Let the real Atiku stand up
It is good for the republic that many other eminent Nigerians have been joining the chorus for the restructuring since former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar made the call some few weeks ago. In recent weeks, we have had calls from across the political divides supporting Atiku’s call including the old prophet of restructuring, Professor Ben Nwabueze. Restructuring has been an old destination that Nigeria has been wary of approaching. The music has been getting louder since the anniversary of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections won by Chief Moshood Abiola. That victory was later voided by the then military ruler, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. Abiola died in 1998 while still being detained by the military.
There are many reasons why Atiku got our attention. Since 1999, he has been a constant presence in the power loop of Abuja and for eight years served as our country’s Vice-President. In 1999, he was elected governor of Adamawa State but could not take up the job when he was tapped for the vice-presidency by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. A man who was perceived as a centralist in the past has now suddenly in 2016 seen the light. He has had a transformational encounter on the road to Damascus. This is something new and good. Said Atiku: “The rising tide of agitations, some militant and violent, require a reset in our relationships as a united nation.”
Atiku was just 20 in 1966 when Nigerian leaders gathered in Lagos to discuss the constitutional framework for a new Nigeria. The nation had been traumatized by the assassination in January 1966 of the first Prime-Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, two regional premiers, a federal minister and many senior military officers. The assassination in July of General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the first military ruler and the military Governor of the West, Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, made 1966 a bloody year for Nigerians. The new ruler, 32-year old Colonel Yakubu Gowon, wanted a new Constitution so that the military could hand over power latest by 1970But it was not to be. He did not know then that death was waiting in the wings for bountiful harvest that was to last for 30 gory months.
The Leaders of Thoughts Conference in Lagos called by Gowon to discuss the future constitutional arrangement of the country came to grief, when Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the military ruler of the Easter Region, citing security concerns, withdrew the Eastern delegates, headed by Professor Eni Njoku, first vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos. Since the collapse of that conference, one Civil War and many upheavals later, Nigerians have not been able to fundamentally change the Federal structure. Now Atiku is asking us to look back and plan for the future.
In the politics of Nigeria, Atiku has been a long distance runner. By the time of the 1993 elections, he was already a giant in national politics. He was a close comrade of Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, whose Peoples Front of Nigeria, dominated the SDP. It was the group that sponsored the emergence of Alhaji Babangana Kingibe as the chairman of the party. When Kingibe fell out with Yar’Adua, Atiku moved up in favour. He became the virtual number two to Yar’Adua. It was their group that eventually got Chief Anthony Anenih to emerge as the chairman of the SDP after Kingibe became the vice-presidential candidate of Abiola.
With the banning of Yar’Adua and other old politicians, the PFN nominated Atiku to seek the presidential ticket of the SDP in 1993. Atiku, an old student of Ahmadu Bello University who rose to the position of Deputy Controller of the Customs, had become fabulously wealthy. He lost narrowly to Abiola, a wealthier business Czar. From that point on, Atiku has remained a formidable figure in national politics. In 1998 when some retired military officers led by General Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma and Ibrahim Babangida decided to draft General Obasanjo for the Presidency, the old platform of the PFN became a ready vehicle for him. The Northern caucus of the PDP, spearheaded by the chairman of the party, Chief Solomon Lar, tried to prevail on Obasanjo to pick Professor Jubril Aminu, former Minister of Education, as his vice-president. Obasanjo declined. He reached out to the younger Atiku who was then just 54. Note that Aminu is regarded as a strong character that may not fit in too well —or even pair harmoniously with a much stronger in character that Obasanjo was and still is—into the translucent role of a vice-president.
Abubakar too was not a translucent Vice-President. He was a high-profile Vice-President whose circle of friends and associates come from all over the country. He inhabited his role as heir-presumptive with ecclesiastical swagger. He soon ran into a storm with his principal, a man who took his job like a calling from Heaven and would not compromise his set goals once he was convinced about them. Since the return of democratic rule in 1999, Abubakar has remained a visible and powerful member of the political elite. Though he ran foul of his principal who bypassed him to anoint the then governor of Katsina State, Malam Umar Musa-Yar’Adua, as his successor, Abubakar has refused to go quietly into the night.
Despite his travails since then, Atiku Abubakar has remained a resilient and redoubtable political player, looming large on the national stage. He learnt to ride the storm earlier at a more turbulent time when Nigeria was in the grip of tyranny. During the era of General Sani Abacha, Atiku played the game with courage and sagacity, maintaining the leadership of the PFN while running the risk of imprisonment or even assassination. This was more so after General Yar’Adua died in Abakaliki Prison believed to be as a result of state-sponsored assassination through poisoning.
Since 2007, Atiku has made it known to his countrymen and women that he would continue to stake his claim to the presidency through the democratic process. Since then he has made repeated shots at the office that was once so near to his grasp but which has remained a chimera. Now the chimera seems to be taking a more definite and encouraging shape.
I regard Atiku’s pronouncement on restructuring as the first throw of the dice for the 2019 presidential election. Though President Muhammadu Buhari, in apparent good health, is entitled to two terms, by 2019, he would be 77. Considering the rigour and demand of the Nigerian presidency, it would not be too farfetched for him to contemplate retirement at that point. If that happens, three candidates are clearly in the horizon within the ruling All Peoples Congress, APC: Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, Senate President Bukola Saraki and Atiku Abubakar. Each of them represents different factions of the APC jigsaw puzzle. Former Speaker and now Governor of Sokoto State, too, is said to be rehearsing.
If the President is not running in 2019, supporters of Osinbajo, who was a nominee of the old Action Congress, would want him to step into the shoes of his boss. Both Saraki and Atiku, however, would have the strong claim that the North should be allowed to complete its full tenure of two terms. Saraki would lay his claim to being a two-term governor and now as the embattled President of the Senate. Despite the challenges and his ongoing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, he has been able to maintain his leadership of the Senate with admirable even-handedness and firmness. There is no doubt that this is a general who is calm in battle. By 2019, he would just be 57.
But there is no doubt that Atiku’s claim would be strong. He is clearly more experienced in national politics than either Osinbajo or Saraki. He is also generally believed to be prepared with papers on practically every subject under the Nigerian sun. Moreover, he was vice-president at a time of great national transformation and national growth under an energetic President who dominated his space and office with muscular tenacity. The other two persons are younger and he would be able to tell them that he is tried and tested. By 2019, he would be 73 and at that age no one should expect him to bow out for the younger folks.
This scenario is possible if the APC coalition is still coherent and formidable enough to wage another presidential campaign. However, if Atiku is aiming for the big spot then he should be more specific about his ideas. He needs to be advised that the era of prevarications and circumlocutions is past. We need to know what he means by restructuring beyond mere sloganeering. If he has concrete suggestions and how we can achieve them, then he should be ready to subject his ideas to open debate. He should let us know if the restructuring he is talking about includes the redefinition of the Federation from the current crowd of 36 states to a more reasonable number. Many people, including the leaders of Afenifere, have advocated that the regions, South-West, North-West, North-East, Middle-Belt, South-East and the South-South, should be the Federating units instead of the current punny 36 states.
Atiku has been a part of the power elite for 25 years, but he has not been seen as a radical reformist. If now he is thinking of the long run, he should also lay bare his ideas. Atiku has been with us for so many years, yet we hardly know him. It is time he should reveal the real Atiku.