Former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s endorsement of Atiku Abubakar ripped through Nigeria’s political circles like a grenade on Thursday afternoon, placing the Peoples Democratic Party’s presidential candidate on a stronger electioneering pedestal in ahead of the 2019 elections.
The endorsement came because Mr Abubakar enlisted top Christian and Islamic clerics to help persuade Mr. Obasanjo by evoking Biblical and Quranic concepts to dilute his long-standing misgivings about his estranged former deputy.
Messrs Obasanjo and Abubakar have had a roller-coaster relationship since at least 2006, a year before they both left office as president and vice president, respectively, in May 2007. Both have publicly thrown insults at one another in times of political clashes, but also exchanged pleasantries when its mutually convenient.
Only two months ago, Mr Obasanjo said he would never support Mr Abubakar for president, maintaining in no uncertain terms that his former subordinate was unfit for Nigeria’s political and economic interest.
“If I support Atiku for anything, God will not forgive me. If I do not know, yes. But once I know, Atiku can never enjoy my support,” Mr Obasanjo exclusively told PREMIUM TIMES in early August.
Mr Abubakar did not fire back at the time, maintaining his silence instead and asking his campaign staffers to do same.
His political detractors, including some in the camps of his challengers for the PDP ticket, assumed the statement by Mr Obasanjo would mark the end of Mr Abubakar’s campaign. But the former vice president pushed on.
He bagged the main opposition party’s presidential ticket at a convention in Port Harcourt last weekend, using his acceptance speech to hail his former principal to high heavens.
““Under his tutelage, I learnt quite a lot,” Mr Abubakar said. “I wish to pay my personal tribute to him.”
Mr Obasanjo would later admit in his endorsement of Mr Abubakar that the statement meant a lot to him, and added it as part of the reasons he believed the candidate has evolved enough to deserve his endorsement.
Laying The Groundwork
First, in reading Mr Obasanjo’s endorsement, the views of both on the challenges facing Nigeria appear strikingly close.
“And when you become Nigerian President which, insha-Allah, you will be, remember what we did together in government – we ran an administration by Nigerians for all Nigerians where merit and performance count more than blood relationship, friendship or kith and kin,” Mr Obasanjo said.
He also demanded Mr Abubakar must create massive employment and integrate youth and women in his administration.
Those observations have long been canvassed by Mr ABubakar throughout his campaign. He often uses his exploits as a successful businessman who has invested in various sectors to enunciate his qualification for Nigeria’s presidency.
Still, this was not the primary reason Mr Obasanjo finally acquiesced to the ambition of Mr Abubakar. It was a journey that started immediately after the former vice president won the PDP nomination on Sunday.
Osita Chidoka, a former Nigerian aviation minister who now works as a strategy adviser to PDP chairman Uche Secondus, was the first person to be sent to Mr Obasanjo, according to those familiar with the arrangement.
He visited the former president at his Abeokuta home — also where Mr Abubakar’s entourage was received Thursday — to get a sense of how he would feel about endorsing the PDP candidate.
During their discussion, Mr Chidoka, a source close to him said, reminded Mr Obasanjo of a discussion they both once had about how fickle politics anywhere in the world could be.
In particular, Mr Chidoka, who has now been embedded in Mr Abubakar’s campaign, said Mr Obasanjo could find himself in the same political boat with his former deputy once again.
He drew an analogy from the recent political development in Malaysia, where politics united old foes to seize power in a successful alliance against the incumbent.
This is an interesting story unfolding in Malaysia. Picture below is Aziza wife of Jailed opposition leader Anwar and Mahathir who first jailed Anwar, then his Deputy on charges of Sodomy and graft leading to a bitter feud https://t.co/enmoJcVTWg
— Osita Chidoka (@osita_chidoka) January 7, 2018
On Tuesday, leaders of the Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, were at Mr Obasanjo’s Abeokuta residence to discuss the need to forgive Atiku and face the 2019 elections as a united front against President Muhammadu Buhari.
Mr Obasanjo had told Mr Buhari not to seek reelection earlier this year, hinging his position on worsening economic, political and security crises in the country.
Mr Buhari had since dismissed Mr Obasanjo as inconsequential, and went on to pick the ruling All Progressives Congress’ ticket for 2019.
Ayo Adebanjo, who led Afenifere stalwarts to meet Mr Obasanjo on behalf of Mr Abubakar, has been a prominent supporter of the former vice president’s presidential run. He praised him as being open-minded, economically literate politician who has always eschewed ethnic and tribal biases, unlike Mr Buhari whom they have long castigated for allegedly approaching governance without recourse to national unity and inclusiveness.
Mr Abubakar has also won the heart of Afenifere with his staunch believe in the restructuring Nigeria project, which he said he would immediately commence if elected.
Both Mr Chidoka and the Afenifere leaders returned to Mr Abubakar with positive news that Mr Obasanjo had become amenable to his presidential run, and suggested an immediate visit to finalise the talks.
Mr Abubakar then tapped religious leaders, including Matthew Kukah of the Catholic Church, David Oyedepo of the Living Faith Church and Abubakar Gumi, an Islamic scholar and cleric.
They all went into a closed-door meeting, where Mr Obasanjo let out his reservations about Mr Abubakar, most of which date back to their days at the State House together.
The religious leaders reportedly preached to Mr Obasanjo, using a slew of passages from both the Holy Bible and the Holy Quran to appeal to his sense of forgiveness.
“What we told them there was to learn to forgive, forget and to face the future. This was just the message and what we told them. We also said that since we witnessed the reconciliation they need to forge ahead,” Mr Gumi told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview.
Mr Obasanjo then let up his longstanding animosity towards Mr Abubakar, embracing him and endorsing him in a well-crafted speech.
Heaving A Sigh
Mr Obasanjo has a pretty good record in top-tier endorsements, and those who failed to bag his support have often found themselves not getting to office or leaving ingloriously.
During military administrations, Mr Obasanjo wrote letters criticising heads of state, which sometimes put him in trouble.
His fierce opposition to Sani Abacha earned him years behind bars on death row. But Mr Abacha’s sudden demise in 1998 cleared Mr Obasanjo’s path to a return to power as a civilian administrator. He had led a military junta between 1976 and 1979 when he handed over to a civilian administration.
Since leaving office in 2007, he has endorsed all successive presidents. He anointed Umar Yar’Adua as his successor, who went on to lead Nigeria until he passed on in office in 2010.
He also supported Goodluck Jonathan in the 2011 elections. Mr Jonathan had acted for a year as president following Mr Yar’Adua’s death, and the 2011 presidential poll was his first substantive election.
In 2015, Mr Obasanjo abandoned Mr Jonathan on the grounds that his performance was too poor to deserve reelection. Even though he was a member of Mr Jonathan’s party, under which he had been president himself for eight years, Mr Obasanjo supported Mr Buhari for president, assisting him to a victory that saw his APC become the first opposition party to dethrone a ruling party in Nigeria’s history.
Even so, Mr Obasanjo is not a kingmaker, especially as Nigeria has been a constitutional republic. But his endorsement matters, and Mr Abubakar understood this much. Multiple campaign insiders said it would have been more difficult for Mr Abubakar if Mr Obasanjo had backed Mr Buhari instead.
Mr Abubakar had made a passionate appeal for support during his acceptance speech on Sunday afternoon, calling on all his challengers to support him because he could not do it alone. It required a collective effort, he said.
The candidate also stands to benefit immensely from Mr Obasanjo’s vast connection and leverage it to expand his 2019 prospects. The candidate, as it stands, appears a persona non grata in the United States, a downside which his political opponents have used to torment him for years.
Mr Obasanjo indicated in his endorsement that he would intervene to neutralise any hurdles Mr Abubakar might encounter in the course of his campaign — both at home and abroad.
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