It is safe to say that the politics of 2019 has begun in earnest. Since President Buhari returned from his medical vacation in much improved health, he has come under pressure from his allies who, in his absence, had being enmeshed in the politics of who will occupy what office in case the president becomes incapacitated, to state whether he will run for a second term or not. Despite initial appearances to the contrary, the president has finally showed his hand.
Another veteran politician, who has never hidden his desire to be Nigeria’s president and has indeed contest in all primary or presidential elections since 2007, Atiku Abubakar, sensing that he may not even get an opportunity to compete fairly with the President, has quickly abandoned the party and has returned to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to actualise his presidential ambition. Of course, this is debatable, but the result of PDP’s elective convention and the posturing of key PDP members since his return to the party show that everything is being put in place to deliver the party’s ticket for the 2019 presidential election to the former vice president. So, as things stand, the 2019 presidential election is looking like a straight contest between president Buhari and former vice president Atiku Abubakar.
But there’s a snag. Atiku has a corruption perception problem. His former boss, Olusegun Obasanjo, has successfully painted him as a terribly corrupt individual and power monger who cannot be trusted to govern the country. The two men sensationally fell apart during their second term in office as they both traded accusations of corruption against each other. While Atiku surreptitiously worked to scuttle Obasanjo’s third term ambition, Obasanjo in retaliation, thwarted Atiku’s presidential aspiration not just in 2007, but even subsequently. In the run up to the 2011 election when Atiku was selected as the Northern consensus candidate, Obasanjo’s retort when asked to comment on it was to mock his former vice president by laughing throughout before saying in pidgin English: “I dey laugh O!” Of course, Obasanjo had the last laugh as Atiku was defeated in the presidential primary election.
Obasanjo took it a step further by detailing Atiku’s alleged character flaws, vaunting ambitions, dalliances with marabouts and spiritualists, and above all, various corrupt dealings covering various sectors of the economy in his memoirs “My Watch”. Although the two have met severally after leaving office, it appears Atiku has been unable to convince his former boss to support his presidential aspiration. And as Goodluck Jonathan advised him recently, Obasanjo’s support is critical to his realising his presidential ambition.
Regardless how his reconciliation with the “boss of bosses” goes, Atiku faces a formidable challenge of refurbishing his reputation and removing the corruption tag placed around his neck. But he has a precedent to learn from.
His former party – the All Progressive Congress (APC) – also grappled with that challenge. In deciding to go for Muhammadu Buhari, leaders of the party were well aware of the cult-like following the retired General had in the north of Nigeria. The only problem however, was the General’s perception – partly fuelled by years of PDP campaign propaganda – as an ethnic champion and religious bigot. In fact, many members of the APC had previously expressed views about the unelectability of Buhari in the past. For instance, Mallam Nasir Elrufai, in a repost to Buhari in 2010 reminded him of his “perpetual unelectability because of his record as military head of state… [and] his insensitivity to Nigeria’s diversity and parochial focus…” Therefore, for the party to stand a chance of defeating the incumbent, it must not only sweep the north (which it was sure of doing) but also split the southern votes with the incumbent. To do that however, the party must first successfully remove the ethnic and religious toga hung around the neck of its candidate in the South of Nigeria. They promptly hired prominent international political consultants, AKPD Message and Media, a firm co-founded by David Axelrod, who was chief strategist for the Barack Obama presidential campaign and went on to become senior adviser to Obama to help with the party’s and especially Buhari’s campaign, public affairs messaging and political advertising. The party successfully leveraged the firm’s skills, experience and expertise throughout the campaign circle to sell their candidate to Nigerians. Just like the party intended, Buhari’s clannishness, provinciality and religious bigotry was never an issue in the election. The issue was on corruption and Buhari’s strong anti-corruption records and integrity.
The campaign was not only expertly managed, but the candidate himself was prevented from talking too much in the campaign trials or making extempore remarks that will give him away. He stuck to what he was told to do and say and to wear attires prescribed for him for every occasion. The rest, as they say, is now history.
Atiku appears to have learnt valuable lessons from the APC campaign of 2015. He has begun to engage Nigerians in sensible conversations and has been fighting really hard, through social media advertorials, to remove the corruption tag placed on him by his former boss and many others. He has continued to remind Nigerians that he was a very wealthy individual before joining government and does not need to steal government money to lead a meaningful life and has challenged anyone with any evidence of corruption against him to come forward with such evidence. True, it is to his credit that all the corruption cases against him have failed in court.
One observation though. Nigerians feel very strongly about corruption and deeply despise so-called corrupt politicians. Buhari may have succeeded in dispelling the provinciality and religious bigot tag, but it remains to be seen whether Atiku can successfully remove the corruption tag.