A former Chief of Army Staff, Theophilus Danjuma, said former military president, Ibrahim Babangida, manipulated former President Olusegun Obasanjo and his vice, Atiku Abubakar, “to drive a wedge” between the two in the first term of their administration between 1999 and 2003.
Mr Danjuma said this at a meeting on October 25, 2002 with then United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Howard Jeter, in Abuja.
A diplomatic cable dated November 5, 2002 which recorded the meeting was published by Wikileaks.
At the time of the meeting, the relationship between Mr Obasanjo and Mr Abubakar had been poisoned especially by politics ahead of the presidential election of 2003 and Mr Obasanjo was facing an impeachment threat from the House of Representatives then led by Ghali Na’Abba.
According to the cable in the custody of Public Library of US Diplomacy, Mr Danjuma, who was at the time the Minister of Defence, said Mr Babangida had been “painstakingly pursuing a strategy to divide and conquer Obasanjo and Atiku for over a year.”
He said Mr Babangida first tried to persuade Mr Obasanjo to dump Mr Abubakar to ease Mr Obasanjo’s “image problem” in the North.
“After nine months of failing to convince Obasanjo to eject Atiku, IBB decided to focus on manipulating Atiku,” Mr Danjuma said.
The cable continued: “According to Danjuma, IBB has hoodwinked Atiku, who now believes he has IBB’s support. Noting that IBB once fired Atiku from his job as head of customs because of rumored links with ’drug barons’ and that he considers the Vice President to be ‘lazy and corrupt,’ Danjuma said he thought Atiku had been blinded by his own ambition, saying ‘Babangida is singing a song he (Atiku) wants to hear.’”
Mr Danjuma said as part of his plan to weaken Mr Obasanjo, “Atiku planted the ‘Mandela Option’ stories in the Nigerian press leading to calls for the President to step down after his first term in order to cement the transition to democracy.
“Danjuma sees this as playing right into IBB’s hands. If Obasanjo can be convinced not to run, Atiku would represent an easy opponent for IBB or his surrogate. If Obasanjo stays in the race, Danjuma said the notoriously tight-fisted President would need to spend far more money to insure his victory in the PDP primary.”
A week before the meeting with Mr Danjuma, the US ambassador meet with Mr Abubakar for 90 minutes on October 10 at the Vice President’s residence.
Another diplomatic cable dated October 16, 2002 recorded Mr Abubakar at the meeting telling Mr Jeter that his relationship with Obasanjo was in tatters and provided a detailed chronology of the relationship.
“Atiku said that he and Obasanjo were relative strangers before the 1998 prelude to the 1999 elections. Their nexus was the late Shehu Yar A’dua. Yar A’dua was second-in-command during Obasanjo’s stint as military Head of State. Yar A’dua was also Atiku’s political mentor. Atiku inherited leadership of Yar A’dua’s political machine, the PDM, when the general died in detention, likely at the sinister hand of the late Sani Abacha.
“Atiku recalled not only working for Obasanjo’s release from prison but also assisting in his ascent to the Presidency. Atiku stated that he along with former Heads of State Babangida and Abdulsalami and current NSA Aliyu Mohammed were the four men most responsible for Obasanjo’s successful climb.
“Seeking to redeem his image after the 1993 electoral debacle, Babangida convinced Obasanjo to run, then placed his considerable clout and money into the ‘Obasanjo Project.’ While Babangiba pulled the strings from Minna, General Mohammed performed much of the legwork while also drumming up other support.
“Then Head of State Abdulsalami backdated Obasanjo’s pardon, an act that allowed him to be eligible to contest in the election. Abdulsalami also funneled money into the campaign and steered the considerable powers of incumbency to Obasanjo’s favor.
“Atiku’s contribution was political. Exploiting the PDM (People’s Democratic Movement, a political group formed by Mr Yar’Adua) machinery, Atiku successfully engineered Obasanjo’s primary victories in the PDP. Along with Babangida and the others, he recalled working hard to ensure Obasanjo’s nomination at the convention.
“It was at that point, Obasanjo asked Atiku, already Adamawa State’s governor-elect and very content with that status, to be his Vice-Presidential running mate. Atiku accepted.
“On paper, Obasanjo had the credentials of a perfect leader — a perceived detribalized Yoruba with ties to the North, a former military leader with a good record, and good standing in the international arena; but, in practice, he had fallen far too short of the mark, Atiku lamented.”
In a parenthetical comment, the diplomats noted in the cable: “Atiku’s version of his selection differs from common lore. Most accounts have a reluctant Obasanjo being pressured to take Atiku because of need to cement the support of the PDM faction of the party and to balance the ticket with a running-mate from the North. End comment)
THINGS BEGAN TO SOUR — ANENIH TO BLAME
“Although they did not know each other well, Atiku recalled that the two quickly melded. However, there was an early premonition that foreshadowed today’s troubles.
“Atiku recounted having agreed with Obasanjo on whom they would back for the Senate leadership. Shortly thereafter, Atiku went to the United States only to discover Obasanjo had changed heart, selecting another person for the Senate President.
“According to Atiku, the shift was precipitated by presidential advisors warning Obasanjo that an Atiku loyalist should not be Senate President because Atiku already had too much influence in the Lower House. With one of his men as Senate President, they warned that Atiku could engineer Obasanjo’s impeachment. Atiku stated that he acquiesced in the change in order to avoid a confrontation with Obasanjo so early in the Administration.
“Atiku stated that the relationship with Obasanjo assumed its current negative momentum in April, during preparations for Obasanjo’s reelection announcement.
“Pointing the finger at Works and Housing Minister Tony Anenih as the main culprit, Atiku accused Obasanjo’s ‘handlers’ of purposefully misinforming the President that he was angling to announce his presidential bid before Obasanjo’s was announced. Obasanjo came to believe these innuendoes when Atiku refused to participate in Anenih’s convoking of party figures at Obasanjo’s farm in Ota to ‘request’ that Obasanjo run again.
“Atiku claimed that his absence did not signal opposition to the President; instead, it underscored his distaste for a procession he claimed was too reminiscent of the late Sani Abacha’s effort to succeed himself by casting himself as a consensus candidate for civilian President.
“Atiku contended that Anenih attempted to keep him ignorant of preparations for Obasanjo’s reelection announcement and tried to schedule the event when Atiku was abroad. After talking to Obasanjo and disavowing intentions to break the ticket, Atiku said that Obasanjo ordered Anenih to stop his antics and have Atiku participate in the reelection event. Still, Atiku identified these machinations as causing a split that in the intervening months has only worsened.
NO HAND IN THE IMPEACHMENT; NO HAND IN STOPPING IT
“On the current impeachment crisis, Atiku claimed the President was the victim of his own hubris. Because of Obasanjo’s suspicions of his influence in the Lower House, Atiku assiduously avoided contact with its Members, letting the President’s other advisors work both Chambers. The President’s men quickly antagonized the Representatives.
“Early on, Atiku remembered telling Obasanjo that a close relationship with the Senate was essential since his advisors had spoiled his relationship with the House. Obasanjo erred in getting involved in Senate President Anyim’s tussle with the Ebonyi State Governor over control of the party machinery in that State; in doing so, Obasanjo lost hold of the Senate. With both Houses alienated, impeachment became possible.
“Atiku felt the overall aim was not to impeach Obasanjo but to render him unelectable. He disavowed supporting the move. With Obasanjo finally realizing seriousness of the threat by late August, the President asked Atiku to use his influence to calm the waters at the National Assembly.
“Atiku responded that he would meet House leaders provide Obasanjo’s advisors not savage him by claiming Atiku’s meetings with House leaders were signs of betrayal. Obasanjo promised his advisors’ best behavior. Atiku met with House leaders; as he feared, however, Obasanjo’s people accused him of backing the House rebellion. Since then, Atiku claimed to have washed his hands of the affair, leaving Obasanjo and his men to their own devices.
OBASANJO IN DIRE STRAITS IN THE PARTY
“Because of his lack of political skills, Obasanjo has severely compromised his position in the party. Atiku measured his strength in the PDP as vastly superior to Obasanjo’s, clearly suggesting that Obasanjo would have a difficult time securing the party nomination without him.
“At the PDP’s most recent National Executive Committee meeting, Obasanjo suffered an embarrassing defeat when his proposal for the sequencing of the party primaries was roundly defeated by Atiku loyalists.
“Atiku claimed to have passed a message to Obasanjo’s men that they would suffer more defeats if they tried to bypass him again on preparations for the party convention and primaries.
“Atiku boasted that he held the loyalty of most PDP governors, who generally control their state party machines. He also contended that he controlled the party NEC and that most PDP National Assembly members were loyal to him.
“Atiku downplayed the potentially negative effect of Obasanjo not gaining the party re-nomination. Obasanjo, he asserted, did not have a large constituency of his own. Thus, his ouster would not convulse the party. Moreover, Obasanjo was not very popular with his own ethnic kinsmen so the Southwest would not erupt as it did with the annulment of the 1993 election.”
THE BIG THREE ARE ALSO MAD AT OBASANJO
“Perhaps more fatal to Obasanjo’s chances than his anemic support within the party, is the anger of Babangida, Abdulsalami and Aliyu. Atiku claimed to be in regular contact with the other three whom he described as very disenchanted with Obasanjo.
“Babangida has sworn off any association with a second “Obasanjo Project,” an allusion to their cooperation to elect Obasanjo in 1999. Abdulsalami was miffed when he came to ask Obasanjo for a favor and the President’s response was to show him the door.
“Realizing Obasanjo was digging a hole for himself, Atiku once asked the President if he really understood how he had won office. He warned Obasanjo that it was akin to political suicide to insult these men by telling them they had made a ‘bad investment’ if they expected favors due to their contributions to his election.
“When Obasanjo pleaded ignorance as to the role of the Big Three in his election, Atiku proceeded to summarize the contributions they and he had made. When the President continued to feign ignorance and asked how he could reconcile with the others, Atiku said he admonished the President for being ungrateful and he knew very well that he had to make amends for past behavior.
“While in Abuja for the September 23 Commonwealth meeting on Zimbabwe, South African President Mbeki expressed concern about Nigeria’s internal politics. Previously, Obasanjo had dismissed his troubles as a teapot’s tempest; this time, he admitted to Mbeki that he was in serious trouble.
“However, when Mbeki tried to meet Atiku, Obasanjo invited himself to the session and placed Mbeki and Atiku in an uncomfortable and embarrassing situation Atiku said that he choose to leave. However, before Mbeki departed, he and Atiku managed to talk outside of Obasanjo’s earshot, with the VP speaking frankly about the President’s political mistakes.
“Atiku told us that Mbeki wanted to talk to Babangida as well. In the end, Babangida traveled to South Africa with Obasanjo’s consent. Mbeki’s apparent motive was to patch what was broken but Atiku did not give the venture much chance, particularly given Babangida’s position.
“Atiku said the President’s Chief of Staff had admitted that Obasanjo was desperate. In fact, the meeting with Ambassador Jeter was interrupted by several phone calls from the President’s Office to arrange a dinner that evening for Obasanjo, Atiku and the Big Three, with Babangida having returned that day from South Africa.
“Atiku said that for months he had kept the Big Three from breaking openly with Obasanjo. He reminded them that they had enlisted his support for Obasanjo. He then told them that since they had backed Obasanjo together, they all must stick with him or leave him together.
“While that argument held things in abeyance, the day of decision was near. In a recent conversation, Abdulsalami cautioned Atiku about hitching his political future to Obasanjo’s, the Vice President explained. (Comment: It seems unlikely that Obasanjo would have been in haste to hold the dinner without a signal from his friend Mbeki that what Babangida would say would not be too difficult to swallow. However, Mbeki could have misread Babangida. It would not be the first or last time someone misinterpreted Babangida’s next steps. End Comment.)
“Atiku stated his rumored antagonisms with Aliyu and Babangida were media fabrications. He stated Aliyu respected his political clout; in any case, the two operated in different spheres with Aliyu more at home on foreign policy and national security issues. As for Babangida, the former Head of State was encouraging him to run. Atiku, however, would not reveal his next moves, but did tell the Ambassador that he could “put two and two together.” He acknowledged the potential turmoil and paralysis of government that could result should he and Obasanjo battled for the PDP nomination. Atiku cryptically said he would do all he could to avoid these negative developments but stopped far short of disavowing presidential ambitions.
“As the meeting ended, Atiku informed the Ambassador the meeting with Obasanjo was confirmed for that evening. Before going to the Presidential Villa, he and the Big Three would huddle to determine whether to walk away from Obasanjo or give him one more chance, spelling out concrete conditions for keeping their support.”
The rupture in the relationship between Mr Abubakar and his boss, Mr Obasanjo, went to the wire as Mr Abubakar, as late as the night preceding the PDP national convention in Abuja said in a BBC interview that he was still keeping his options open.
He named the options as whether to challenge Mr Obasanjo for nomination, run with him or with another aspirant (most likely Alex Ekwueme who was the only other serious aspirant in the race at the convention).
However, in his pre-ballot address to delegates to the convention, Mr Obasanjo, with Mr Abubakar standing with him on the podium, announced that he would keep Mr Abubakar on the ticket if renominated.
They went ahead to win the 2003 election but their relationship only worsened afterward to the point that Mr Obasanjo divested Mr Abubakar of influence in government and eventually pushed him out of the PDP before the 2007 election.
The president assumed full control of the party and corralled its leaders into backing an attempt to amend the Constitution to enable Mr Obasanjo seek a third term in office.
The attempt, however, failed at the Senate after which Mr Obasanjo picked then Katsina State governor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, as the presidential candidate. Mr Yar’Adua died in office in 2010 after a protracted illness.
Messrs Obasanjo and Abubakar remained implacable foes until last year when Mr Obasanjo suddenly announced he was endorsing his former estranged deputy who days before had won the nomination of the PDP in Port Harcourt for the 2019 presidential election.