A Sobbing Embrace: The story behind iconic photo of Ben Nwabueze, Atiku Abubakar

Former National Secretary of Ohanaeze Ndigbo and renowned constitutional lawyer, Prof. Ben Nwabueze (L) embraces 2019 PDP Presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, during Atiku's consultative meeting with leaders and stakeholders in the South-East in Enugu on Wednesday (14/11/18). 05745/14/11/2018/APCO/BJO/NAN
Former National Secretary of Ohanaeze Ndigbo and renowned constitutional lawyer, Prof. Ben Nwabueze (L) embraces 2019 PDP Presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, during Atiku's consultative meeting with leaders and stakeholders in the South-East in Enugu on Wednesday (14/11/18). 05745/14/11/2018/APCO/BJO/NAN

Presumably, tens, if not hundreds of images would have been taken at a meeting of South-east leaders, which had opposition presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, in attendance on November 14, 2018.

But only one of those photos elicited a fascinating ripple and set the Nigerian social media alight for its surreal depiction.

The image shows Ben Nwabueze, an eminent constitutional lawyer and one of Nigeria’s renowned elder statesmen, resting his head on the left shoulder of Mr Abubakar, candidate of the People’s Democratic Party.

Mr Nwabueze, fitting his signature red cap, clenched his right hand around Mr Abubakar — his eyes soaked.

Mr Abubakar, Nigeria’s vice president between 1999 and 2007, returned the gesture with his left hand, an iconic embrace that lasted several seconds, per those present. Ben Obi, a former senator, had a place-able gaze from the right side of the photo, and to his left was Chinwike Ejike, deputy chairman of Igbo Leaders of Thought.

The picture, which was sent out by his campaign, was taken at the event in Enugu by Udim Effiong, his official photographer.

The rallying cry

The most influential photos always come with a backstory, and the iconic image of Mr Nwabueze — an Octogenarian of Igbo extraction — projecting his expectations on Mr Abubakar like a Rorschach test, was not different.

The story began last year in Lagos, when Mr Abubakar was invited to observe a meeting of Southern Leaders of Thought (SLT).

It was on a Monday.

The meeting was proposed to advance a common front on restructuring.

Mr Abubakar, who had commenced ground works for a presidential run at the time, even though he had not formally made it public, asked about Mr Nwabueze shortly after arriving the meeting, according to two people who were there.

Mr Nwabueze, co-chairs the SLT.

A few minutes later, Mr Abubakar was notified of the arrival of Mr Nwabueze, and he quickly went to the entrance of the stairway, to welcome him.

With the help of an aide, a quivering Mr Nwabueze made his way gingerly upstairs, spending several minutes on a walk that usually would take a few seconds even for some senior citizens, attendants said.

“Prof, why are you doing this?” Mr Abubakar had asked Mr Nwabueze. “The clock is ticking, and fast, too. I have a sense that this may be my final assignment,” he replied.

At 86, Mr Nwabueze rightly noted he might not be around for much longer, and he took restructuring Nigeria to heart.

The need to restructure Nigeria has been at the centre of Mr Abubakar’s presidential run, even when it might not be popular in his northern region.

President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to subscribe to restructuring Nigeria, a decision his top campaign insiders said is primarily because he knows it cannot be actualised as it is guaranteed to divide the legislature between north and south representatives.

Still, the vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, has refused to let Mr Abubakar take absolute ownership of the conversation going into a general election in which it might prove pivotal, repeatedly enunciating his long-standing conviction that the federal government should be weakened for a better Nigeria.

But far more than Mr Osinbajo, it appears so far that Mr Abubakar has managed to convince leaders across the south that the restructuring is an agenda he could deliver on, if elected. The southern leaders played a key role in Mr Abukakar’s emergence as PDP’s presidential candidate on October 7.

Echoes of restructuring have grown louder across Nigeria’s south over the past two decades, amidst claims that the Constitution is largely unworkable for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious entity like Nigeria.

Pro-restructuring agitators also believe some constitutional provisions tilted towards the northern parts of the country at the detriment of the southern federating units, and persons like Mr Nwabueze are amongst those pushing for their dismantling.

Blurring the lines

Mr Buhari’s critics have heavily accused him of being sectional, especially in his federal appointments which seem too lopsided for a diverse republic like Nigeria.

The president has strongly denied allegations of harbouring an ethnic agenda, and even argued that more positions have gone to the South than to his northern Fulani kindred.

But ahead of 2019, conversation around restructuring could serve as a major platform for unity, according to a political analyst, Shola Olubanjo.

“The first take away from that picture is that it elevated restructuring to a platform for unity between the North and the South,” Mr Olubanjo said. “The leaders who have been pushing for restructuring seem to be very serious about it, and it does not matter to them whether the person to turn that into reality is from the North or a Muslim.”

Paul Ibe, a spokesperson for Mr Abubakar, confirmed the meeting that held last year in Lagos over restructuring, but declined to provide specific details.

“But I do know that the emotional embrace of Mr Abubakar in Enugu the other day has something to do with the Lagos backdrop,” Mr Ibe told PREMIUM TIMES Friday morning.

The spokesperson was unable to say if Mr Nwabueze would be stomping for Mr Abubakar during the presidential campaign, which officially opens on Sunday.

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