Except it is carefully handled, the selection or election of the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the 2019 elections may set the party on the path of fresh crisis and ultimately dash its hope of returning to power.
Since its ouster from power at the centre in 2015 after 16 years, the party has made deliberate efforts to rebrand and attract new members with the aim of taking power back from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in the 2019 elections.
But this mission appears threatened with the emergence of about a dozen of its members rooting to contest the February 16 presidential election on its platform.
Harvests of aspirants
At present, there are about 14 members of the party jostling for its ticket for the 2019 presidential ticket ahead of its national convention in October.
The aspirants are a former vice president, Atiku Abubakar; a former governor of Kano State and serving senator, Rabiu Kwankwaso; a former governor of Jigawa State and former Foreign Affairs minister, Sule Lamido; a former governor of Kano State and former Minister of Education; Ibrahim Shakarau; and a former governor of Kaduna State and chairman of former National Caretaker Committee of the party, Ahmed Makarfi.
Others are a former governor of Sokoto State and former member of the House of Representatives, Attahiru Bafarawa; Governor of Gombe State, Ibrahim Dankwambo; a former governor of Plateau State and serving senator, David Jang; a former Minister of Special Duties, Tanimu Turaki; and a former member of the House of Representatives, Datti Baba-Ahmed.
Lately the governor of Sokoto State and former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, and the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, hinted of their plan to join the presidential race. Mr Saraki formally joined the race on Thursday.
While all the aspirants above are from the north, the outgoing governor of Ekiti State, Ayo Fayose, and a former governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke, had at some point showed interest in flying the PDP flag.
At no time in the history of the 20 year-old party has it paraded the number of presidential aspirants that it currently does.
The only one that came close to it was the 1999 contest in which about nine aspirants sought the ticket of the party ahead of its national convention in Jos, the Plateau State capital.
Among the contenders then were Olusegun Obasanjo, Alex Ekwueme, Philip Asiodu, Don Etiebet, Graham Douglas, and Jim Nwobodo.
Others were Francis Ellah, Richard Akinjide, Abubakar Rimi and Adisa Akinloye. Mr Obasanjo emerged the winner in that contest.
The preponderance of northerners in the current race is understandable.
The Ike Ekweremadu-led PDP Post-Election Review Committee constituted by the party leadership after it lost the 2015 election, to review its performance in that election, recommended that it should pick its candidate for the 2019 presidential election from the North since that of 2015, Goodluck Jonathan, was from the South.
But there are apprehensions in the party over the flurry of aspirants and who among them should ultimately be offered the ticket to confront the APC, which is almost certain to field President Muhammadu Buhari again.
Interestingly, all the aspirants are influential politicians who have the financial war-chest to give the governing APC a hot fight in the main presidential poll.
Feelers from the camps of many of the aspirants at the moment, indicate that none is considering stepping down from the race but would take the battle to the national convention.
Instead, in the past few months they have been touring the country soliciting support from party faithful and those of the 36 parties with which PDP signed a MoU in July to form the Coalition of United Political Party (CUPP).
Sources in the leadership of the PDP told this newspaper that though it believes that the higher the number of aspirants the more money it would rake in through payment for nomination forms, it is concerned about how to pick an acceptable flag bearer with minimum rancour and keep the party united.
It was gathered that the leadership, to avoid rancour and division, may consider getting all the contenders to sign an undertaking to abide by the outcome of the primary as did APC for its aspirants in 2014.
Part of the agreements might not only request the losers to strongly back the winner that will eventually emerge, but also to make them pledge not to defect from the party.
Perhaps, it was out of this concern for a rancour-free process that Mr Kwankwaso recently pushed the idea of zoning the presidential slot to the North-west.
The zone comprises seven states – Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Kebbi, Jigawa, Sokoto and Zamfara.
While on a campaign tour of Edo State, the former governor argued that in picking the party’s flag bearer under the present circumstances, the geography, history and population of the country should be taken into consideration.
“It is common knowledge based on previous census that Kano State is the most populous state and North West is the most populous region in the country,” he said.
“So, if it is true that our former party (APC) is fielding a candidate from the North West, it is also necessary for the PDP to consider fielding its candidate from the zone.”
A glance at the line-up of the aspirants shows that the North West zone parades the largest number of aspirants.
Apart from Mr Kwankwaso, the other aspirants from the zone are Messrs Lamido, Shekarau, Bafarawa, Turaki, Datti-Ahmed and Tambuwal.
Messrs Abubakar and Dankwambo are from the North-east while Messrs Saraki and Jang are from North Central.
Should the party adhere to Mr Kwankwaso’s suggestion, only seven aspirants would have to slug it out at the convention.
According to the 2006 Census, the North-west zone had 35,786,944, the highest among the six geo-political zones. The North East and North Central with six states each had 18,971,965 and 18,841,056.
Similarly, INEC’s data show that out of Nigeria’s 73 million voting population, the North-west zone accounts for about 18 million registered voters while the North-east and North-central have 15 million and 12 million, respectively.
But Ezenwa Nwagwu, who heads Partners for Electoral Reforms, told PREMIUM TIMES that it is exciting to see many aspirants emerging on the PDP platform, especially when it is recalled that many aspirants were shut out in 2015 to pave way for sole candidacy of former President Jonathan.
He added, “People are worried about the number (of aspirants) because of where we are coming from; where people sit down in one place and conspiratorially give it to one aspirant.”
“As many as have something to offer should be allowed to sell themselves and canvass their ideas. The system should be able to prune the number of contenders and push forward the serious ones.”
Analysts however say Mr Kwankwaso’s idea may pay off for some reasons.
First is that to some extent it will minimise the complaints and grumblings that may arise from the primary contest.
Secondly, if Mr Buhari who hails from Katsina State is fielded by the APC, the votes of the zone will be split.
But despite these seeming pluses, the idea of micro-zoning is already causing ripples in the camps of other presidential hopefuls, notably those from outside the North West zone.
For them, it would not only negate the recommendation of the Ekweremadu Committee but would thwart the desire of party members to make their choice on who should fly its flag.
For instance, the Atiku Abubakar Campaign Organisation (ACO) said, if adopted, it would undermine the ambitions of the other aspirants.
“He (Kwankwaso) is an aspirant and he will say whatever will further his own nest,” Segun Sowunmi, the organisation’s spokesperson told PREMIUM TIMES.
“To the best of our knowledge a lot of people have indicated interest across board, especially within the North-west and North-east zones, topmost among the aspirants is former vice president, Atiku Abubakar.
“People should go about selling and marketing themselves without trying to undermine the other people’s aspiration. We are in the race to win. We are looking forward to a transparent primary where definitely we are going to win.
“We respect everyone’s aspiration and we expect that they will respect our aspiration. Atiku is the man for the job. We have the experience. We are a bigger brand.”
For now, the party appears to be queuing up behind those against micro-zoning.
Kola Ologbondiyan, its spokesperson, told PREMIUM TIMES that micro-zoning is not an option now.
“The party is yet to reach a decision on micro zoning of office of the president to any of the six geo-political zones. Our party’s constitution provides for power rotation between the North and the South,” he said.
Even as the party leadership considers a better way to handle situation, there is yet another discomforting development for the presidential contenders.
One of the PDP governors, Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, was alleged to have promised the presidential ticket to Mr Tambuwal if the latter returned to the PDP.
Mr Wike is believed to wield enormous influence in the party following claims that he bankrolled the election of the National Chairman of the party, Uche Secondus, an indigene of Rivers State.
A national leader of the APC, Bola Tinubu, alluded to this in a recent media statement.
Mr Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos State, claimed that Mr Wike, who is arguably the leader of the PDP, had promised Mr Tambuwal, his alleged ally, the presidential ticket prompting the Sokoto governor to return to the PDP.
Both Messrs Wike and Tambuwal have refuted the claim.
The Rivers governor said he had no preferred aspirant for now, noting that no single governor could determine the presidential candidate for the party.
But it was not the first time the governor would be so accused. There had been speculations that he and some leaders of the PDP also made similar promise to other aspirants, especially Messrs Makarfi and Abubakar.
In March this year, Mr Abubakar, made known his presidential ambition for the first time while on a visit to Mr Wike, who he described as the live wire of the PDP.
Although Mr Wike downplayed the remarks in his response, noting that all genuine faithful of the party were its live wire, Mr Abubakar’s message already sank.
Reports say Mr Makarfi was assured of the ticket by Mr Wike and some governors for successfully leading the party during the leadership crisis that eventually saw the exit of the party’s former chairman, Ali Sheriff.
It is believed that Mr Makarfi’s recent warning to the PDP leadership against accepting every defector to the party was borne out of his grievance over the shift of support for him to another aspirant.
Mr Makarfi argued that accepting all the defectors might give “the impression that it doesn’t pay to be loyal.”
Although, it is not certain how serious the party leadership has considered Mr Makarfi’s warning, he must have spoken the minds of many.
Information available to this newspaper indicates that there is palpable anger among some party faithful who also feel that the returnees are being given preferential treatment, especially in consideration for the presidential candidate.
Is Tambuwal the choice?
In the main, despite the denials, insiders say Mr Wike and some of the governors and party leaders might eventually settle for Mr Tambuwal.
The Sokoto governor has less baggage than Messrs Atiku, Kwankwaso, Lamido, Makarfi, Bafarawa and Jang, some of who have corruption cases in court.
Besides, he is young and visible having been a member of the lower chamber of the National Assembly for many years.
Regardless, some of the party faithful are quick to point out Mr Tambuwal’s “sins” against the party in the past.
Mr Tambuwal, it was who, in 2011, undermined the PDP to run for the position of the Speaker against the party’s choice of Mulikat Akande.
Reference is also made to his defection to the APC in the build up to the 2015 elections.
However, some say in terms of popularity in the North and across the country, Messrs Atiku, Kwankwaso and others stand next to Mr Buhari among the aspirants.
Although the Sokoto governor had previously won election to the House of Representatives, he rode to the Government House on the strength of his predecessor’s political structure.
It is also not clear how the party would pick Mr Tambuwal or any of the contenders for the February contest without generating bad blood among its members.
But Mr Ologbondiyan said all the aspirants would be given a level playing field to test their strength regardless of their status as either founders or joiners.
“The PDP will provide a level playing field for all aspirants seeking elections into various offices provided for in the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
“We will surely allow for a credible, fair, free and transparent convention national process,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.