Nigerians found themselves feeding on the snippets from far away last week, as their political leaders took their scheming for the 2023 presidential election across the Atlantic.
Between Monday and Thursday, Governor Nyesom Wike, who has thus far managed to make himself the central character in the election despite being eliminated in the primaries, led his group of the discontented in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) into a rapid series of meetings in London with the three leading presidential candidates.
And rather than the senior PDP chieftains, who include six governors and former governors, being reprimanded for their clearly anti-party activities, their party was happy enough that its candidate, Atiku Abubakar, was allowed to take his own turn at the screening.
Ironically, Nigerians were still being captivated by both the substance and subterfuge from another drama, staged on their own soil in Lagos on Monday, when the news broke on Tuesday that the presidential candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) had sneaked out to London for a meeting with Mr Wike.
On the Friday of the previous week, Mr Wike’s group had met in Port Harcourt with a delegation sent by Atiku, as the candidate continued his seemingly quixotic mission of placating the man he beat at the PDP primaries.
Although that meeting ended in a deadlock, both sides had said their negotiation was continuing.
Three days later when the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) invited the top presidential candidates to speak at its 62nd Annual Conference in Lagos, the absence of Mr Tinubu had drawn attention. But that had been quickly overshadowed by the reactions to the sartorial choice of his representative at the event, his running mate Kashim Shettima. Although Mr Shettima spoke brilliantly off-hand about the plans for the APC ticket for Nigeria, the social media and the newspapers seemed to notice only that his jacket was oversized and that he wore gym shoes.
Tinubu and Wike
The following day, however, after a newspaper broke the news that Mr Tinubu had met Mr Wike, the attention shifted back to the unending PDP post-convention crisis.
To be sure, it had long been public knowledge that Messrs Tinubu and Wike were talking.
On 8 July, the Rivers governor received in his capital, with fanfare, Governors Babajide Sanwo-olu of Lagos, Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti and Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo, all of whom are APC and South-west associates of Mr Tinubu, before leading them behind closed doors for a meeting at his private residence. Since then, Mr Wike had hosted other APC leaders, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, who is also a close associate of Mr Tinubu.
But the Monday meeting in London was the first that many Nigerians knew of between the two politicians, although their aides earlier confirmed that they had also met in Abuja shortly after Mr Tinubu won his own party’s ticket. The London meeting was also attended by Governors Sanwo-Olu, Fayemi, Samuel Ortom of Benue and Seyi Makinde of Oyo. The last two are associates of Mr Wike in the PDP.
Speaking from London in an interview with the BBC Hausa Service, Kabiru Masari, the man who made the term “placeholder” popular when Mr Tinubu filed his name with the electoral commission as his running mate, said Mr Wike agreed at the meeting to work with Mr Tinubu, without defecting from the PDP.
“Well, only God knows what would happen next. But what we are seeing now, what has transpired is that we are going to work with Wike and he will be useful to us.
“If you could remember, it was APC that caused the failure of APC in Bauchi; it was members of the party that led to the defeat of the governor from their own party. In Adamawa, too. So, what I want people to understand, someone can still assist you even without joining your party if he wants to.”
The development rattled the PDP, with some of the leaders telling the party it was time to call Mr Wike’s bluff. But Atiku has been patient in this crisis, refusing to give up the hope of finding peace with a governor whose state gave him the largest block of his votes in 2019.
The refrain from Atiku’s aides after the news of the meeting broke was that he remained committed to the reconciliation process in the party. He also cautioned party leaders against making angry statements that could make the reconciliation impossible. That was after former Jigawa State governor, Sule Lamido, told Mr Wike to stop grumbling, as the PDP does not owe him anything.
The wisdom of patience seemed evident on Wednesday when Atiku’s aides leaked the information that he would be meeting Mr Wike personally in London the following day, although the official account was that he was going on a business trip to France.
Obasanjo and Obi
However, the news that Nigerians first received on Thursday was from another meeting of the Wike group with former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi.
There was no official statement from that meeting except the understandable hint from Mr Obi’s supporters that Mr Obasanjo was pitching support for the Labour Party candidate to the group.
That hint did not seem far-fetched, since it had by then appeared that the Wike group was casting about for any stick to hit Atiku with. Also, the group had previously held several meetings with Mr Obi, which suggests that it considers him an option.
But more intriguing was Mr Obasanjo’s appearance at that meeting. The former president was said to have abandoned Atiku, whom he backed against the reelection bid of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019. It is said Mr Obasanjo cannot digest the prospect of the presidency remaining in the North after eight years of Mr Buhari.
He had made very positive remarks about the character and capacity of Mr Obi. He was also said to be sympathetic to the cause of the South-east, the only southern zone yet to produce a civilian president. The cap of the wily former president’s support appeared to fit the Labour Party candidate.
But then, only more recently on 17 August, Mr Obasanjo had also hosted a meeting with Mr Tinubu and his delegation in Abeokuta. Although neither men spoke about what they discussed for over four hours, the former president later issued a statement to caution associates and supporters of Mr Tinubu over their claim that he endorsed his candidature at the meeting.
Yet, his hosting Mr Tinubu, despite their history of political animosity and the fact that the Christian community to which Mr Obasanjo belongs is unhappy with his Muslim-Muslim ticket, indicated that the former president had not ruled out the former Lagos governor in his considerations.
But less than two weeks after the meeting between the two Southwest political Titans, there was Mr Obasanjo appearing with Mr Obi to speak with the same group that Mr Tinubu had just pitched to.
What does Obasanjo want?
At least two conjectures can be immediately made from Mr Obasanjo escorting Mr Obi to London for the parley with the Wike group.
The first is that the former president probably thinks he can build enough support to take a contestant many still rank as an outsider to the presidency next year.
The other is that Mr Obasanjo may have another idea that also involves Mr Obi, if not all about him. Could he be rooting for all these old PDP men to close rank behind their party’s candidate against their common enemy, the APC? This though will be in spite of the fact that an Atiku presidency would deny the South its turn at the Aso Rock Villa.
Atiku takes turn
Is it instructive, therefore, that shortly after the departure of Messrs Obasanjo and Obi, the Wike delegation went for dinner with Atiku?
Pictures from that session held over dinner at the Carlton Hotel in Park Lane, London were instantly circulated by aides of the candidate. However, they retained their cautious optimism in the official statements on the engagement, stressing that consultations with the Wike group would continue.
Some platforms had on Friday published what they said was an agreement reached at the meeting. Under the purported agreement, the PDP National Chairman, Iyorchia Ayu, would immediately step down and be replaced by the candidate of the Wike group from the South-west, while the group would also produce the Senate President if the PDP wins the elections next year. It would also take some important ministerial positions. But perhaps the most significant was the point that Atiku would serve one term.
The PDP and the candidate have since denied the agreement. PREMIUM TIMES also reported that the only issue discussed at the meeting was the condition laid by the Wike group for negotiation with Atiku.
The group insisted on its demand for the resignation of Mr Ayu before negotiation could begin. The newspaper reported that how to replace Mr Ayu with a southerner, when the constitution of the party provides that such vacancy would be filled by his deputy from his home region, was the only issue the meeting deliberated.
If Mr Obasanjo had indeed spoken for any arrangement that would accommodate Atiku, the tone of the Wike group when the members returned to Nigeria on Friday did not indicate it was well-received.
Rather, the tone also suggested that no agreement has been reached and that any light at the end of the tunnel in this crisis remains dim and distant.
Governors Wike and Ortom who returned home with their Abia counterpart confirmed to journalists that they met with the three presidential candidates and would continue their discussions with all of them.
They claimed that their engagements were in the interest of the nation.
But Mr Wike evidently remained in his old angry mood as he apparently hit back at Mr Lamido when he said it is only in Nigeria that a man who had served two terms as governor would be prodding his own son to take the same office, and where a man who had only a primary school certificate would be appointed as Foreign Affairs minister.
Mr Lamido served two terms under the PDP as Jigawa governor and his son is now the party’s governorship candidate in the state. Before he became governor in 2007, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs under Mr Obasanjo but this reporter cannot confirm that he only attended primary school.
Atiku is branded as a unifier, a politician who knows how to appease angry people and bring them together to pursue a common cause. Perhaps, he will eventually persuade Mr Ayu and his northern deputy to step down so that a southerner can become interim national chairman of the PDP. As has been reported, he needs to do this before getting the chance to listen to what else Mr Wike and his friends really want.
But even if one of Nigeria’s most dogged political marathon runners scales all those hurdles, how great would it make his chances next year?
The Atiku-Wike rift tends to blur the fact that even if it is resolved and Mr Wike becomes happy again in the PDP, but the opposition will still be going into the 2023 elections less united and thus weaker than in the last electoral cycle.
Mr Obi and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigerian People’s Party (NNPP) are considered formidable outsiders in the race and are expected to poll significant volumes of the votes in different parts of the country. While the Labour Party is projected to draw strong support from voters in the Southeast and in Christian-dominated areas in many parts of the country, Mr Kwankwaso is already making his own presence felt in many parts of the North.
In 2019, Mr Obi was Atiku’s running mate and made his ticket more attractive to voters in some southern parts of the country while Mr Kwankwaso was a senator who anchored their campaign in Kano.
Mr Kwankwaso will also seize some of the votes in the North that went to the APC when it had Mr Buhari as a candidate, but most of those votes would also have gone to the PDP if he had remained in that party.
The point here is that the opposition often needs to come or stay together to beat the governing party. This has been the lesson from many parts of Africa as multi-party democracy takes root in the continent. It was also the trick, combined with the implosion of the then incumbent PDP, that helped the APC to power in 2015.
Now, what we have in Nigeria is an inversion of that historic development of eight years ago. The opposition has splintered while the ruling party has managed to remain relatively intact, even fishing in the main opposition party’s diminished pool.
Mr Tinubu may not get Mr Wike to work for him as suggested by their purported pact that Mr Masari, the former placeholder, spoke about on BBC Hausa Service on Monday. But he does not need Mr Wike as much as Atiku and Mr Obi do. If the opposition candidates delivered enough blows to each other and divided their votes sharply enough, they will hand him victory on a silver platter.
Is that what Mr Obasanjo wants to help bring about or to avert?
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