One Last Dance? Atiku Abubakar, PDP’s North Star

The journeys of PDP and Atiku, its two-time presidential flagbearer, are as interwoven as they are similar. The 2023 election will likely be their ‘last dance’ together, this author writes. Atiku has no doubt reshaped PDP, but have the years shown a match made in Heaven or a pairing doomed to fail?

One of the most viewed and highest rated documentaries during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown was The Last Dance, which focused on Michael Jordan and the victorious Chicago Bulls Basketball team of the early 1990s. Released in 2020, The Last Dance covered the rise, fall and subsequent redemption of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, which culminated in their third consecutive title, a ‘three-peat’, an achievement Jordan made for the second time in his career. The return to the pinnacle of the sport has helped cement Jordan’s legacy, keeping him and that Chicago Bulls team in the conversation for the best of all time.

Atiku Abubakar and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) are in a similar position to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Having played a part in PDP’s earlier victories in 1999 and 2003, Atiku (as he’s commonly known) journeyed to different parties and returned, at different times, to PDP, a party he helped form. Atiku’s quest for the presidency, which began in 1993, is not yet over but his chances of achieving this are nearly up. It is fairly certain that the 2023 elections will be his last opportunity to become Nigeria’s president.

Likewise, PDP and its appeal as a major party, are also in question. PDP’s 16 years in control of government, which famously came to an end in 2015, seem like a distant memory following its last eight years in opposition. Infighting, from its initial schism after the 2015 defeat and, currently, questions over its zoning of roles to reflect equity in the party continue to dog PDP’s movement. Finally, even with a ruling party that has proven to be unpopular, PDP has failed to capture the support of Nigerians. It has equally failed to seize the wave of ‘change’ that the All-Progressives Congress (APC) held during APC’s successful 2015 campaign.

Hence, the journeys of PDP and Atiku, its two-time presidential flagbearer, are as interwoven as they are similar. And, in this likely last dance together, one wonders if Atiku and PDP are a match made in heaven, or a pairing doomed to fail.

THE YOUNG PRODIGY

An appropriate starting point in Atiku Abubakar’s political story is his time as a customs service officer. This is because most narratives about Atiku either show a hard-working civil servant who rose through the ranks to become a deputy director, or an unscrupulous fellow who abused his position to attain wealth. From customs, Atiku ventured into politics and became a key coordinator of Bamanga Tukur’s successful bid for governor of then Gongola State in 1983. A chance meeting with Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, who was the number two in Olusegun Obasanjo’s military regime (1976-79), saw Atiku elected as one of his deputies in the Peoples Front of Nigeria (PFN).

Yar’Adua was able to bring together many prominent politicians under this party, including Rabiu Kwankwaso and Bola Tinubu—currently two of Atiku’s main rivals for the presidency. The PFN was eventually incorporated into the more established Social Democratic Party (SDP), which was one of two parties set up and recognized by the military regime. Within this party, the PFN morphed into the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), which put forward Atiku as its presidential candidate when Yar’Adua was banned from seeking political office by the Babangida regime.

Atiku placed among the top three at the March 1993 SDP convention but was told to withdraw in favour of M. K. O. Abiola by his mentor, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua believed he had struck a deal for Atiku to join the ticket as running mate. Despite Abiola reneging on the deal and nominating runner-up Babagana Kingibe instead, Atiku’s loyalty cemented Atiku’s status as heir to Yar’Adua’s PDM. Atiku would also follow in his mentor’s footsteps by becoming Obasanjo’s deputy when Obasanjo was elected president in 1999 on the platform of PDP. Yet, as the 2023 election draws closer, and despite the young prodigy having morphed into a shrewd veteran, Atiku’s dream of becoming president still remains unrealized.

BUILDING A CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM  

Like Atiku, PDP has been ever-present in the Nigeria’s Fourth Republic (1999-present). PDP was formed in 1998, in the aftermath of General Sani Abacha’s death and following the promise of a transfer to democratic rule by General Abdulsalami Abubakar. However, the party traces its roots further back, to a coalition of politically aligned and prominent Nigerians who were opposed to General Sani Abacha’s Military regime (1993-98) and his purported plans to convert himself into a civilian president.

PDP’s original membership featured top-notch politicians who had held positions during the Second Republic (1979-83), and the core make-up of the party was an amalgamation of burgeoning political parties who had been denied registration by the National Electoral Commission of Nigeria under Abacha. The All Nigeria Congress (ANC), People’s Consultative Forum (PCF), Social Progressive Party (SPP), Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM), and Peoples National Party (PNP) all coalesced into the PDP. According to Nereus Nwosu’s 2008 article, ‘The Nigerian local government elections of 1998’, PDP’s performance in the local council elections of 1998 was a direct reflection of the high calibre of its founding members.

The nascent party’s crowning moment swiftly followed with the election of Olusegun Obasanjo in the 1999 elections. This followed Obasanjo’s surprising victory in the PDP party primaries, even though former Nigerian vice-president, Alex Ekwueme, had been widely tipped to clinch the ticket.

A GRADUAL DESCENT  

Atiku was on the rise by the time Obasanjo picked him as his running mate in 1999. In 2003, as a result of his political skills and strong cult of personality, Atiku became the perfect foil to party stalwarts wary of Obasanjo’s allegedly dictatorial and aloof leadership style. ‘Obasanjo wasn’t a founding member of the PDP and was recruited and co-opted into the PDP,’ a senior lecturer and one time state-level political aspirant told me, remaining anonymous. ‘He came into PDP with absolutely no ideological agreement with the pro-democratic founding members of the party,’ they said, ‘and as a result displayed dictatorial and perhaps even vindictive tendencies in his actions.’

One of the famous stories that came out of PDP and shows the extent of Atiku’s influence was that Atiku had managed to garner enough governor support to unseat Obasanjo. Upon hearing of this, Obasanjo reportedly knelt down to appeal to him to allow him to carry a second term. Whether the story is true or not, what followed was an Obasanjo second term and the systematic dismantling of Atiku’s structure to the point that the vice-president was chased out of the party and finished a distant third in the 2007 elections—ironically losing out to Umar Musa Yar’Adua, the younger brother of his mentor and PFN leader.

Political journeys only look good in hindsight, and Atiku’s failure to achieve his goals makes his look like an exercise in desperation. ‘Atiku has disregarded political values for his continued ambition, having contested against the wishes of his initial principal Olusegun Obasanjo, as well Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari,’ human rights lawyer, Frank Tiete, told me. ‘His desperation to become president appears to know no bounds even to the extent of sacrificing Nigeria’s unity,’ Tiete said.

Atiku contested the 2007 elections under the banner of the Action Congress of Nigeria, returned to the PDP in 2010 and lost the presidential primaries to then-incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, before departing to help form the All-Progressives Congress (APC). He then lost the 2014 presidential primaries to Muhammadu Buhari.
After three years stuck largely in the political wilderness, Atiku returned to PDP, apparently invigorated. He was PDP’s presidential candidate during the 2019 presidential election but lost again to the incumbent, President Buhari. Atiku’s valiant, yet ultimately unsuccessful, attempts at winning the presidency have meant that Atiku has spent more time fighting the powers that be than holding any political positions himself. Whilst his post 2007 political career should not be considered a failure, it must be acknowledged that Atiku’s legacy, should he fail to win the 2023 election, may well be that of perennial political opposition.

While the PDP’s descent from power was more gradual—a scenario the ruling APC is currently facing—PDP’s fall was largely as a result of its internal machinations. At the onset, PDP was led by Vice-President Ekwueme, who was succeeded in 1998 by former Plateau State governor, Solomon Lar. These two, accomplished politicians in their own right, also ensured that the party was able to maintain control and primacy over its elected officials. However, from the election of Barnabas Gemade in 1999, party chairs were appointed and dismissed at the whim of the president. Major efforts to regain control of party affairs were resisted by governors, who increasingly sought influence and also fought any attempts by chairs from their states to assert their own dominance. Over time, according to Niger Delta University lecturer, Ebipuado Sapre-Obi, PDP experienced, ‘The subsequent loss of discipline and an increase in power of governors due to their control of who became delegates.’ This meant that by the time PDP needed firm leadership, its leadership was simply an advocacy arm of the government and unable to assert party supremacy. This ensured that the party could not be an effective and neutral arbiter if a truly contentious argument arose that could divide the party. One emerged in May 2010.

Jonathan’s assumption of the presidency, following Yar’Adua’s death in 2010, disrupted the power-sharing arrangement that PDP embraced—where Obasanjo, a southerner was succeeded by Yar’Adua, a northerner. Newspapers reported that Jonathan’s decision to seek a full term in 2011 was against the expected turn of the North in occupying the presidency. This failure to adhere to the arrangement was at the heart of opposition that Jonathan faced, while other politicians sought issues with the way his acolytes ran the party.

Jonathan’s decision to seek a second term in 2015 proved to be the final straw for some of the more ambitious members of his party and the fight for control within the party came to a head when prominent party members led by five governors and Atiku himself, decamped en masse to the APC. This largely led to PDP’s loss in 2015. Additional reasons, according to human rights lawyer Tiete, included, ‘infighting and treachery from its own leaders, such as PDP chairman at the time, Adamu Muazu, actively working with APC to ensure PDP’s failure at the polls and Atiku Abubakar, Bukola Saraki and Aminu Tambuwal who were in bed with the APC.’

The formation of a unified opposition in APC posed a formidable threat, particularly as APC positioned itself in stark contrast to the corruption and insecurity that had become associated with PDP. PDP’s loss in 2015 was the culmination of a slow descent from the dizzying heights of power in 2003 and has led to a further dip, to PDP becoming an ineffectual opposition in 2022.

THE LONG ROAD BACK TO THE PLAYOFFS  

PDP’s time in the political wilderness was initially viewed as one which would be fleeting, a valuable yet ultimately temporary lesson in the perils of party negligence. According to Sapre-Obi, ‘PDP’s leadership had a certain arrogance and self confidence that PDP would be a leading party for the next 60 years.’ (Inspired by the 60-year political dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan.)

However, like Atiku, PDP currently finds itself in a position whereby anything less than victory, could spell the end of the party as a relevant force in Nigeria. It is, therefore, puzzling that PDP has failed to take advantage of the myriad failures of the Buhari-led administration. The APC’s playbook in the run up to the 2015 elections was to capitalize on PDP’s glaring inadequacies, from the high unemployment rates to the rise of Boko Haram, a strategy which worked to great effect.

Yet, while most Nigerians will argue that security has not improved in the years since, PDP has failed to leverage on the mood of Nigerians by effectively holding grief against the government to gain the sympathy and support of the country it aims to serve. A prominent example of this was during the 2020 #ENDSARS protests where the flying of flags at half-mast and the performative public condemnation of the attacks were the extent of PDP’s reaction to the bloodshed. ‘PDP capitalized on the #ENDSARS protests to further its political interest,’ a development professional who was active in the protests and would rather remain anonymous, told me. ‘PDP’s continuous disbanding and bringing back of SARS when they were in power shows that their activism at the time was performative. If they were in power, they would have done the same thing APC did. APC and PDP are all the same,’ they said.

PDP’s ability to act as a credible form of opposition was hampered, particularly during Buhari’s first term. Repeated attacks by APC on the callousness of PDP during PDP’s 16 years in power were a major challenge. PDP’s inability to serve as an effective opposition has seen rumours of new waves of defections, as some disgruntled governors reportedly seek greener pastures in the APC, a path politicians such as Ben Ayade and David Umahi have taken. Others such as Rabiu Kwankwaso and Peter Obi have gone a step further and are currently spearheading smaller political parties, which may further muddle PDP’s path back to power.

ONE LAST SHOT

It is worth asking, therefore, if PDP is the right party for Atiku to fulfil his ambition. Political stakeholders acknowledge the party’s structure and gravitas in Nigeria’s political scene, but consistently point to a general unpreparedness to take on APC. Lecturer Sapre-Obi acknowledged the dual failings of APC and PDP. ‘Although APC should never be an option as they have been a disaster over the last seven years,’ he said, ‘PDP has not sufficiently prepared itself to take leadership of the country.’ Additionally, political activist and former PDP technical staff, Deji Adeyanju told me, ‘While PDP is the only party that has that capacity to challenge the APC today, the party lacks internal structure.’

In many ways, PDP’s only functional aspect is the nationwide political structure it built during its years in power. PDP retains a robust political apparatus and key governorship positions in the South as well as key pockets of support in the northern states of Sokoto, Bauchi and Adamawa. It is worth noting however that the core North still voted overwhelmingly for Buhari in the 2019 election irrespective of the frustrations experienced at the time. Ultimately, Tiete said, ‘it is difficult to predict Northern voting patterns during elections.’

Having left APC ahead of the 2019 elections, it was always improbable that Atiku would return to clinch the ticket. Moreover, his long legacy and network within the PDP, which culminated in his nomination as the presidential nominee in 2019, were set to make him a key player this time round.

However, PDP is deeply fractured. Issues that have come to define the party’s time as opposition are as glaring as ever. There remains a chronic lack of internal party management. Some believe this mismanagement led to the emergence of Atiku himself. In choosing Atiku as the presidential candidate, some like political analyst, Dr. Gabriel Nwambu, believe PDP acted in ‘violation of the principles of equity and zoning as entrenched in the PDP constitution’. Thus, according to Adeyanju, who claims ‘the ticket should have been zoned to the South for equity,’ ‘PDP did not make the right choice in picking Atiku as its candidate.’

A successful power grab by state governors has also created a web of conflicting interests within PDP. This web has culminated in a schism that has emerged within the party, following Atiku’s victory in the presidential primaries. The perceived side-lining of PDP’s ‘financier-in-chief’, Nyesom Wike, has additionally created new frontiers for division and could derail PDP’s 2023 presidential campaign—at a time when a unified front will be necessary to unseat the ruling party.

And yet, there is a strong case for arguing that Atiku was perhaps the best choice PDP could have made. ‘Atiku is a PDP person, blood in blood out,’ political analyst, Austin Aigbe, told me. As a political veteran and astute politician, PDP opted for a tested and nationally known candidate in Atiku. Furthermore, one could argue that the Atiku-Okowa ticket provides the religious and expertise balance that the APC ticket has received scrutiny for lacking. PDP would also have factored in President Buhari’s ‘12 million northern votes’ bank that will be open to all candidates for the first time since Buhari’s first run in 2003.

There are many ways the recent primary elections could have panned out for Atiku. For instance, an Atiku reunion with APC early on, may have presented an extra challenge to Tinubu’s eventual primary victory. Tinubu’s support base of northern governors may also have been swayed by Atiku’s presence. Atiku’s return to APC may have also cleared the path to PDP primary victory for Wike. Some political commentators still believe Wike should be the PDP presidential candidate. Political analyst Dr. Nwambu, for instance, told me that, ‘if Wike was the presidential candidate and Kwankwaso did not leave PDP and agreed to be vice, PDP would be faring a lot better.’

Furthermore, if the PDP delegates had voted in favour of another candidate but Atiku, it may have spelt the end of Atiku’s political career rather than the prospects of eight years in power. Atiku flying the PDP’s flag in the 2023 election thus feels poetically fated. After all, according to Aigbe, ‘PDP and Atiku are one and the same.’ Hence, for Atiku, 2023 presents a final opportunity to cap off a lifetime of presidential ambition. Alternatively, it could also mean settling for a fair, yet ultimately unfulfilling legacy, as a two-term vice-president and the stinging rebuke of a three-time losing presidential nominee on a major party platform (including his 2007 contest for the Action Congress of Nigeria).

Similarly, PDP faces an uncertain future if out of power, as it is currently sandwiched between a raucous but pragmatic ruling APC, and a young base rallying round a third-party candidate in Peter Obi. The difference in approach, and its failure to stand out as the effective opposition after two terms of the APC, continues to present a worrying tag for the PDP: ‘a party of yesteryear’.

The 2023 election represents a last-ditch effort for both PDP and Atiku. For both, it is, perhaps, a final chance to return to the pinnacle of an arena they once dominated

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