The Clearing House of the People’s Democratic Party, (PDP) is done with the screening of presidential aspirants. Baring unforeseen circumstances, the list from the exercise is the list of the aspirants going to the party’s May 2022 Convention. Of the 15 names reported, the most interesting as well as the most intriguing must be that of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, former Vice-President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007. Given the odds stashed against him on the face of it, there is something odd that Alhaji Atiku Abubakar is not that a spectacle in Nigeria. He should be if we follow Ray Ekpu’s superb articulation of ‘news as oddity’ years gone by.
It was in the Second Republic and some politicians of the Nigerian People’s Party, (NPP) who gathered in Jos, the Plateau State capital, announced the expulsion of the leader of the party, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Most of the media outlets controlled by the National Party of Nigeria, (NPN) which controlled the Federal Government gave the expulsion privileged publicity. That is NTA, FRCN, the now defunct New Nigerian, Daily Times and the radio stations controlled by NPN at the state level. Nigerians were so angry at the degree of prominence given to the story that they went after these media houses in the public sphere.
Ray Ekpu who was editor of Sunday Times came up with a defence of the coverage. He thought the critics were mistaken, wondering what else would be news if not the announced expulsion of the same Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the ‘Zik of Africa’ and the Owelle of Onitsha who fought colonialists to a standstill to emerge the first president of Nigeria being expelled from the party by some people whose first taste of politics was the Second Republic. In Ekpu’s argument, if that didn’t merit perpetual front page treatment, then nothing else could.
For a media practitioner such as Ekpu who went to journalism school when ‘news as oddity’ was the dominant conceptual framework as opposed to the ‘news as discourse’ of today, that was an unimpeachable outing. And even as ‘news as oddity’ has suffered being pushed to the back in journalism studies in the post Cold War, theories do not expire or die.
Atiku Abubakar hasn’t got the Zik status in national imagination in Nigeria nor is he being expelled from party leadership. Still, his desire to be president of Nigeria and the number of times he has contested to realise that desire makes him a subject of curiosity. Advancing to be recognised as a presidential aspirant for the 2023 presidential race when several odds would appear stashed against him makes it all intriguing. It is surprising an Ekpu has not done a piece on him!
Contesting in 2023 would be about the seventh time Atiku would be coming out if we start tracing from his 1993 bid at the Jos Convention of the Social Democratic Party, (SDP), one of the two parties formed by the Babangida Junta. He didn’t get it then because Babagana Kingibe outperformed him although it was a tight race. His desire was contained under the General Abacha regime because, as a follower of General Shehu Yar’Adua who was an Abacha regime foe, Atiku had to run for his dear life once Shehu got into trouble with Abacha. In 2003 as Obasanjo’s deputy, Atiku sought to be president, got the endorsement of a layer of power but had to be contained again with a compromise arrangement. He was out there in 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019, each of which he lost or so the records said.
In the current outing, some of the most important variables in Nigerian politics are against him. At 75, age is against him although Intervention wouldn’t want to overstate this as for the Wazirin Adamawa to charge us with age intimidation. But besides age, image is also against him. His ideological image is that of a rapacious, corrupt politician who would not mind selling the country for his own good. Whether this is the truth and nothing but the truth is a completely different matter. What matters is that even as image is not the same as the reality, it is image that moves human beings into action. In his own case, he gave considerable credibility to this image in 2019 when he expressed determination to see the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, (NNPC) if he won the election. It is unclear where that pronouncement came from: his own informed anger about the degree of corruption in the NNPC or his insensitivity to or even ignorance of the historical hostility to neoliberalism in Nigeria to which the sale of NNPC speaks. It is not that Nigerians are ignorant about corruption in the NNPC and such other heartlands of corruption in the country but that a ‘Third World’ country as Nigeria needs a state oil company to negotiate larger stakes in the current power configuration in global energy politics where none of its own in terms of a member of the domestic bourgeoisie can hold his or her ground yet. That makes sale of NNPC, for example, to translate to national self-annihilation.
That pronouncement is what any presidential aspirant of a radical hue will feast upon to reduce the current line-up of presidential hopefuls in general and Atiku in particular to nothingness in 2023. That is if such an aspirant with the personality, rhetorical capability and visibility were to emerge. None has emerged yet but it is not so much that none is available. It seems to have more to do with the timidity of good guys in coming out seeking power. Moralists and radical Left politicians share that handicap. But what if the insecurity nightmare and the associated instability of the past few years compel the Left establishment to go for broke, throw a search party which brings up someone around whom they can construct a ‘hegemonic block’ as to produce the real power shift in Nigeria? In other words, the ‘Bayero University, Kano Experiment in Power’ could repeat itself.
In 1994, the Bayero University community had been taken over by two dominant tendencies – the radical students’ camp and their conservative counterpart. The Muslim Students Society, (MSS) had not been neutralized but they had no electoral strenght. They never had anyway. As the elections into the Students Union Government that year progressed, it became clear that the conservatives could coast to victory if the radicals were not careful. In any free and fair election, the radicals would always win on most campuses across Nigeria in those days when there were no cultists, Scripture Unions, (SUs) and NFAs, (which stands for ‘No Future Ambition’, reserved for camp of students perceived as such by fellow students). But the conservatives in BUK were rich and had money to play with. They sped between the Old and New campuses of the university with a convoy of cars stretching overwhelming space. So, the radicals called a strategy session. One of the decisions taken at the session was for their presidential candidate to ride into the last rally before the election on a horse. A horse in that circumstance was, indeed, an admission of relative poverty but it also spoke to creativity and strength as well as sending a message to the campus expression of the Sarauta-Talakawa divide in the North.
It produced a stunning electoral outcome because when the candidate of the radicals entered the arena, the symbolism of the white horse was so powerful it could be said the contest was over. Their opponent worsened matters by his blunder at the Manifesto Night. When asked what IMF was all about, he replied by saying he hadn’t met that young man called IMF. The image of a social science student who didn’t know what IMF stands for was such a disaster for their camp. As unlikely as the repeatability of the BUK scenario in 2023 Nigeria could be, there can be no doubt that Nigeria can be a rich ground for experimentation in power. And an Atiku would be the biggest loser in the event of such a magical realism, given that this is his last chance.
The third variable that doesn’t appear to be in his favour is incumbency factor. With President Buhari reportedly saying he will never hand over to Atiku, this can be a major setback for any candidate in the Nigerian setting. Although incumbency has once been worsted in recent Nigerian politics, it is too singular to be generalizable. President Goodluck Jonathan who was defeated as an incumbent in 2015 did not have the presidential personality to have averted that. Whatever of that he ever had did not permeate the society enough to have stood him against any more powerful current. His conceptual and technical grasp of power was equally too weak to have shielded him against a ruling class upsurge against his continuation in power.
President Buhari is not a national darling but he is a product of statist grooming – from the rank of a 2/Lieutenant to Major-General and military Head of State. He is thus a stark contrast to Goodluck Jonathan whose own grasp of state processes was nearly zero at his ascendancy. This is to say that, no matter how much of a lame duck the Buhari Presidency becomes, incumbency will still be a factor in the determination of the outcome of the election. And if it is true the incumbent is categorically bent on not handing over to a particular aspirant, it could be a major roadblock.
Other than age, image and incumbency is the zoning principle of the People’s Democratic Party, (PDP) and which 2023 provides the party the opportunity to correct. To correct in the sense that it was the inability of the party to stick to zoning that swept it out of power in 2015. Paradoxically, correcting it would mean giving it to the North in 2023 since the last holder – Goodluck Jonathan is from the South. Interestingly, however, the PDP doesn’t appear popular and coherent today to say it boldly that zoning in its case has a different logic from APC’s which must shift power to the South after Buhari’s eight years by 2023. To this extent, zoning adds to Atiku’s roadblocks.
If, in spite of this convergence of roadblocks, Atiku Abubakar is still determined to run, then Ekpu’s theory of the reporting of Zik’s expulsion must apply. This is more so that nothing extraordinarily positive are being said about Atiku. Or rather that a same old set of views held about him are still what prevails: he is not a fanatic; he is going to hold Nigeria together because his praxis of politics is not exclusionary on religious or ethno-regional grounds; he is so rich he should not steal Nigeria’s public resources again; he is good at picking and working with experts; he has no military pedigree and, it would be so shameful if after competing for around seven times, he doesn’t come off as a game-changer. But nobody is verbalizing these or is it the case that it is not yet time to do so?
As someone pointed out over the weekend, there is, indeed, an advantage peculiar to Atiku. It is that members of the power elite see him as one who can settle their internal quarrels, pacify feuding parties and let sleeping dogs lie. assuming, however, that he has that advantage, it is restricted to members of the power elite. What Nigeria needs from 2023, said this contact, is a genuine reconciler of all, not a reconciler of those who are already comfortable and happy. The question, he asked, is whether Atiku has shown that capacity before now.
His second advantage is if he has got the consensus of the Super 5. The Super 5 may no longer be such a force as in previous contests, many are still more comfortable with their judgement or preference for any candidate at a time the risk of voting in someone with a successfully hidden grudge against society is more real than ever before. It would be assumed that everyone knows the Super 5 vocabulary refers to in contemporary Nigerian politics.
Against the above background, Atiku must be the agency to watch and to study. For, if he wins in spite of the odds, then the world would be admitting another candidate to the category of agentian game changers similar to Gorbachev and the collapse of the USSR, Deng Xiaoping in the turn to ‘neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics’ and Mandela in the collapse of Apartheid/transition to democracy in South Africa, to name just three. And if he loses, then he is the one students of power in semi-industrial societies would like to go into his mind for an interpretivist insight into how power is circulated in such societies.