Can Atiku ‘Unify’ his way to the Presidency?

Atiku’s unifier campaign message is no longer working. Some critics would say it was dead on arrival.

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Atiku Abubakar – PDP Presidential Flag-bearer

By Nnanke Harry Willie

Atiku Abubakar is a man on the cusp of history. He will either be Nigeria’s next president or he never will be!

Atiku is unarguably the most “experienced” presidential candidate among those presently jostling for the coveted position of Nigeria’s presidential seat. He has built his 2023 campaign on his strong credentials as a “Unifier”

Atiku had been Nigeria’s Vice-President for eight years, and for most of his first term as VP his principal, President Olusegun Obasanjo had assigned him a lot of powers that he used to deft advantage. His rumoured attempt to challenge Obasanjo in the 2003 elections however made the remaining part of his career as Vice-President less influential and less illustrious.

I had written in a previous article that Atiku is a very strong political brand.  He is urbane yet traditional, old yet young, suave yet set in his ways. He is much loved and yet much despised. Interestingly, former President Obasanjo has effused bouts of love, hate and love over and over again at different times for Atiku Abubakar. At different times Obasanjo has been his greatest traducer and yet his best promoter at other times. It would seem that the Atiku brand is like the proverbial elephant whose different physiological parts can elicit different attributions to the blind.

Nevertheless, if politics were mathematics, the odds will be in Atiku’s favour to emerge victorious in the February 25 presidential election. Unfortunately, politics is rather a slippery slope and those who step into the arena oftentimes find themselves in corners and crevices they had never previously imagined.

To start with, Atiku is contending against two front-runners who were only recently, his political partners.

His relationship with APC’s Bola Tinubu goes way back to their days in the Yar ‘Adua PDM camp and there had been previous calculations in the past of them pairing together to vie for the presidential ticket, with Atiku as the flagbearer. They had also been pioneer members of APC.

Of course, Nigerians remember that Peter Obi of the Labour Party was Atiku’s Vice-Presidential candidate under the PDP in the 2019 presidential election. Indeed, so strong is the relationship that until recently, when perhaps his party may have cautioned him, Peter Obi used to refer to Atiku Abubakar as “My Leader”. These days, however, he refers to him fondly as “My senior Brother”.

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Unfortunately, on the political battlefield, there is neither leader nor brother as past alliances have given way to the mother of all political battles with each of the 3 leading candidates doing everything possible to outwit the other and grab the coveted presidential jewels.

So, what will Atiku’s experience, pedigree and assets count for at this critical point?

Since outwitting Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike to win the PDP presidential primaries, Atiku has known no rest.  The PDP candidate has had more problems from within PDP than from outside. Clearly, he has been struggling to unify his party.

Wike and 4 other PDP governors, Okezie Ikpeazu (Abia), Samuel Ortom (Benue), Seyi Makinde (Oyo) and Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi (Enugu) had mobilised other party leaders including Chief Bode George, Prof Jerry Gana, etc. to form the ‘Integrity Group’ against Atiku. They have been involved in machinations that not only undermine Atiku’s presidential campaign but even the very existence of the PDP. This has put a big question mark on Atiku’s ‘Unifier’ credentials. The question his political opponents are asking loudly is, “If Atiku cannot unify his party, how can he unify the nation?”

The grouse of the G5 on the one hand is that the Party Chairman, Iyorchia Ayu was a biased umpire who worked actively for Atiku’s emergence during the primaries rather than providing a level playing field. On the other hand, they argue that there is a gentleman’s agreement in the PDP that there should be power rotation between the North and the South. They allege that Atiku breached that agreement by insisting on taking part in the PDP primaries where he emerged victorious.

They have insisted that the only way they could drop their ‘war’ stance is for Ayu to step down as Chairman. Ayu has so far refused to step down and the so-called G5 governors have dug in deeper. Any moment from now, they are expected to announce their support for a Southern candidate from another party. So far, it seems that Atiku has lacked the clout and political savvy to find a lasting solution to the fractious state of his party.

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Atiku’s unifier status has thus been brought into serious question.

Meanwhile, Atiku’s major treasure trove of votes is expected to come from the North since he is sure to have scant votes from the South this time around since Obi and Tinubu are will garner the majority of the votes there. Unfortunately for Atiku, there is deep division in the North along religious, political and social lines.

Meanwhile, Atiku has not successfully showcased his gifts of problem-solving in his interventions on critical social issues like insecurity, poverty and religious intolerance. At best, he has tried to play safe and simply indulged in political speak. His main undoing, however, was his disowning and deleting of a Facebook post condemning the public lynching and burning of Deborah in Sokoto earlier in the year. He may have appeased the Muslims but that action definitely widened the schism between extremists among the Christians and the Muslims.

At the social level, the grinding poverty occasioned by insecurity, poor governance and so on has made majority of the populace realise that sectional, ethnic and religious sentiments should have no place in determining who should be Nigeria’s president. the word out there is that despite a northerner (Buhari) being president, the north has suffered the most from the scourge of insecurity and poverty. Suddenly, Peter Obi is looking very attractive to this group of people.

Worse still, was his meeting with the Joint Committee comprising of six Northern groups namely; Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Arewa House, Sir Ahmadu Bello Memorial Foundation, Northern Elders Forum (NEF), Arewa Research and Development Project (ARDP) and Jamiyyar Matan Arewa which hosted presidential candidates in October.

Atiku, while responding to a question by the Spokesman of NEF, Dr. Hakeem Baba, on why he thinks the North should vote for him in 2023, said the shocking words: “An average Northerner does not need a Yoruba or Igbo president, but a northern President who is a pan Nigerian.” These are not words that a unifier should ever contemplate, much less utter. Atiku’s response can be stretched to mean that Northerners should vote for their northern president while southerners should vote for a southern president. Could this be restructuring by other means?

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Atiku absolutely did not talk like a unifier in this instance. Critics might even begin to wonder if Atiku is getting campaign-weary or whether he has always been a closet ethnic bigot.

Atiku’s unifier campaign message is no longer working. Some critics would say it was dead on arrival.

Even if he manages to get his party together before the elections, he has not showcased the best of crisis management credentials to bring about unity when it is threatened. His campaign team may have to dig deep to develop a new messaging theme that will work well for Atiku in order to get the campaign back on track.

In this era of micro-media penetration, simple, memorable and undisputable messaging is what the target audience will relate with. It is important that the major gladiators in the presidential race realise that, the 2023 elections will be the most unusual in Nigeria. The introduction of BVAS, IRev, cash withdrawal limits and a more determined electorate means that the old ways of doing electioneering business will lead to crass failure at the polls.

Atiku should unify his campaign team with the best of talents if he must become president. Indeed, if Atiku cannot solve his internal party problems presently, he should move on with those that are on his side and unify them towards the big push for electoral success. He has appeared too lame-duck waiting on the G5 to offer him direction.

The President Nigeria needs, besides being a unifier, must be a decisive visionary. What vision has Atiku sold to Nigerians. What in simple terms does an Atiku presidency offer Nigerians apart from merely presenting another northerner?

It is up to Atiku and his team to tell Nigerians if indeed he is the real deal at this time. As for being a unifier, he should try harder.