After much horse-trading and intense competition over People’s Democratic Party (PDP’s) hotly contested primaries, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar emerged the party’s flagbearer last Sunday. For a man who has been in the spotlight for over 20 years, almost everything is known or has been written about him. From the archives, I retrieved my column of June 8, 2016, (about Atiku) based on a speech he delivered at a book launch, when he was still in the All Progressives Congress (APC). Below is the write-up originally titled Atiku at it again after a little editing and modification.
Anybody who thinks the public presentation of a book should be about thematic issues concerning the book itself, must have been taken aback at what transpired at the presentation of Chido Onumah’s, We Are All Biafrans, last week.
The audience got more than they bargained for when former Vice President Atiku Abubakar turned the event into a political talk shop of sort and took swipes at his former boss ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, previous governments, and the Buhari administration to, which he is supposedly a part. In the process he opened a floodgate of commentaries and generated a lot of controversies. Atiku reviled the problems with Nigeria’s political elites and why they have been unable to get it right after decades of independence. In summary, it was a bombshell that had the capacity to unsettle the government of the day from a supposed insider. His homily has since got tongues wagging, as people continue to wonder whether his speech was meant to worm his way back to people’s consciousness, and more to show his readiness for the top job come 2019. His international business network also earns him media exposure.
To be sure, Atiku is not averse to such debates; in fact, either by acts of omission or commission, he courts controversies, and is not afraid to oppose the government he is serving in from within. Unarguably the most powerful vice president ever, Atiku’s first term with President Obasanjo was eventful; his following was so huge to the extent that many of the then governors were loyal to and ready to queue behind him for the presidency if he would throw his hat into the ring. It was said that a former governor from the South-South zone led over 15 governors of the PDP at the time on a mission to prevail on Atiku to run against his former boss at the 2002 PDP primaries. He did somehow but made a costly mistake. He chickened out and conceded to his boss after some nocturnal appeals and negotiations synonymous with the intense politicking at such moments.
Then Atiku’s political assets nosedived. He spent the remaining four years struggling for survival, while fighting to extricate himself from corruption charges and several court cases, most of which he won to the advantage of our democratic experience. He contested the 2007 presidential election under the Action Congress and eventually lost to the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
He was not deterred. In 2011, he returned to the PDP to square up with Goodluck Jonathan after he emerged as Adamu Ciroma’s committee’s consensus candidate from the North. Again, he lost the primaries, but his memorable speech and the jabs he threw at Jonathan endeared him to many, and further won him some respect. In no time he joined the APC moving train. He lost to President Muhammadu Buhari, who by this time had become a cult hero; but he later joined forces with him for the then emerging political bloc, the APC, to clinch power at the centre. The rest as they say is now history.
The serial aspirant/candidate is now making a dramatic return, or so it seems, considering his open criticisms of government’s policies and approach to issues last week. His restless and never-say-die spirit is up again.
He gave sobering lessons in political engineering, asking for the restructuring of the country in a system that marginalises and brooks no dissent, and which no longer serves the nation’s interest. He was referring to IPOB, Niger Delta Avengers and the likes. “The federal government is too big and too powerful relative to the federating states; that situation needs to change, and calling for that is patriotic.
“An excessively powerful centre does not equate to national unity… Absolutely not. And I reject that notion. If anything, it has made our unity more fragile, our government more unstable and our country unsafe. We must renegotiate our union in order to make it strong”, he averred.
Atiku said the idea of a Ministry for the Niger Delta was encapsulated in his blueprint as an aspirant in 2007 but the late President Yar’Adua appropriated and implemented it haphazardly, leaving out the key components—situate the capital at the heart of Niger Delta and turn the agitators into coasts guards, to serve two purposes of providing employment and protecting the shorelines and oil installations. He carpeted the gas-to-power project started by the Obasanjo administration and continued by successive governments for leaving out his suggestions of captive stations, adding that the gas-to-power idea would never work as long as the Niger Delta agitation is not addressed.
Attacking a sitting government is Atiku’s pastime. In 2011, after emerging the North’s consensus candidate, he flayed Jonathan on his disregard for zoning thus: “the unity of this country, equity and justice require that existing agreements freely entered into by individuals and groups be respected. This is not a North versus South thing, as some dishonest people would like to frame it. It is about honour, thrust and fairness. Our words must be our bond. We must learn to respect agreements so that the unity of this country may endure.” The former VP, who described himself as the most experienced contender at the time, also dismissed the former president by saying that Nigeria needed a ‘good leader and not good luck.’
On the economy, he queried: “Why are our budgets not being implemented? Why has the money in our Excess Crude Account disappeared at a time when oil prices have been way above the benchmark used for our budget estimates? Why are our foreign reserves being depleted…why is this government quickly dragging us to indebtedness after we sacrificed so much to pull ourselves out of debt slavery?”
No doubt, the history of democracy and political development in Nigeria might never be complete without Atiku’s practical insights and experience. A student of General Shehu Yar’Adua’s politics of bridge building, Atiku has mastered the act of surrounding himself with loyalists that cut across all our fault-lines and divides.
When he chose the venue of the presentation of a book that has a bizarre title relating to our ugly past, to pick holes in even the government he helped to power, he left many with divergent interpretations. Is Atiku preparing the ground to contest the presidential elections in 2019? Is he going into alliance with the South-South and the South East? Is that why he used the occasion to appeal to their base sentiments?
Well, well, well. So many questions. Although the quintessential politician’s comeback will surely elicit mixed reactions or even condemnation, his doggedness and ruggedness are in no doubt.
In the countdown to the 2019 race, time surely will tell if the Turaki is on the march again.