Tough options facing Atiku Abubakar

Following fierce anti-Atiku posturing that climaxed last week with momentary exchange of brickbats over electoral reforms, the political office of Atiku Abubakar virtually kissed his going back to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) good-bye. They put out a statement that he is “not desperate to be President,” suggesting a serious re-think of whatever attraction or objective reason there was for which the former Vice President sought to return to the ruling party. He was one of the party’s founding fathers.

Atiku has not even bothered to issue a rebuttal to a one-sided and damaging account of his famous peace meeting last January in Abeokuta, Ogun State with his former boss former President Olusegun Obasanjo. In the account given by Obasanjo himself to an Adamawa PDP forum in Yola, he (Obasanjo) detailed how his former second-in-command had pestered him no end over his desire to return to PDP. Faced with severe public criticism over the peace initiative, which at some point portrayed Atiku as moved by blinding ambition to become President, Atiku had spoken of the “virtue of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

But the Obasanjo Yola story gave the lie to that. Without revealing any real substance of the over three hours Abeokuta parley they had held behind closed doors, Obasanjo who spiced his account with even damning innuendoes about the differences in their choice of women, had portrayed Atiku as the one who went to pacify Obasanjo, to beg for forgiveness, to lobby and seek Obasanjo’s blessing for his return to PDP. It is perhaps the biggest blow yet to whatever intentions Atiku may have had for wanting to return to PDP.

“There is no point for Atiku to react,” said an associate of the former Vice president’s last weekend who maintained that there was more to the Abeokuta meeting than could be made public now. “I can tell you that Atiku will not fight Obasanjo again because it is absolutely unnecessary now to do that,” he said.

And so, Atiku’s camp may have ruled out a return to PDP. The politician’s associates had been divided on the idea right from day one. Most of them had out rightly rejected it. Indeed, only two of his prominent political friends-a former governor of a state in his North East zone and a long-standing political/business associate of his from the South-west, were said to have completely bought into the idea and welcomed it as the right thing to do. The vast majority – like Alhaji Lawal Kaita, Chief Ben Obi (his running mate in the 2007 presidential election, in which they flew the Action Congress (AC) flag, Professor Iyorcha Ayu and others were said to have dismissed it.

They were said to have argued that it was nothing but a reversal of what the ex-Vice President had come to stand for. Accordingly, they had mounted pressure on him to forget it. Kaita granted interviews scuffing at the plan and maintaining that Atiku “will not go back to PDP.” Kaita, Lawan Gwadabe, and Chief Dapo Sarunmi-well-known associates of Atiku’s, in the Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM) are on the AC team to the mega party talks.

All of this now raises the question, what would Atiku do? The latest turn of events represents a serious challenge to the politician who had carefully cultivated his political ambitions for nearly two decades. He had worked closely with his mentor Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, the late elder brother of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in a political network that cut across the country, Peoples Front (PF), which later became PDM. It was to be one of the main groups that formed the PDP.

The PDM was indeed the platform through which Obasanjo clicked in the PDP. Through it, Obasanjo and Atiku were to eventually ride into the Presidency in 1999. Atiku had relinquished governor of Adamawa, which he had won. Before then, at the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) nominating convention in Jos, Atiku was forced to step down for Chief M.K.O. Abiola by his leader, the late Yar’Adua. Since 1993, Atiku had kept up his presidential ambition, even championing the formation of the AC to enable him fight 2007 presidential election, unfazed by the PDP rambling dominance of the political space or virtual dynastic emergence of its flag bearer (President Yar’Adua). And so the question: what should Atiku do or which way should he go?

Return to PDP

President Yar’Adua seemed to have had to step out more resolutely from his cocoon after the Abeokuta meeting of Atiku and Obasanjo. Whatever moves Atiku had made to concretize his eventual return to the PDP, Abeokuta would seem to have portrayed the plan as at its advanced stage, a give away, a tactical blunder for the Atiku camp-for as has emerged, the Yar’Adua presidency evidently became jittery and marshaled out its foot soldiers -Tony Anenih, Bode George, Michael Aondoakaa, Vincent Ogbulafor, Ibrahim Haliru Mohammed, Ahmed Alkali etc.

Obviously, the Yar’Adua group in the PDP doesn’t believe that they can defeat Atiku in a free and fair contest for the party presidential ticket. They cannot stop Atiku from telling Yar’Adua that he wants to run or insisting on running. They therefore took some pre-emptive steps in making sure that the door is shut for as long as Atiku would be qualified to vie. It was what the party national chairman, Prince Vincent Ogbulafor was rubbing home last week speaking about “process” of re-admitting Atiku into the party.

The party national Working Committee (NWC), which appears effectively mobilized against Atiku’s re-entry are keeping in view the qualification clause of two years membership for vying for office under the party constitution. They will make sure he does not scale that clause-interpreted to means that if Atiku returned to the PDP.

They are talking of automatic tickets and offering one quickly to Yar’Adua to forestall all possibilities of challenge. Claims of automatic tickets have already foisted the ranks of the party with divisions- PDP first-term governors against their second-term counterparts as well as former governors and first-term governors against ambitious Senators and Reps. First term governors and their second-term counterparts are appearing ever prepared to go with Yar’Adua. If Atiku were to return to the PDP as it is, the best that he could hope to achieve is to become a kingmaker. To make who king?

However, events in the PDP are never written in iron. The party is no respecter of laws made by even it. Besides, issues of Yar’Adua’s second term can at best only hang in the balance. His performance or lack of it in the two years of his being in office is said to have polarized even the North, which by the rotation principle stands the best chance of producing the President in 2011. Leaders of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), including its secretary retired Colonel Musa Shehu has been criticizing automatic ticket, calling it undemocratic.

Atiku can decide to re-join PDP and fight from within. In the recurring calculus of northern hold on power, the names of Aliyu Gusau, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida and Atiku continue to feature. While the first two come with military background, Atiku could exploit his perceived advantage of being civilian who had served eight years as Vice President. He could move to be a catalyst of change. But that also raises the question; whether the PDP could ever be a platform for change. Thus, leading us to the other possible option before Atiku.

Mega Party

Atiku is already speaking the language of the mega party, a contraption with which opposition politicians are bidding to give the PDP a run for its money in the 2011 election. Whether such a framework can come into being in two years is a different matter. Atiku criticized the election reform process. He castigated the PDP-led government for lacking in capacity to give Nigeria any meaningful reform.

On its part the PDP slammed Atiku, calling him a “hopeless, drowning and unreliable politician.” They also called him “a hopeless politician, susceptible to all forms of miscalculations and mis-judgments.”

Until Atiku went to Abeokuta for his peace meeting with Obasanjo, overwhelming public sentiment was not against him but against the PDP and Obasanjo. It was Atiku who had staked his popularity. He had received immense acclaim especially from leading the campaign that frustrated Obasanjo’s quest for a third term in office. The Abeokuta meeting was supposed to be secret but became public when journalists were brought in. Photojournalists took shots of Obasanjo and Atiku, thus, heightening the blunder and the accompanying backlash.

However, the AC, is still there. The two main legs of the AC are Atiku and former governor of Lagos State Ahmed Bola Tinubu. Atiku’s rapprochement with Obasanjo had angered his fellow travelers in the party. The AC chairman Chief Bisi Akande had tagged peace effort a mis-adventure. However differences in politics often manages to get resolved one way or another. Atiku has since joined other AC leaders at Ila-Oragun, Osun State, Akande home base, to felicitate with him. Last Friday, Akande and other politicians, particularly from the AC gathered at Yola, Atiku’s home base for the wedding of Atiku’s daughter.

Tinubu leading other prominent politicians of the AC from the Southwest would appear to be more concerned now with consolidating the party’s hold in the zone. However, it would have to watch it, as the Obasanjo/PDP “hurricane” that blew through the region in 2003 has shown. There is also the experience of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) in the Second Republic to draw from-that a party building regional hegemony ends up as a target of collusion by other political parties, both big and small.

So, Atiku, along with Tinubu and others could recharge their batteries. They could wind up getting Atiku’s PDM structure working through the AC to take the mega talks more seriously. Muhammadu Buhari and his Campaign Organization are also said to be showing keen interest in the talks, believing that it would be difficult to overcome PDP dominance of the electoral space without other political parties integrating to form one party, thereby leading to two political parties, a la defunct SDP and National Republican Convention (NRC). Atiku and Buhari may now work for the strengthening of democracy and deepening of real democratic culture. They could put their ambitions aside in the interim and lean more readily on side of the people, fighting to ensure that it is the people that will decide.

By Akpo Esajere- Guardian