention that swings the Presidency from north to south and vice versa.

Yet, encouraged by the belief that President Buhari had to make it after previous failed attempts, Atiku resolved to go in the confidence that for 2023, it is now or never. But, there were obstacles and rivers to cross: Getting a running mate.

As he searched for his potential Vice President, Sunny Okosuns’ 1986 chart buster ran through his head: Which way to go? Should I go Southeast or South/South? The former Vice President, who has upgraded to the Wazirin Adamawa, allowed the knowledge of his past mistakes to become the secret of his envisaged success.

Like Buhari, who chose Dr. Chuba Okadigbo and Chief Edwin Ume-ezeoke as his running mates respectively for the 2003 and 2007 presidential elections without success, Atiku reflected on his failed attempts with Southeast running mates, including Senator Ben Obi (2007) and Peter Obi (2019) and decided to go deep South.

Resolving to go to South/South in search of his running mate, there was no doubt that his experience as Vice President under Obasanjo also weighed on his minds. Here is why: When the party stakeholders he involved to assist him in a bid to avert the crisis that trailed his choice of Peter Obi in 2019, zeroed in on Wike, the former Vice President had to over rule them to avoid the fight of an ambitious and combative politician.

But, having escaped that possibility of internal rivalry by choosing Governor Ifeanyi Okowa instead of Wike, Atiku still fell into the hands of ancient demons that confronted him in 2019, when Obi was chosen. Okowa’s choice was received with mixed reactions.

While the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders’ Forum led by Chief Edwin Clark, Pa Ayo Adebanjo, Ambassador George Obiozor and Dr. Bitrus Porgu, chided Okowa for playing a traitor to the resolve of Southern governors that the 2023 Presidency belongs to the South, party stakeholders hailed the choice as a winning combination.

Eight months to the February 25, 2023 Presidential poll, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar has already started charting the path to his historical last presidential contest. Win or lose, the 75-year-old Customs officer from Jada have varied experiences and lessons for upcoming politicians to reflect upon.

No doubt, the process of selecting his running mate will serve as either the prologue or epilogue of his political odyssey, especially given his remarks at Okowa’s unveiling.

Atiku had stated: “In arriving at the decision, I held wide consultations with various stakeholders in our party, including our governors, national working committee, board of trustees, and other leaders to seek their inputs and their wisdom.

“In these consultations, I made clear that my running mate would have the potential to succeed me at a moment’s notice, that is, a president-in-waiting. In other words, the person must have the qualities to be President.”

By the time electioneering starts, how far Atiku’s observations would impact on his messaging and electoral strategies could provide him and the PDP with the necessary indices of how far they can go in their avowal to rescue Nigeria at a time the party’s national chairman, BoT chairman and Presidential candidate are all from the same side of the national divide.