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Atiku Abubakar versus the South East: Political Usurpation and Electoral Consequences in 2023

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This essay continues a series in which I have been examining how the leading political parties in the 2023 presidential election appear to have made choices colliding with the basic principles of Nigerian politics. Part 1 of the essay series discussed the ruling party, APC’s choice of a Muslim-Muslim ticket for the 2023 election. In this Part 2, I interrogate the opposition party, PDP’s ticket choices in terms of geopolitical zoning. I should say that in this piece, I focus only on geopolitical analysis, but this is not in any way to deny the salience of other levels of analysis which would include a class perspective.

By Chudi Okoye

Atiku Abubakar has a South East problem. It is almost certain that he faces an upset in that geopolitical zone in the coming presidential election, with the ascent of Peter Obi, the Labor Party candidate. But if the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) flag-bearer is worried about being upstaged by his former PDP running mate, a discerning fella with a disarming manner who still calls him “my leader”, you couldn’t tell from his inscrutable smirk as he waved off the Obi threat in his July 22 interview on Arise TV.

There has been a suggestion, from pundit and political practitioner alike, that in addition to inspiring a new and highly energized wave of electorates, Peter Obi might cannibalize traditional PDP votes, especially in the South-East which has been an electoral mainstay for the party. However, far from showing any sign of perturbation in the Arise interview, Atiku dismissed Obi’s chances in the coming election:

“I really don’t expect the Labor Party to take as much votes from the PDP as people are suggesting. We could have seen it in the last election in Osun State. What [was] the performance of the Labor Party? This is a party that doesn’t have a governor, doesn’t have members of the national assembly, [and] doesn’t have state assembly members. Politics in this country depends on the structures you have at these various levels — at the local government level, at the state level, and at the national level. So, it is very difficult to expect a miracle to happen, simply because Peter Obi is in the Labor Party.”

Atiku dismissed the large following that Peter Obi seems to have amassed, noting that they were nowhere to be found in the recently concluded Osun State gubernatorial election. “After all,” Atiku sneered, “they were saying through social media, that they had more than one million votes in Osun state. How many votes turned out for the Labor Party?” He seemed also sneery of Labor’s chances in the northern hinterland, a major vote catchment area. “In the north,” Atiku thrilled, “90 percent of our people are not tuned to social media.”

It is biting, but not as catty a comment as an earlier taunt from Bola Ahmed Tinubu, presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC). At a rally a couple of weeks ago to drive support for his party’s candidate in the Osun State gubernatorial election, Tinubu had contemptuously dismissed what he called “mushroom parties” contesting in the election. He specifically mentioned the Labor Party, telling the crowd in his mocking drawl: “They will labor till they die. God will not make you laborers.” It was a vicious twist of Revelation 14:13 which the Labor Party soon parried as an invective against working people.

Whilst overtly dismissive of the Obi threat, Atiku was careful not to say anything that might alienate voters in Obi’s native geopolitical zone where the latter is expected to do the most damage to PDP. The South East has been an undeviating PDP stronghold, awarding the party a preponderance of its votes in the various presidential elections held since the inception of the Fourth Republic. In next year’s general election, which will be exceptionally competitive, Atiku and PDP cannot afford to cede ground too much in the South East. Certainly they must expect a significant swing to Obi’s Labor Party. But they will be hoping it would not be much, or such a switch as to pitch the party below the 25% threshold needed to log a state in the electoral tally.

In the 2019 presidential election in which Atiku led the PDP ticket, the party secured 76.3% of South East votes. So it would require a swing of over 50 percentage points to deny the party a 25% beachhead in the zone in 2023, though this will differ by state. Perhaps Atiku’s demeanor issues from the sheer improbability of such a swing – especially, as he said, to a party without a single elected seat anywhere.

Obi v. Atiku: Face-off in South East

Despite Atiku’s equanimity, the candidate cannot be insensitive to the sense of betrayal felt in the South East towards PDP. The zone has never fully voted for APC at the presidential level; as such, it cannot be much disappointed that the ruling party completely ignored it in constituting its 2023 ticket. But PDP has raised hackles in the zone for how it tackled the issue of zoning and power rotation. There had been an expectation that in this election cycle the party would zone the presidential slot specifically to the South East, having previously fielded candidates from the South West, North West, South South and North East, all with monumental support in the South East. This was also expected, given the high sense of alienation felt in the region under the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari. The Buhari presidency has made Nigeria feel almost like an alien nation to many Igbos. This sense of alienation, in turn, has spurred Igbo separatist agitation. And this agitation, in a vicious concatenation of effects, ends up despoiling the South East, for the particular methods employed by its propagators.

Given all this, it must be particularly galling to the South East not only that the PDP presidential primary was orchestrated to favor a North-easterner at its expense but that the zone was also denied the vice-presidential slot on the PDP ticket. For all the support the South East has given to the party, it must feel as if the zone has been outmaneuvered or simply betrayed by the PDP hierarchy. The Igbo socio-cultural group, Ohaneze, has consistently decried PDP’s decision.

Pacifying the South East?
In his Arise TV interview, Atiku seemed to be setting out the contours of the argument he might be making to mollify the South East. First, he argued that the issue of zoning is local to PDP and should not be conflated with APC’s northern incumbency under Buhari. In other words, he contended, it is wrong to presume a southern turn in PDP because of a northern incumbency in APC. Secondly, he argued that PDP’s zoning arrangement has always been between North and South as monolithic regions, and that PDP’s party and public offices have never been micro-zoned. Thirdly, he pointed out that the South dominated previous PDP presidential incumbency and in fact, fourthly, that the last PDP incumbent was a southerner.

These are without doubt powerful arguments. A party with 82% southern incumbency (by our estimate) whose last presidential office holder was a southerner should be justified in choosing a candidate, this time around, from the North, right?

Since Atiku has made what is essentially a technical argument, let’s take him up on that. First of all, it is incorrect to say that PDP zoning formula stipulates a rotation between a monolithic North and South. Section 3(c) of PDP constitution merely says that the party adheres to a “policy of the rotation and zoning of Party and Public elective offices in pursuance of the principle of equity, justice and fairness.” The section does not anoint a North/South rotation. It is merely a matter of political pragmatism that this construction has been read into the party’s constitution.

The question then arises as to why such pragmatism, or even a doctrine of necessity, could not have been invoked in favor of the South East which has suffered for its keen support of the party.

We can also quickly dispense with the argument that the last PDP presidential incumbent was a southerner. One could make an equally cogent case that the last PDP presidential candidate was a northerner, in the person of Atiku Abubakar himself! It should not matter that he did not win. In fact, if this matters at all, it should be to question the political wisdom of recycling a flag-bearer who previously failed the party.

Atiku’s point about southern dominance of PDP incumbency is a more complex one. Certainly as a matter of equity, one must acknowledge this southern skew and thus the legitimacy of northern claim. But this view holds only if one upholds Atiku’s monolithic North/South construction. The argument collapses once we deconstruct that formula. Let’s look again at the facts.

In the 1999 and 2003 presidential elections, PDP fielded a flag-bearer from the South West (Olusegun Obasanjo). In the 2007 election, a candidate from the North West led PDP’s ticket (Umaru Yar’Adua). In the 2011 and 2015 elections, PDP fielded a South South candidate (Goodluck Jonathan). And in the 2019 election, PDP fielded a North East candidate (Atiku Abubakar), as it is also doing in the coming election.

The above indicates that so far PDP has not favored either the South East or the North Central geopolitical zones in its presidential lineups. Between these two, the South East is arguably the more sensitive omission. We can dispense with the issue of the North Central for now. Although the zone has not produced a major-party flag-bearer or running mate in the Fourth Republic dispensation, it has fared quite well if we consider the broader distribution of head-of-government tenures in the post-colonial period. In the ~62 years since Nigeria gained independence, a person from the North Central zone has headed the Nigerian government 29% of the time, surely an overwhelming share in Nigeria’s six-part geopolitical construct. The zone gave Nigeria three military heads of government who had long tenures and/or were very influential: Gen. Yakubu Gowon (1966-75), Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (1985-93) and Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (1998-99). This zone and indeed all others have done far better than the South East which has only produced a ceremonial head of state (Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, in 1960-66); a military head of government assassinated after only six months in office (Maj. Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi, Jan-July 1966); and a vice-president who served in an administration overthrown merely months into its second term (Dr. Alex Ekwueme, 1979-83).

The question then is whether we should confine our logic to the narrow technicality of PDP’s presidential incumbencies since 1999, which certainly favors a reversion to the North as Atiku implied. Or whether, in the face a strident South East agitation for the presidency as well as a searing secessionist agitation, PDP should have invoked a broader historical logic which compels a concession to the South East. One is inclined to argue the latter.

Atiku himself, even whilst floating the narrow logic of PDP tenures, did appear in the Arise TV interview to acknowledge the historical compulsion of a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction. He adverted to his own effort toward this end as seen in his consistent choice of a running mate of Igbo extraction every time he secured a presidential ticket:

“If you can go through history, I was given a ticket in 2007, I picked a South-easterner, an Igbo. I was given a ticket in 2019 , I picked an Igbo. And in 2022, I [have been] given a ticket, and I [have] picked an Igbo man again. Consecutively. This is just to show you my desire to unify the country.”

One could question the mindset of a politician who usurps Igbo opportunity at the top of the presidential ticket but quite happily nominates Igbos as subalterns – his running mats, sorry running mates. But that may be uncharitable. Instead, let us consider why PDP may have found it inexpedient to field a candidate of South East extraction as its flag-bearer.

The first thing is to recognize that PDP had lost the presidential contest in the last two election cycles, and as such, for the upcoming election the party would prefer an aspirant whom it considers its surest bet to regain power. In this regard, one wonders if the party felt jittery about Igbo vicissitudes in recent presidential elections. In the annulled election of 1993, Bashir Tofa ran on the platform of the National Republican Convention with Sylvester Ugoh as his vice-presidential candidate. He lost. In 2003 Buhari ran on the platform of All Nigeria Peoples Party with Chuba Okadigbo as his running mate. He lost. In 2007 Buhari tried again, this time with Edwin Ume-Ezeoke as running mate. He still lost. And of course Atiku himself lost in 2019 with Peter Obi as his vice-presidential pick. All running mates in these elections were Igbo.

It is not an edifying history. And it mightn’t have seemed auspicious to a party seeking a most propitious path back to power. So presumably it decided to look elsewhere.

The above attempts to put a rational spin on PDP’s ticket choice for 2023, proposing an electoral efficacy argument for the party’s decision. But the argument collapses on collision with an alternative history. For one thing, it ignores the repeated failures of Atiku Abubakar himself who has been running for president, without success, since 1993. If you are seeking the most promising candidate to reclaim the presidency, why entrust your ticket to someone who has been running for that office for 29 years without success, someone who failed in the very last cycle?

The electoral efficacy argument also ignores the successful alliance of Nnamdi Azikiwe’s National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) and Tafawa Balewa’s Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in the First Republic, and the successful ticket of Shehu Shagari and Alex Ekwueme in the Second Republic. Any jitteriness about Igbo political marketability should have been dispelled by the fact of these successful collaborations, which occurred, by the way, either side of the Nigerian civil war.

In the contemporary setting, who can ignore Peter Obi’s monumental political surge, which is the more striking since he’s pushing from the platform of an inconsequential party. Of course that popularity is yet to be tested. But even if Obi ends up losing the 2023 contest, it might be less that he was a flawed candidate than that he ran on the platform of a fringe party. One wonders what might have been had PDP the foresight to have nominated Peter Obi, instead of its flawed preference, Atiku Abubakar.

PDP may have made poor choices in the composition of its 2023 presidential election ticket. The mistake could cost it the election. Or, the party might just squeak through, denied a resounding victory because of the South East problem which it brought upon itself.

PS: In the third installment of this essay, I will look at the import of the Labor Party flag-bearer’s frequent comment rejecting any support based on primordial sentiment.

1 COMMENT

  1. FOR PETER IT HAS TO BE A PRO-IGBO AGENDA WRAPPED IN PAN-NIGERIAN MOVEMENT.
    I believe with every fiber of my being and every drop of blood flowing in my veins that it is “our turn” and in every sense of justice that power rotates to the southeast even in the now, however politicians must construct a viable path to achieve this with strong ambition. My conservative estimate at the beginning of the political party primaries was that, that path could easily materialize with Atiku/Obi joint ticket which already had over 10million votes in its pocketpocket, then with minor tweaking it may win 2023 election. Then it would become a shorter path for an Igbo man to seat on the “iron chair” after Atiku’s tenure in 8yrs time.
    My understanding and community reading of the zoning arrangements in PDP is that the party does not micro-zone it’s offices with regards to power rotation, and their zoning arrangements takes it bearing from the presidency. Power rotates between North and South and when it gets to the zone, the zones then can decide what other region it should go to depending on many other factors. That was the reason when PDP zoned its chairmanship position to the North it was taken for granted that in interest of equity, justice and fair play it will officially rotate its presidency to South, but quoting the same equity, ,justice and fair play PDP decided to throw its ticket open in order not to short change any individual who might have bought its nomination form. I believe PDP shot itself on its heel because the mood of the nation favors a southern presidency, but political parties are in business of winning election and there is no morality in politics. It then follows that should Atiku win next year the Fulanis people would have had 16yrs uninterrupted rule, and in 2031 APC will field another northerner citing that because it zoned its ticket to the South in 2023 it will be the turn of North in it’s fold. Injustice. Madness.
    However, they thought that the only candidate who can maximize their northern votes and give APC a run for their money will be Atiku.
    However, a lot of under the table events took place and Obi decided to chart his own path. Never stand in a way of man with a lot of faith and determination. An Obi storm is gathering, time will tell if it will develop into a hurricane that may cause a major upset in the forth coming election or as in assumption of many it will end up as a storm in a tea cup. . After all, since the day of John the Baptist the kingdom of suffereth violence and the violent taketh it by force.
    The way Obi candidacy is developing and gaining traction is really interesting. No candidate will win Nigeria presidential election by appearing sectional and not Obi for that matter. You can see that even without assuming it a lot of efforts have been made to tie sectional presidency around his neck. Should they succeed they will tag him a sectional leader and kill off his momentum before campaign properly begins.
    He must assume a pan-Nigerian posture to create a national appeal otherwise he will be dismissed as another ethnic warlord. Obi will not be an Igbo president and neither is he running for some kind of Igbo organization election. He is running for Nigeria president and must secure the buy-in of other tribes. It will amount to political Hara Kiri for Obi to appear in Kano or Sokoto and mount the stage and tell the crowd to vote him because he is running as Igbo president. Or appear before His Eminence the Sultan or HRM Emir of Kano (of course he must appear with big brown envelopes, that’s why I am not a fan of their we no dey give shi shi) and tell them he running as Igbo president. It will damage his brand. Many of his associates will immediately distance from him if his campaign develops along that line. Just like you don’t expect Tinubu to stand before HRM Obi of Onitsha and say it’s Yoruba turn. Ohaneze and other groups can engage at that level while he markets himself as unifying agent and nationalist. Everyone knows it is just and fair for Igbo to have it. So for Obi it must be a pro Igbo agenda wrapped up in Pan- Nigerian movement to market himself to other tribes. Having said that, he might tactically use that sentiment to stir up his support base in the east, just like he is using his Christian faith to stir up his base among Christian voters.
    I don’t think Tinubu – an experienced and a man of immense political wisdom- will run on “Emi lo kan” mantra, given the damage already done to his candidacy by that same faith choice. Let us see how his campaign will develop. Or you think the fierce Southwest mainstream media line of which Tinubu is a major player in won’t package Tinubu as a nationalist? Something they did with a more fanatical and North-leaning Buhari in 2015. In context, when he made that “Emi lo kan” statement he was speaking to a section of audience before his party’s primaries. He took the fight to the base of his supposedly major contender for the APC ticket and his political godson, VP Osinbajo. He was talking to his Yoruba audience who were supposed to be delegates at national Convention and we had to depend on a third party interpreter to understand what he was saying. Remember on that same day he had earlier appeared in Oyo and spoke in English and there were no qualms, but when he needed to do maximum damage to campaign structure of the VP and the governor who had provided base for the VP at that time he spoke to the delegates in the language they understood. He said something like “I have been serving you ( Yoruba people) for the past 25yrs and helping most you stand but it is my turn now in Yoruba land”. He riled up his Yoruba support base and it worked for him because after that backlash the Eleyi have to abandon Osinbajo and join him.
    Honestly, I see no nexus between a criminal terrorist organization IPOB and its armed wing ESN seeking to Balkanize the country with quest for Igbo presidency. It is at cross purpose and will immediately ruin the quest.

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