By Pita Agbese
The 2019 Nigeria presidential election is still over a month away. In politics, a month can be an eternity. There are many things that can fundamental change the trajectory of the election as it appears at the moment.
Nonetheless, if current trends continue, Atiku Abubakar, the PDP presidential flag-bearer, appears to be losing what just a few months ago looked like he would coast to an easy victory over the APC candidate and incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari.
This write-up is not a prediction that Atiku will definitely lose the election but drawing on how things stand now, Atiku’s victory is getting more difficult to forecast. If Atiku goes on to lose, one can already see some of the outlines of the factors that might have shaped the loss. I have sketched out a few of those factors below.
First, the initial attractiveness that the Atiku candidacy generated created a false sense of political invisibility for Atiku. The attractiveness was highly exaggerated. Atiku, except on philosophical approaches to corruption and public malfeasance, was not the polar opposite of President Buhari.
Like Buhari, Atiku is an old man. Life expectancy in Nigeria is 54 years. Atiku, like Buhari, is in his seventies. Both men are old men in the Nigerian sense. Thus, one of the ways in which the Buhari candidacy was assailed, that he was too old to want to govern Nigeria again, was equally applicable to Atiku.
Pictures of Atiku lifting weight designed to create the impression of him as a man of vigor and vitality ended up raising misgivings about the authenticity of the physical fitness of an overweight old man. I also think that the type of exposure of an adult anatomy portrayed in the pictures would be mildly offensive to some of the more conservative northern audience for whom adults are not expected to show much of their unclothed bodies in the public.
While many Nigerians were looking for a young person as the PDP presidential flag bearer, the party ended up serving a warmed-up left-over food in the person of Atiku. Non-performing governors like Benue’s Samuel Ortom had carefully structured their re-election campaign by running against Buhari who was presented as an old Fulani cattle-owning Muslim who hated their ‘Christian’ states on the basis of his ethnic and religious grounds. Lo and behold, the PDP selected Atiku.
A Fulani. A Moslem. Atiku is a cattle-owning old man who even boasted of his thousands of cows as opposed to Buhari’s puny one hundred and fifty cows.
Second, while corruption is not as salient an issue as it was in 2015 and despite misgivings that critics of the Buhari administration have raised over the way the administration has pursued the anti-corruption crusade, corruption is still considered a major political issue in Nigeria.
For better or for worse, the general perception is that corruption might have been a major factor that Atiku’s stupendous wealth made possible sleaze and corruption, made Atiku the wrong candidate in a country desirous of taking corruption very seriously. In politics, perception is reality.
Moreover, the claim attributed to one of Atiku’s most ardent supporters that he preferred Atiku because Atiku was allegedly a better thief helped to raise doubts about Atiku’s moral probity and his true commitment to stemming the scourge of corruption in Nigeria.
Unlike his plan to create jobs, the Atiku campaign has largely been diffident about outlining concrete steps to tackle corruption.
Initially, the Obasanjo endorsement of Atiku was considered a major coup, a turning point in the public acceptance of Atiku. This initial impression was ephemeral. Given the horrible things that Obasanjo had said about Atiku, including claiming that God would not forgive him if he supported Atiku’s candidacy had done more damage than a photo-op with Atiku could repair.
When Obasanjo switched his support from Jonathan to Buhari in 2015, it gave Buhari a measure of legitimacy that the Buhari candidacy needed. In addition, Obasanjo helped to solidify the image of Buhari as an honorable man, a man of integrity when he assured Nigerians that Buhari would not steal their money.
Moreover, Obasanjo’s public excoriation of Jonathan for poor leadership reinforced serious misgivings about Jonathan. Obasanjo encapsulated in elegant phraseology, all the doubts about Jonathan by proclaiming that the presidency was too big for Jonathan to run successfully.
His characterization of Jonathan as a weak and inept leader confirmed the judgment of many Nigerians. On the other hand, his condemnation of Buhari and his formation of a so-called Third Force gave the impression that Obasanjo was back at his old game of arrogant pomposity and believing that he had the right to determine who governs Nigeria.
Obasanjo’s action in disowning Buhari convinced some elements of the northern elites that Obasanjo’s action was motivated by ill-will. Obasanjo’s turn-around on Atiku has been unpersuasive. He said that he had forgiven Atiku but earlier, in his days of relentless criticisms of Atiku, he had said that Atiku committed offenses against Nigeria. Obasanjo, in the opinion of some of us, cannot forgive Atiku on our behalf, particularly since we do not even know Atiku’s offenses against Nigeria.
Obasanjo’s current support for Atiku was possibly motivated more by hatred of Buhari than love for Atiku. Atiku was not able to draw this distinction.
The deluge of defections from the governing party, the APC to the PDP, never materialized. Atiku’s missteps made some of the would-be defectors to stay put or sit on the fence. In place of high-profile defections from the APC, it was the PDP that began hemorrhaging high-profile members.
Some of the people that Atiku was counting on for critical support soon began to fight for their own political future. Senate president, Bukola Saraki, is struggling for his senate seat in a state which used to be in his pocket.
His challenger for his senate seat is his own sister. Saraki contested the PDP presidential primary. His obstructionist moves against the Buhari agenda soon showed that he was merely paving the way for his own presidential bid. Saraki was named the director-general of the Atiku campaign but a DG fighting for his own political life is not likely to be a good one. In a state that Saraki used to bestride like a colossus, his public appearances are now greeted by protesters shouting, ole, ole (thief). Not a good image for a DG.
Atiku underrated how unpopular Samuel Ortom, governor of Benue State, was when he made him the chairman of his North-Central Zone. Ortom too, is fighting for how own political survival in his re-election bid.
Atiku also has had garbled messages. At Kogi State, in apparent reference to Yahaya Bello, Atiku urged voters to vote against governors owing state employees their salaries and wages. Well, Ortom, his zonal campaign chairman, also owes several months’ salaries to Benue workers. Bello is not even a candidate for re-election yet.
His re-election is still in the future.
Atiku’s selection of Peter Obi, former governor of Anambra State, as his running mate, has not added votes that he would not otherwise get. In 2015, Buhari received less than 200,000 votes in all of the southeastern states.
Even if Buhari does worse in 2019 in the zone than he did in 2015, the impact of his poor performance will be very minimal. With some of the Igbo political heavy-weights lukewarm on the Atiku candidacy and not openly campaigning against Buhari as they did in 2015, it is likely that Buhari will do much better in 2019 than he did in 2015. The allure of supporting an incumbent office-holder in Nigeria is very strong.
I think the most fatal factor behind Atiku’s problems was the general perception that his candidacy would bring the dollar and Naira rain to all who support him. Atiku would blow away everyone, including an incumbent president. This was the initial expectation that fueled his candidacy.
The news that each PDP delegate to the presidential nomination convention received $7,000 from Atiku wetted the appetite of his supporters and other people alike that anyone who comes close to Atiku would get rich. Even some of those who attended Atiku rallies expected some of this windfall. That has not yet happened. If it happens, it might be too late, akin to the last minute distribution of largesse by Jonathan during the 2015 election. Atiku’s problem in this regard is that his background as a businessman became an albatross. Often in business, the successful bidder is the highest bidder.
Supposedly, this was how Atiku beat out the other PDP contenders. He outspent them. The Sarakis, the Tambuwals and the David Marks just did not have the deep pockets that Atiku had. It was expected that whatever Buhari gives, Atiku will surpass it. Unfortunately, Buhari is not cooperating.
He is not spending anything. In a way, that should be an advantage to Atiku. If Buhari is not spending anything, then even $100 by Atiku to someone would surpass Buhari’s zero dollars but if the recipient is expecting $7,000, then $100 becomes a disadvantage. Buhari does not have to spend much. Unlike Atiku, he has true believers, those attracted to his image as Mr. Integrity. Buhari has supporters who are motivated by more an ideal rather than those, like Atiku’s supporters who expect immediate material gratification.
Atiku’s support is also ephemeral because he is a politician whose aim for running for the office has not been sufficiently made clear despite running several times for the presidency.
Atiku’s support is also contingent, strangely, on mistaken perceptions about Donald Trump’s successes. Atiku’s slogan of “Making Nigeria Work Again,” is too imitative of Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” The notion of a Trump as a successful businessman who would use his accumulated business experience to do for America, what he had done for his business, is turning out to be a great con job.
As Trump demonstrates everyday how unfit he is for the office, the allure of Atiku and Obi as a duo of successful businessmen that would make Nigeria work again is appearing to be a mirage rather than a reality.
I would have offered a few suggestions on how Atiku could change his fortune but I won’t. I hope Atiku loses the election.
Agbese is a professor of political science at the University of Northern IOWA, USA.