For the third time in his chequered political career, Atiku Abubakar, failed to win the presidential election as a candidate. He came a distant third in his first attempt in 2007 when he vied on the platform of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) as the departing vice president who fought a battle with his then principal, Olusegun Obasanjo. This time around, he came second but the taste of defeat is perhaps even more bitter because of what might have been.
In that first bid in 2007, many political observers did not give him any chance of winning because of the many hurdles – political and legal – that he had to surmount to even be on the ballot. He had little or no time to campaign and could not have even defeated the then-ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the election if he had, essentially because the ACN was considered a regional party without a national appeal.
The candidate of the PDP, Umaru Yar’Adua, then outgoing governor of Katsina State, was declared the winner of the election by INEC. But the election is still considered one of the worst ever, based on the brazen malpractices which characterised it.
Even the declared winner, Mr Yar’Adua, a former Chemistry teacher from the famous Yar’Adua family of Katsina, acknowledged in a post-election speech that his victory was tainted but he held onto it with a promise to carry out electoral reforms that would help improve the country’s electoral process.
Atiku also tried to contest in 2011 and 2015 but did not go beyond the primary elections of the parties on whose platform he sought to contest.
Fast forward to 2019. The former customs operative and businessman had what in retrospect may now be considered his best chance to win the election because he ran on a formidable opposition platform – the PDP – at a time of raging insecurity and general disillusionment in the country over a poor economy, massive youth unemployment and surging inflation under a President Muhammadu Buhari who was seeking a second term in office.
Unfortunately, those who voted for the continuation of Mr Buhari in office were more than those who wanted Atiku, according to the official returns by INEC. And that was how his 2019 adventure collapsed like a pack of cards.
But before anyone could say Jack Robinson, the signs were there again, at least based on happenings within the PDP, that the serial contestant was going to throw his hat into the ring again in 2023, despite an intense clamour for the presidential ticket of the party to be ceded to the southern part of the country.
And true to the initial signs, Atiku vied for the ticket of the party which was thrown open and became the candidate for the 2023 elections. But this time, his nomination eventually left the PDP divided.
The PDP went into the election heavily divided and this seriously worked against its chances with Atiku being the biggest casualty, though he also contributed to the division in the party and its eventual failure in the election.
Three major factors contributed to his second-place finish in the election: the demand for power shift to the southern part of Nigeria, the disunity in the PDP and the Peter Obi factor
The outgoing President Buhari is from the north and it was, therefore, expected by many, based on convention, that presidential power should shift back to the south in the interest of fairness, justice and national cohesion.
The need for the successor to come from the south was why some APC governors, especially of northern states, insisted the presidential candidate of the party must come from the south. And true to their commitment, despite moves from some quarters to thwart it and keep the ticket of the party to the north, they kept to it, which helped Bola Tinubu to defeat other aspirants in the party’s primary election held in June.
But unlike the APC, PDP governors were divided on which region of the country should produce the presidential candidate of the party. While some openly campaigned for a southern candidate, some said the contest should be made open, which was what allowed Atiku to win the ticket, beating Rivers Governor Nyesom Wike to the second position.
The quest for power shift within the political parties also manifested in the larger polity with many Nigerians saying it was the turn of the south to produce the president. In a way, that also reflected in the voting pattern of the electorate. Despite two formidable candidates of southern origin running in the election, one of them still emerged as the winner with the other candidate, Peter Obi of the Labour Party, coming third.
Those who belong to the school of thought that power should shift to the south say any attempt to retain the presidency in the north after a northerner’s eight years in the office would threaten the unity of the country, and create disharmony and a state of perpetual north-south mutual distrust which may derail governance.
In retrospect, some analysts believe that had a southerner flown the ticket of the PDP in the presidential election, the candidate might have won because the ruling APC was considered a hard sell on many fronts going into the election: the terrible policies of the Buhari administration, prostate economy, galloping inflation, insecurity, the Muslim-Muslim ticket of the ruling party and the candidate’s personal baggage, among others.
Peter Obi factor
The emergence of Peter Obi on the platform of the Labour Party created a third force which significantly impacted the outcome of the election on 25 February.
Mr Obi, who was the running mate to Atiku in 2019 on the ticket of the PDP, moved to the LP in 2022 after it became clear to him that he stood no chance of winning the PDP’s presidential ticket.
The entry of Mr Obi, a former governor of Anambra State, into the contest significantly altered the dynamics of the election, which, other factors considered, weakened the chances of Atiku in the election. For instance, Mr Obi won with wide margins in the South-east, which was a stronghold of the PDP in previous presidential elections, and also won Lagos State.
The Labour Party candidate’s impressive performance in some parts of the North-central and South-south regions also eroded the support base of the PDP in the election. In the past, PDP used to win convincingly in presidential contests in the South-south but only managed to win Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom in the 25 February election, with the Labour Party winning three of the others and APC winning Rivers State.
It is believed in some quarters that were Mr Obi not in the race, Atiku as the PDP candidate would have done much better in the election, despite the clamour for a power shift to the south, especially with the too many unforced errors of the Buhari administration such as the controversial naira redesign policy which led to a nationwide cash crunch, fuel scarcity and general disillusionment with the APC, among others, just a few weeks before the election.
Acknowledging the huge impact the Obi factor had on his chances in the election, Atiku said in one of his early post-election press conferences that the Labour Party candidate took a large chunk of his votes in the South-east and South-south regions, though he also said the votes from the two regions were not enough to make Mr Obi win the overall contest.
If Atiku had taken those votes instead and won overwhelmingly in the two regions, he would have beaten Mr Tinubu and come first in the election.
The disunity in PDP
The emergence of Atiku as its presidential candidate created a serious disunity in the PDP that the party and flagbearer could not resolve before the election. With the polarization of the party, it was easy to predict that the party would end up a loser, which happened eventually as Atiku came second in the election.
Following the victory of Atiku, a northerner, in the party’s primary election, some governors, later known as the G-5 governors in the party, had insisted that the now suspended national chairman of the party, Iyorchia Ayu, another northerner, should step down from the position to allow for a southerner to head the party.
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The G-5 governors led by Governor Wike said they wanted regional balance in the party hence their insistence that Mr Ayu must resign, a position Atiku and some other top guns of the party like former Jigawa governor Sule Lamido did not buy into.
The other members of the G-5 are Samuel Ortom of Benue, Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State, Seyi Makinde of Oyo State, and Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State. The presidential candidate of the PDP lost in all the states controlled by the G-5 governors, a development that might not have been if the aggrieved governors were on the same page with Atiku.
The failure of the two factions within the party to reconcile eventually snowballed into a bigger crisis which manifested in almost all the chapters of the party across the 36 States and the FCT.
The pre-election crisis in the party only worsened after the election with some top officials being suspended by its NWC for allegedly working against the interest of the party at the polls. Although the suspension has now been reversed, it nevertheless portends all is definitely not well with the party.
The national chairman of the party, Mr Ayu, now suspended, may also never smell the seat again. He was suspended by his ward in Benue State. The suspension letter dated 24 March was signed by 12 executive members of Igyorov Ward, Gboko LGA. The signatories claimed Mr Ayu worked against the party in the recent elections.
Interestingly, a day after Mr Ayu’s suspension, a high court in Benue State also gave an ex parte order which ordered Mr Ayu to stop parading himself as the national chairperson of the party. Obeying the court order, the PDP NWC has since asked Mr Ayu to step aside and elevated the deputy national chairman (North), Umar Damagum, to acting national chairperson in line with the constitution of the party.
The saying that a house divided against itself will always fall captures the fate that befell the PDP in the presidential contest and its candidate, Atiku, the self-styled unifier, who could not unify his own party before the main election. His inability to reconcile the warring factions in the party impacted his chance in the election. Atiku is, however, challenging the result of the election in court and will hope the courts buy his argument and declare him president-elect.
Unfortunately, however, this may be Atiku’s last bid for the Nigerian presidency.
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