Perspective: Atiku Abubakar’s Endgame

Atiku Abubakar

For Nigeria’s serial presidential candidate, familiarity is both strength and disadvantage.
Of the top contenders for Nigeria’s highest political office in next month’s general election, none approaches Atiku Abubakar, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) standard bearer, in name recognition. Abubakar has been running for the Nigerian presidency since 1993, and there is no presidential race in which he has not been in the mix since he concluded two terms of office as vice president to Olusegun Obasanjo in 2007. Judging by media reports, his spectacular falling out with his former boss (a relationship that, to his credit, he has tried many times to salvage) was mainly due to his desperation to push the latter out of office at the conclusion of their first term in 2003. Whatever else Atiku Abubakar may be guilty of, a lack of ambition is not one of them.

This tenacity has served him well. Across the country, even those who may be hard-pressed to recall the finer details of his political program at least know who Abubakar is. More crucially, he is a known quantity to the political elite, among whom he is openly extolled for his generosity and unswerving loyalty to friends and political associates. Furthermore, and not unlike Bola Tinubu, the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate with whom he is most often compared, Abubakar is a man of means; although, again similar to Tinubu, the source of his wealth is a subject of controversy. Finally, Abubakar has also managed to build an extensive political network. That he has, somehow, not been able to construct a distinct lineage, at least not in the manner of Tinubu, is one of the key differences between the two.

There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the one most directly relevant to Abubakar’s chances is the fact that his relentless quest for the presidency has taken him everywhere, politically speaking. Since he set his sights on the office more than three decades ago, Abubakar has either challenged for or secured the ticket of every major Nigerian political party, regardless of ideology. A favorable reading of Abubakar’s ideological flexibility is that his desperation to offer his leadership to the country is such that he is not unwilling to forge common cause with the strangest of bedfellows. Less favorably, such flexibility might be read as either an absence of core principles, or a tendency to jettison them at the slightest pressure.    

Either way, and even after discounting for the fact that pragmatism is a condition of doing politics, one must still accept that there is a protean quality about Abubakar that makes it difficult to pin him down. Depending on the situation, his political mood can shift between the extremes of progressivism and conservatism. For a card-carrying member of a deeply conservative northern Nigerian elite, he has probably done more than anyone in living memory to denounce its unearned religious-based indulgences. Over the years, he has called for urgent attention to the lives of the northern poor too many times to recall. Furthermore, he has not shied away from acknowledging that its lugubriously low literacy levels will be a drag on the northern region’s development for the foreseeable future.

Yet, there is no political figure more emblematic of northern elite privilege than Abubakar, and his hasty retreat after his instinctive condemnation of the murder of Deborah Yakubu for alleged blasphemy was challenged by a cross section of the northern public shows that he is not unaware that there is a red line, or tactless enough to cross it.

Abubakar’s emergence as PDP presidential candidate last summer when the party seemed poised to plump for Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike has been hailed, rightly, as a Machiavellian masterstroke. At the same time, and unsurprisingly, his reneging on the existing North-South ethno-regional entente has not come without a cost. He most certainly weakened the PDP in the process of taking it over, and despite numerous overtures, has so far failed to pacify an influential segment of the party, led by the so-called G-5 governors (of Rivers State, Oyo State, Benue State, Abia State, and Enugu State, respectively) which, among other things, seems to have taken issue with the manner of his ascendance.

Moreover, and remarkably for a candidate of northern extraction, Abubakar has been unable to garner considerable sympathy across the region. One reason, as indicated earlier, is the paradox of familiarity. Having run and failed so many times, Abubakar has struggled to persuade many previously loyal but now fatigued stalwarts that this time is different. Second, and more important, he has failed to make any headway among incumbent northern APC governors, the majority of whom have sided with Tinubu on the principle that it is the southern region’s turn to produce the next president.

Seventy-seven in November, Abubakar has suggested that this is his last tilt at the presidency. If current permutations hold, he will in all likelihood come up short again.

While one may feel for the desperation that made him go for broke during the PDP presidential primary, he seems to have misjudged the aftermath, particularly the depth of the annoyance of the Igbo southeastern governors and the extent to which they seem willing to go to exact a pound of flesh. Nor, just like every other member of the political class, did he anticipate what was to follow after Peter Obi, seeing the handwriting on the wall, decamped from the PDP less than three days to its presidential primary. The latter’s acceptance of the ticket of the Labour Party (LP) and the ascendance of the “Obi-dient” has been one of the most intriguing aspects of this election.

If, as all indications suggest, Abubakar falls short again, he will be disappointed at not achieving what he once described as “a life-long ambition.” Upon further reflection, he may also wonder whether he should have been more hands on in the political offseason than the records show him to have been, and why, for all his attempts, he never really came close to achieving his ambition.    

©2023 Council on Foreign Relations. All rights reserved.


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